In the course of a single hour, Taofeek Abijako describes 23 different things as “insane.” The list includes the feeling of graduating high school last spring, a really good summer — and the emergence of his fashion collection without a big budget or any formal training. He’s right: The past year has brought the 18-year-old Nigerian fashion designer a series of successes that do seem, well, unbelievable. He’s gone from doodling designs in the margins of his notebooks to showing his collection at the Capsule trade show in Manhattan and selling in stores internationally.
Abijako was still a senior at Albany High School when he released the look book for his first collection on his Twitter feed. A few weeks later, when an email from a buyer for the Japanese luxury retailer United Arrows arrived, he assumed it was a prank perpetrated by friends. The buyer asked to visit his studio; since Abijako was working out of his childhood bedroom, he demurred, and instead they met in Manhattan. “I came to New York City with my clothes in a little bag and they looked at me like, ‘This little kid?!’ But once I showed my work, they decided to carry the entire collection,” he says with a hint of pride. His luxe streetwear line, Head of State+, features wide-necked sweatshirts, cropped half-zips, fitted jeans and loungey basics, often in warm, rich tones. But the line also moves beyond the requisite sweatpants to offer social and political commentary.
Abijako was born in Lagos, Nigeria, where his father, Nureni Abijako, worked as an independent fashion designer — and sometimes brought his son along to work. Because he wasn’t allowed to touch any of the machinery, Abijako instead spent hours paging through his father’s sketches. After winning a Visa lottery, Nureni moved to the U.S. in 2004, with the family following in 2010 once they’d saved enough money. A friend living in Albany helped Nureni get settled and the family has stayed.
In America, the younger Abijako painted and played soccer, before having what he semi-seriously calls a “midlife crisis” halfway through high school, after which he gave up sports and turned to fashion design. Racking his brain (and room) for ways to get the necessary funding to make a fashion line, Abijako found a pair of white Vans in his closet, hand-painted them and offered them up for sale online. One sale turned into two — and soon the “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg (whom he met on the set of “As You Are,” a friend’s movie) shared them on social media. That led to enough orders to fund the first collection.
“I’ve never felt so good about something,” Abijako says of that first outing, which featured sweatshirts with hood laces in alternate colours, cropped pants, a trench and T-shirts bearing the brand’s name, all of which he made for only US$2,000. “I didn’t have the best resources, but I took advantage of what I had.” He enlisted Aden Suchak, an Albany High friend, to shoot the look book. Abijako credits the creative output of his crew to a program called Youth FX, which empowers teenagers in Albany’s underserved communities to learn filmmaking and other digital arts. (A friend and Youth FX alum co-wrote and directed the upcoming, critically acclaimed “As You Are.”)
Though the collection is entirely produced in New York, Abijako says he was heavily influenced by his homeland. “I wanted to tell a different story about Africa,” he says. In Nigeria, the independence from the British in 1960 was quickly followed by back-to-back military coups and a civil war. Lasting two-and-a-half-years at the tale end of the ’60s, the Biafran War was relatively short, but a military blockade resulting in a severe famine took the lives of between 500,000 and two million civilians.
But Abijako notes that the Western imagination is obsessed by turmoil in Africa and often turns a blind eye to positive developments. “Independence came with this new life, you could tell from the music on in the background, which was very upbeat,” he says. “Then the Biafran War happened and things changed. That people were able to make that kind of music again in the post-Biafra period is really inspiring, and the music that emerged carried very important messages.”
The fall/winter 2017 collection, which Abijako titled “Hooligans,” focuses on those rebellious, vibrant sounds that emerged in the post-Biafra years. One of Abijako’s personal heroes is Fela Kuti, a renowned Nigerian musician and political activist whose lyrics against corruption and military violence led to government crackdowns and raids, most notably one in which Kuti’s mother was fatally thrown from the top of a building and Kuti himself was nearly beaten to death. In response, he wrote a song called “Coffins for Head of State,” which Abijako referenced in the name of his line. Snippets of lyrics can be found on various pieces in the upcoming collection.
Abijako wavers between sounding like a paid spokesman for Twitter and an octogenarian shocked that so many things can happen via the internet. He is now fielding emails from celebrity stylists and is working on his next collection. The majority of his stockists are nearly 7,000 miles away, in Japan, and include United Arrows, Wism and H Beauty & Youth. More U.S. stockists are coming soon. At home, in Albany, Abijako still lives with his parents, who are very proud. “But my Dad and I are always going at it,” he says, laughing. “He thinks he’s the head designer in the house and I know it’s me.”
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