Though the barefoot, free-loving revelers of the Woodstock era have gotten a lot of play in fashion since they first roamed the earth, you won’t find any of those hackneyed hippie references in Taofeek Abijako’s vision of festival style. His first womenswear collection for Head of State draws inspiration from the lesser-known history of the Festival of African Culture (FESTAC) ’77, widely recognized as the largest gathering of Black arts and culture in West Africa.
“I grew up hearing stories about Sun Ra, Stevie Wonder, Miriam Makeba—they all performed,” says Abijako, who was born in nearby Ajegunle, in Lagos, and now resides in Brooklyn. “My uncle attended the festival and has so much footage, which got me thinking: What would FESTAC look like if it happened today?”
Homecoming, the new collection, was unveiled last September at The Kitchen in Manhattan with an impressive dance performance–cum–fashion show. (Abijako plans to show just once each year.) Models emerged onto the runway dressed in the brand’s distinctive utilitarian tailoring and to the sounds of Makeba’s stirring South African melodies. Buoyant A-line minidresses and curvilinear wrap skirts in shades of lipstick red were a gentle nod to the billowing menswear robes known as agbada in Yoruba. References to traditional Nigerian embroidery techniques were just as subtle, with diamond-shaped cutouts running down the seams of cerulean blue high-waisted pants. Paired with one of the designer’s asymmetric suit jackets, it was just the kind of hip-swiveling look you could imagine a modern-day Fela Kuti might wear.
“I accidentally started a fashion brand,” says the designer, whose label is named after Kuti’s landmark protest song, “Coffin for Head of State.” “I honestly just wanted to sell enough T-shirts and hoodies to be able to help the folks back home.” Abijako and his family moved to Albany, New York, from Nigeria when he was 12 after his father, a fashion designer by trade, won the visa lottery. He launched Head of State out of his bedroom as a senior in high school with no formal design training, and quickly raised enough funds—about $3,000—to help build a new water-supply system near his village in Nigeria. United Arrows, the cult Japanese menswear retailer, was the first to pick up the label—and the indie fashion purveyors at Ssense and H. Lorenzo in Los Angeles have since scooped up his womenswear.
For Abijako, now 23, and many designers of his generation, the very notion of community building and giving back is sewn into the seams of the creative process. With proceeds from the new collection and help from West African architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, he plans to build a school in his parents’ village. The world at large is clearly paying attention: His considered approach to fashion just earned him the top prize—and the sum of $100,000—in the Brooklyn Museum’s Black Design Visionaries partnership with Instagram. He was also recently announced as one of eight young designers in Kerby Jean-Raymond’s much-anticipated fashion incubator, Your Friends in New York.
“One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is being in my dad’s design studio and seeing how he interacted with the community in that space,” says Abijako. “Everyone who walked through the door was welcome—and in my mind, everything I do in fashion is about replicating that feeling.”