The year was 2016 and Taofeek Abijako was a 17 year old teen embarking on a remarkable expedition. He launched Head Of State, a design company that would focus on fashion, furniture, art installation and product design. But this wouldn’t be just another minimalistic streetwear brand. Abijako wanted Head Of State to be built on “thoughtful, inconspicuous, and honest designs“. By the age of 19 he was showcasing at New York Fashion Week: Men’s (NYFW: M), which may make him the youngest designer to do so. Meet the force behind Head of State—a menswear line enkindled by the Nigerian essence of tenacity and jubilation.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Abijako, was introduced to fashion at an early age. His father – Nuren Abijako – worked as a trained fashion designer and would often take him to his studio. As he wasn’t allowed to touch any of the machinery at the studio, he would spend hours looking through his father’s sketches and a huge photo album that contained pictures of all the pieces he made and wore. In 2004, Nuren won a U.S Visa Lottery and moved to Albany, New York, that same year. Once they’d save enough money, Abijako and the rest of his family were able to join his father in 2010. Abijako joined high school where he felt compelled to gravitate towards sports.
However the curiosity sparked by his exposure to design lead him to explore it in various forms; from fashion and painting to architecture. Additionally, he delved deep into research on his background, eager to understand his culture and heritage in general. This included exploring the work of African writers and poets like Wole Soyinka, and doing so through a contemporary lens. It would be this research that would help to set the storytelling foundation that Head Of State maintains.
By the time he was transitioning into his senior year, he had hang up his football boots and had decided to focus on design completely. The idea for Head Of State was conceived in his senior year and he began to raise funds for the project by hand-painting sneakers and selling them online. His sales went up exponentially when actress, Amandla Stenberg, shared a picture of the custom Vans he made for her on her Instagram page.
He met Stenberg while working as an assistant stylist for the film ‘As you are’. Abijako got the opportunity through a creative empowerment program called Youth FX that was founded by the father of his high school friend, Aden Suchak. Suchak also shot the lookbook that would link Abijako to Japanese luxury retailer, United Arrows. After the retailer saw the lookbook on Abijako’s twitter feed, they requested a meeting with the teen. At first, they were visibly shocked at Abijako’s age but once they saw his collection in person, they decided to carry the entire collection. A year later, Head Of State was labelled a ‘brand to watch’ by The New York Times Style Magazine.
Visually, Head Of State comes across as a luxe streetwear line. But there are layers behind the sweatshirts and lounge-basics that encourage dialogue on cultural, political and social issues. The brand may be entirely fashioned in the USA but it’ heavily influenced by Nigeria. His aim is to tell a different story about Africa; the kind that I often overlooked and left untold. He told the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America), “I approach Head of State+ as less of a brand and more of a case study. It’s me digging into my cultural upbringing while trying to have a firm grasp and understanding of it. My main focus is expanding on the stories already told…building on accumulated ideas from research and embedding it into future collections.”
Take for example his father’s photo album. His collections draw inspirations from his father’s designs and sense of style. It encouraged him to pursue research on contemporary African photographers. In an interview with Vice Magazine he elaborated, “I got a library membership at the Met last year. I’m always there, digging into contemporary African photographers. The moment I saw these [Sidibé and Sanlé] images, they reminded me so much of my dad’s album. Back in Nigeria, studio photography is so popular. People do it mostly around Christmas or Ramadan, when everyone is all dressed up in their best attire. It’s something that repeats itself in every generation in Africa.”
Music is another big influencer that informs his design approach; in particular, Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti. According to an article by the New York Times, not only can you find references to lyrics in various pieces in his ‘Hooligans’ collection, it inspired the name of his brand as well. ‘[Fela Kuti’s] 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”.’
From F.A.R (Fulfilling All Righteousness), Hooligans and Brotherhood to No End and Cruel Hands, the collections have a running themes that tie them together. Such as the high-end streetwear aesthetic, influences from his West African culture and the encouragement of social and political commentary. This includes his Genesis collection that he showcased at ss19 NYFW: M. “Genesis is the translation of Afro-futurism portrayed by the likes of Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra through the lens of West African youth – while at the same time celebrating the vibrancy of West African youth culture in the ‘70s and drawing parallels to modern time. The continuous homage to Fela Kuti is also portrayed,” explained Abijako. The editorials are shaped by the photography style of Sory Sanlé and Malick Sidibé. They also exude the sense of confidence often portrayed in the studio snaps popular in West Africa across the board.
Head Of State also acts as a blue print for young designers looking to get into the industry. Without a footing in the fashion industry hierarchy, formal training or a massive budget, Abijako still managed to craft a collection that started the chain reaction leading him to NYFW. He doesn’t hide the fact that it isn’t easy and that his age constantly asks him to prove himself to others. That all these aspects can alter people’s initial perceptive. However, he lets his work speak on his behalf, learning to take himself seriously, learning all he can about the industry and constantly showing up for his vision. As he reiterated in an interview with Hero Magazine, “It’s never been about selling clothes or financial benefits in anyway, but more about telling a story and delivering a message.”
Though Head Of State has had a successful start, Abijako considers fashion but one chapter in an infinite book. Eventually, he hopes to add furniture installations and product design to the foray. As we wait for the next chapter, check out some of the pieces from his Genesis Collection below.
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