I’ve never thought of myself as much of a daddy’s girl. Though if I look back on my first childhood memories, it's clear my father had an idea of the woman I would become, even before I did. Picture a four-year-old me—chubby-cheeked, bow-legged with a neatly cropped afro—running wild through John Lewis, the bustling department store in London’s West End. Somehow, my dad knew exactly where to find me: not in the toy department on the fourth floor, but down on three with all the fashion. “Shiny shoes! Shiny shoes!” I wasn’t afraid to declare my love for this one pair of black patent leather Mary Janes. Imagine how cute they would look with my favorite sailor dress and frilly white socks? The obsession was real; my little heart was pounding. I turned to my dad with the biggest, puppy dog eyes. “Please, papa papa, please! I want them! I need them!
My mother, a nurse who’d been raised in the Swiss countryside with sensible shoes practically sewn into the soles of her feet, would have been horrified. And that was something my father knew full well. He also knew the kind of kid he had on his hands—relentless, stubborn, specific about everything—and one who seemed to share his penchant for fancy shoes, too. What was the poor guy to do? And so we shuffled home to face mum together: him in two-inch Cuban heels, me in my beloved shiny shoes.
Growing up, my father wasn’t someone I would think of as fashionable, but he always dressed with elegance and intention. He came to the U.K. from Nigeria to study economics in 1964. Three years later and Nigeria was ravaged by a civil war that pitted the government against Biafra, the secessionist state in the east where my father was born. I can’t imagine what it felt like for my dad to be so far from home during those tumultuous times, not knowing from one day to the next if his family and friends had been harmed or displaced. I do know that he still keeps a Biafran dollar in his wallet, one of the few ever to be printed, a crushing reminder of what could have been. Eager to know more about his childhood in Nigeria, I asked to see photos of him as a kid. A sad look passed over his face; there were no family photos, he explained. They’d been destroyed in the war along with just about everything else.
As the story goes, my father landed in London in the middle of winter with little more than a suitcase of neatly starched slacks and tailored shirts. According to him, he didn’t feel the cold at first. Instead of buying some cheap winter warmer, he saved up for a beautiful cashmere coat, a considerable investment for anyone back then, let alone a student. (Some months later, he would end up coming down with tuberculosis as a result of having been exposed to those bone-chilling winds.) Still, there was a deeply important method to his madness. At a time when racial discrimination was rampant, and young, African students like him seeking private housing in London were routinely turned away based on the color of their skin, clothing was a vital tool in navigating these hostile new surroundings. In dressing to look and feel like a prince, he wielded black excellence like a suit of armor. The politics of his fashion choices were just as carefully considered. When I asked him why he stopped wearing denim—nary a pair of jeans a denim shirt or jacket even—my dad, a life-long socialist, explained that in his mind, jeans were a sign of American imperialism.
As a child, I only ever remember my dad wearing suits—usually single-breasted in gray or navy—though he wore them without a tie when he wasn’t working his government job on the weekend. While he couldn’t afford anything tailor-made, he did take pains to snag the best off-the-peg alternatives, trawling the January sales along Oxford Street for Italian tailoring. Even though he favored quality over quantity, his suits and button-down shirts still occupied the biggest closet in our modest three-bedroom apartment, even when there were eight or nine of us living there—cousins, aunties, uncles, and other extended family from Nigeria. Never one to throw anything away, my dad kept his clothes for years and years, even when they were worn to shreds, something I know that still drives my mother up the wall. It was, however, a boon to me as a teenager to discover this Narnia of vintage men’s fashion in my own home: weather-worn leather jackets and fraying indigo-dyed dashikis that I still wear to this day. Where my mother’s fantastic ’60s minidresses were always too short in the leg and or too generous in the bust, his slimly-cut menswear fit me like a glove.
My father was pretty encouraging when I started experimenting with style as a teenager. Unlike my mother, he turned a blind eye when I’d come home each Saturday laden with shopping bags, having blown my entire paycheck from a gig at a local sandwich shop. Still, some of my early fashion choices did bother him. When I came home one day wearing what I thought was an amazing ’40s crombie coat found at the second-hand store by my high school, he was mortified. “Why on earth would you want to wear dead people’s clothes?” he said, aghast. In his culture, ancestral spirits were always among us, not relegated to some distant afterlife. He was also somewhat crestfallen when, after scoring straight As, I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a fashion journalist and not the career in medicine he had hoped for.
These days I think (I hope!) my dad is pretty proud of the path I have chosen, though the ins and outs of what I do are for sure still a mystery to him. Shortly after I landed my job as a fashion writer at this magazine nine years ago, he called to congratulate me. “I hear you work for someone important called Amy Wintour,” he said proudly, having consulted one of his old college buddies, a retired journalist. I didn’t have the heart to correct him. To be honest I was secretly relieved that he didn’t have the faintest clue about the fashion world.
That said, my dad's no stranger to the subtle language of style, particularly when it comes to West Africa. A few years ago, at the wedding of a family friend in eastern Nigeria, he took pride in pointing out the signifiers of traditional Igbo dress, including the distinctive ozo red cap, worn by chiefs as a symbol of authority: the taller the crown, the higher the wearer’s social standing. To satisfy my obsession with artisanal textiles, he took me to a tiny village where the traditional handwoven fabric known as akwete is still produced, a three-hour drive from my father’s village. We watched enrapt as craftswomen worked their magic on centuries-old wooden looms.
These days, my dad no longer wears his fancy Cuban heels. The knee replacement surgery he had a few years prior has made him learn to love a wardrobe of comfy sneakers. Last year, for his 75th birthday, I flew to London from New York to surprise him. “Is it really you? Or a dream?” he said through tears, when I showed up on his doorstep at midnight. I knew he’d be thrilled to see me, but I hadn’t quite anticipated this moment of tenderness. It was as if the emotions he’d kept under lock and key as a young man, were all rising to the surface.
The next day, we went for lunch, then shopping for birthday sneakers. He didn’t need much help picking out exactly the right ones. The moment we hit the shoe department at John Lewis he zeroed in on a pair of minimalist running shoes he’d been eyeing for weeks, just like I had all those years ago.
A few months later, he sent me an excited WhatsApp message out of the blue. He’d unearthed a picture of himself as a teenager from a stash that was retrieved after the war. In the photo, he’s looking especially dapper, dressed in a crisp white shirt and the kind of high-waisted pants I would kill to get my hands on now. The family resemblance was unmistakable, too—in the sidewise grin, the slightly awkward stance. But more than that, I could see myself in the soft pleats of his trousers, the tie knotted just so. When I posted the image to Instagram the next day, my phone was ablaze with likes. “Wow, Chioma! This is you in drag,” read one of many comments from friends and family. The truth is they all knew what I’d temporarily forgotten—that I am my father’s daughter through and through.
Originally Appeared on Vogue