“I’m My Own Audience”: Erykah Badu on the Joy in Dressing for Yourself
Rule No. 1 of interviewing Erykah Badu on the topic of fashion: Do not be so simple as to presume that her eclectic and expansive wardrobe can be contained in a single closet. “Oh, do you mean my closets?” she responds when asked about where she stores her things. “My closets look like full rooms. I am a collector, after all.” She goes on to tell me that she hasn’t gotten rid of one piece of clothing since the mid-’90s, when she appeared, miragelike, on the music scene as a soul goddess in colorful head wraps and slinky dresses. Her vast collection resides in her home city of Dallas, where she has lived for most of her 48 years. There she has “two big dressing rooms.” Pause. “And a few small closets … and storage.” Pause. “And my grandmother’s house — she doesn’t really need all that space.”
Anyone who has watched Badu’s iconic music videos or seen her perform (she still tours eight months out of the year) knows that fashion isn’t the only thing she collects. A creative polymath, she has a voracious appetite for all forms of art and culture. She’s a singer, a songwriter, a producer, a mama, an actor. She’s also a doula for those who are coming into the world and for those who are leaving it. Badu says she doesn’t get much rest with this line of work and always feels slightly delirious. She has helped deliver around 35 babies, and the last one was coaxed out only after she gave the mother a special brew of tea, banged on a gong, and played hard-core hip-hop. “Babies like Wu-Tang,” she deadpans.
Her last significant release, But You Caint Use My Phone, came out in 2015. Since then Badu has offered occasional sonic gifts like the recent cover of Squeeze’s “Tempted” (with James Poyser from the Roots). But creating an album is an all-encompassing endeavor, and Badu is not up for it. “I can’t relate to none of the shit that’s going on, so I just kind of have to accept that I’m in a downloading period,” she says. Besides, she has other things she wants to do.
In December she is launching her own online shopping emporium called Badu World Market, inspired in part by the New York City bootleg parody art store and streetwear label Chinatown Market. Her shop will feature everything that interests her, from Native American herbs to Japanese geta sandals to collaborations with artists all over the globe. Badu also designed her own merchandise replete with a Badu World Market logo. She shows me a jazzy video in which her three kids — son Seven, 22, and daughters Puma, 15, and Mars, 10 — model the wares. The goal of the shop is to “encourage networking among smaller brands and prestigious art houses,” says Badu. “It’s a hub to share space with all people.”
Badu knows her power and uses it to help artists who otherwise might not get seen. In 2016 she helped put Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond on the map after she styled his fall show. (He has since said that he wants to be the Erykah Badu of the fashion world.) Through social media she has been able to enlist designers to create custom opal-encrusted grills and weaves made of recycled bottle caps (she is wearing one of them on the opening spread of this story). “I love challenging them,” she says. “That’s part of the joy of having a platform. It’s kind of selfish too. I just like it. I’m always looking for the new new shit.”
When it comes to shopping for herself, that typically happens when Badu is “PMS-ing.” She appreciates the zen-like focus required to home in on the right garment. “It’s kind of therapeutic,” she says. “I’m very picky.” In those instances she will head to H. Lorenzo in Los Angeles or, when she’s in New York, Dover Street Market or East Village vintage stores. As a self-described thrift-store girl, Badu has recently purchased pieces by Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Getting dressed at home is based on whatever character or mood she is feeling at that moment. “There’s the girl-who’s-cooking-pancakes look,” she says. What would she wear? “Oh, she might wear a kimono. A T-shirt. Black socks. There’s a look for everybody.” Sometimes, she says, it takes, “like, 20 redos” before she gets it right. “Some people have this gift where they can see their outfit before it’s on the body, and that makes a very good stylist. I don’t have that gift. I’m an artist, so I’m sculpting as I go, eliminating along the way.”
Daughter Mars, meanwhile, is more concerned about what Badu will wear to school drop-offs. “She says, ‘Mama, please don’t come up here looking crazy.’ ”
The InStyle team witnessed firsthand the lengths Badu will go to nail a look. From start to finish our shoot took about 15 hours, but not because Badu is a diva — far from it. Wigs, makeup, jewelry, hats, shoes, the works: Each outfit evolved right before our very eyes. She brought many of the accessories from home (and they will soon be available on Badu World Market). Around 1 a.m., after wrapping up her second-to-last shot, Badu, wearing a full Dior getup, a hat that resembles a topknot, and face chains hanging from ears to collarbone (below), started dancing as if she were in a trancelike state, jewelry jangling. “When she was finished, we were so tired that we just clapped and cried a little bit,” said an exhilarated but weary spectator.
Whether Badu is in front of a crowd or at home in one of her many closets is of little consequence. Inspiration strikes wherever and whenever. “I have a good understanding of my own personal style,” says Badu. “[I know] what looks good on my body, what colors look good on my skin. I’m not afraid to take risks. I mean, it’s all creativity. Whether it’s writing a song or doing a dance or making a film. I feel like I’m witnessing myself. I’m my own audience.”
Photographed by Ruth Ossai. Styled by Andrew Mukamal. Art direction by Erykah Badu. Hair: Chuck Amos for Jump Management. Hair: Yasmin Amira Davis. Makeup: Frankie Boyd for Streeters. Manicure: Yuko Wada for Atelier Management. Set design: Danielle Selig for The Magnet Agency.
Image 1: Badu in an Etro cape and pants and Raf Simons coat, shirt, and tie. From Badu’s collection: a Badu x Chioma Obiegbu headpiece; a Badu x Lillian Shalom grill; Angostura rings and finger casts; Into Into nail rings; watches and bracelets; Badu World Market socks; and Maison Margiela tabi boots custom designed by Badu.
Image 2: Badu in a Balmain poncho; Palm Angels pants; and Dior earrings. From Badu’s collection: a House of Flora with Neil Moodie headpiece; a Custom choker by Chris Habana; a Chris Habana pearl handlet; Angostura rings and finger casts; studs, watches, and bracelets; and Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh boots.
Image 3: Badu in a Valentino cape and a Raf Simons coat, pants, gloves, and bag. From Badu’s collection: Jessica Pass hair pieces, mouthpiece, and ring and Maison Margiela tabi boots.
Image 4: Badu in a Rick Owens blazer, T-shirt, and pants and a Jo Miller hat. From Badu’s collection: a L’Enchanteur hair clip; Parts of Four talismans (crystals), bracelets, and rings; amulets and talismans; and Micol Ragni boots.
Image 5: Badu in a Maison Margiela trenchcoat; a Gucci jacket; a Christian Cowan wig cap; and Gucci cuffs. From Badu’s collection: L’Enchanteur hair clips; Angostura rings and finger casts; Into Into nail rings; and watches and bracelets.
Image 6: Badu in a Nicole McLaughlin vest; Givenchy jacket and trousers; and an Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh dress. From Badu’s collection: a Gunner Foxx hat; a L’Enchanteur headpiece; Angostura rings and finger casts; Into Into nail rings; a shirt, watches, and bracelets; and Robert Wun boots.
Image 7: Badu in a Dior coat, blouse, jeans, and head scarf, an Ilariusss x Angostura hat, and Gucci bracelets. From Badu’s collection: a custom grill by Nep Sidhu, L’Enchanteur rings (colorful stones), studs, watches, nail pieces, and rings, and Micol Ragni boots.
For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 18.