Born and raised in Nigeria, New York-based Taofeek Abijako established his brand Head Of State+ two years ago. Designing garments from his high school bedroom and funding his interest for fashion by selling custom-painted trainers online, Taofeek’s narrative is deeply influenced by his West African roots.
Presenting his SS19 collection Genesis at only nineteen, last season Abijako became the youngest designer to show at New York Fashion Week Men’s. Genesis is a representation of Taofeek’s digging into his cultural upbringing, that brought him to explore West African 70s youth culture through a contemporary perspective, drawing parallels with the Afro-futurism of artists such as Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra. Paying homage to Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti, Head of State+’s SS19 collection includes a bold mix of fitted sweatshirts and shirts, trucker jackets and high-wasted flared trousers.
Emma Pradella: How and when did you get into fashion?
Taofeek Abijako: I got into fashion around my late-junior, early-senior years in high school, but I always had fashion around me as my dad was a designer back in Nigeria, before he moved to the US. I got into streetwear first, but I was interested in all forms of design: architecture, interior design, arts. Eventually I wanted to have everything under one umbrella and started my brand Head Of State+.
EP: When you started Head of State+, what were your main reference points?
TA: Prior to starting Head of State +, I spent around a year and a half researching. I tried to understand my background and culture in general. I was very interested in exploring African poets and writers such as Wole Soyinka, but through a contemporary perspective. That research pretty much was the foundation for the story I’m looking to tell with Head of State+. It’s never been about selling clothes or financial benefits in anyway, but more about telling a story and delivering a message. At the beginning I had little to no resources so I had to work with what I had – that sense of entrepreneurship definitely comes from my upbringing.
EP: How did you support your ideas at first?
TA: I started off by painting shoes like Vans and Nikes and selling them online. They sold out instantly and I saved up all the money from that. I didn’t have a studio, so I was literally working from my bedroom.
EP: And how would you say your brand has evolved through the years?
TA: I think it’s more the fact that the story I want to tell is maturing. My understanding of my background and African culture is getting better the more I research, so the brand has been evolving in this way. I have a membership with the MET, and have been going there every other day and digging through their archive. The more I do that, the more the brand evolves over time. Gathering information from that research and turning them into a physical result is so rewarding.
EP: Fast forward two years and you’re the youngest to show at NYFW Men’s. How does it feel?
TA: I don’t like thinking about that to be honest. I care more about the future than what I just did in the present. I still have a lot more to say. Being in the present, it’s not really my thing, I can be the youngest right now but it’s really all about how long can the story go on for.
“I started off by painting shoes like Vans and Nikes and selling them online. They sold out instantly and I saved up all the money from that. “
EP: Let’s get to your SS19 Collection, Genesis, how would you describe it? And what was it inspired by?
TA: First of all, the name. It marks a new beginning, it’s my very first runway show. I see this as a re-start, to explain the beginning of my research. It was inspired by West African youth culture in the 70s, drawing a parallel from that to modern time. It was basically me going through my family photos, my parents’ photo albums, and West African contemporary photographers that at the time were able to capture the vibrancy of the youth culture. The best way for me to show this vibrancy, was by translating the Afro-futurism through that perspective.
EP: What brought you close to the 70s?
TA: Growing up in Nigeria, exploring my family’s past, my roots and being involved in the youth culture, and then coming across photographers I related to right away, like Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keïta.
EP: In what way would you say this is translated into the collection?
TA: The silhouettes: there are a lot of high-waisted bell-bottom pants, very 70s. Also, most of the photography I referenced was black and white, so it was up to me to translate that into colours to show the vibrancy of West African culture. The way the show was curated was meant to feel like a transportation from the 70s to modern time. If you look at the first and last looks, you get a sense of 70s first, and then that evolves into a modern aesthetic.
EP: You cite Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra’s music as sources of inspiration too. How did their music filter into the collection?
TA: Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra are still something I’m exploring, and I would say that the influence I get from them will be further explained in my next collection. But if I had to define Afro-futurism and choose people that best represent it, these are the ones I would choose. Although for the show I had references from Fela Kuti, and a poem by June Jordan called A Song For Soweto, Genesis was the beginning of my musical exploration, as the Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra references are not as obvious in Genesis as they will be in FW19.
“…most of the photography I referenced was black and white, so it was up to me to translate that into colours to show the vibrancy of West African culture”
EP: What are the plans for the future, now that Head of State+ is part of Groupe [an incubation system created by Seize Sur Vingt’s founders]?
TA: I’m very glad to be the first designer to be on the Groupe project. It’s still very early days, but I think it’s very useful because all the struggles young designers may find like production and distribution, Groupe help find a solution. It gives me the freedom to just design and not worry too much about the rest.
EP: In terms of support for young, emerging designers, how do you think NYC compares to other fashion capitals?
TA: It’s good that you mention that, because I think this is one of the things New York has been not great at in comparison to London and Paris for example, where emerging designers have a voice and systems are set up for them to seek help with finances or logistics. I didn’t go to design school, I’m not technical, but I do understand the struggles fashion graduates go through once they have to find stable ground after university. Having a support system like this is so important because it enables the designers to focus on what they know best, designing and being creative.
EP: Speaking of fashion education, do you ever consider studying fashion now?
TA: If I was to ever go back to study anything, it would definitely be architecture. That was one of my biggest interests before fashion, and it also pushes me to be more technical with my fashion creative process.
More info on Head of State here.