Taofeek Abijako wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop, but he’s glad it did.
After one of his sneaker designs went viral during his sophomore year at Albany High School, Abijako began selling as many pairs as he could to fund Head of State+, which, for now, is his menswear brand.
His streetwear designs have been featured in the New York Times, among other online publications, and are growing in popularity. Companies like United Arrows, Wism and H Beauty & Youth are carrying his designs and he’s been getting calls from celebrity stylists.
The 2016 high school graduate and Nigeria native isn’t enrolled in college. Yet he takes brand research more seriously than most college students take their final exams and he speaks like his latest collection is his master's thesis, mixing marketing lingo and commentary on the socio-cultural influences of the Nigerian civil war.
For now, Abijako spends his time working in New York City and in Albany. During a weekend home, where he lives with his father and mother, Abijako took a few minutes to talk with The Daily Gazette about his evolving brand and where he’s heading:
DG: Your dad is a designer as well. Did he inspire you at all?
A: Yeah, he was a designer. But it was more me. Looking through his past work, he was self-sufficient. I actually watch him sew once in awhile. It’s a little competition between us actually.
DG: How did your first collection, or your brand, get started?
A: I had the idea for awhile because I’d been doing continuous research about the industry and about starting a brand. . . But I just had to wait for the right moment to launch it. I had no money or a job or anything. Like I had zero dollars, literally, in my wallet. I was just trying to find ways to raise money to start this brand and I was doing cleaning, painting, stuff like that. But that wasn’t really making enough so I found these old shoes in my closet, just white Vans and I painted on it at first just to see what I could do. I wore it to school just to see what I could do and posted a picture of it online and I got positive feedback and I figured I could turn that into a business so I could raise money for Head of State+ and once one sale turned to two sales turned to three and from there I would sell 15 pairs of shoes a day. I was able to raise money from that and meeting Amandla Stenberg through one of my friend’s movies. She saw the shoes that I had painted and she posted it on Instagram and that also boosted sales. So I had enough money to make my first collection.
DG: When you talk about research and development, what does that look like on the design end?
A: Head of State+ is less of a clothing brand and more of a case study. People know it as a clothing line, but it’s more like I’m telling a story and right now I’m on the first paragraph of the first chapter of a book that’s full of like 100 different chapters. When I do my research, I focus on the visuals because the visuals are how I pass along my message and what the collection is about. I want people to be immediately intrigued by it. When I started off, the idea was still very early and it wasn’t crafted the way I wanted it to be crafted, plus I was on a limited budget. So the idea wasn’t really there. But I feel like this collection is the beginning of the ideas taking shape . . . I’m currently working on my next collection and I just got a library membership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m always there every other day digging through archives of old African photographers that people don’t always celebrate as much. I’m taking inspiration from them and seeing how Western culture influenced the way Africans dress post-independence in Nigeria and Western Africa.
DG: Who are you trying to tell your story to?
A: My target demographic is pretty much anyone who gets it. It can be someone who is older or someone who is younger. . . The fact is it’s a men’s line but eventually, when the story line moves forward, I will introduce a women’s line and then over time it’s going to get to the point where it’s unisex, where gender doesn’t associate through clothing. Right now, it seems like a younger demographic, eventually it caters to a wider demographic... .The more mature my studies and my research gets, the more mature my brand gets.
DG: What sort of story are you telling with “Hooligans,” your latest collection?
A: This latest collection, which is the fall/winter collection, I’m talking about post-independent Nigeria and how the younger generation reacts to it. So before the civil war, there was this upbeat music and this kinda like energized atmosphere that came from independence and then the civil war took place and there was lots of chaos and the upbeat music turned into something completely different. The music was a summary of what was going on in that environment. After the war, the music became political and that gave rise to Fela. It immediately became more confrontational, more aggressive in a way. But at the same time, it had that spirit that made Afrobeat important before the civil war.
DG: I saw that you’re offering a Bespoke line. So anyone can come forward with a design idea for jackets and pants and you’ll work with them to make it. That seems like a really open idea. Can you explain it?
A: Yeah, a lot of people think I’m crazy with that one. But I told them, this brand is all about DIY. The DIY is what makes the raw nature of this brand and Bespoke service have limited slots every month. So the Bespoken idea is more me trying to connect with the consumer. . . Also, they get involved in the designing process. That’s an experience. A lot of people call me crazy because no other brand provides that. Usually, when you see a Bespoken-like offer it’s from an haute couture brand where it’s like 10,000 dollars. They only reach people who can afford it, but making it available to everyone . . . I feel like that’s the future of streetwear. I always tell people that a t-shirt from a streetwear brand is like my original Gucci. I emphasize stuff like that, I don’t care about the high-end brands that reach a much older consumer base. I want to pass on that same energy to a much younger generation who want the same thing.