Footwear

Tega Akinola Is Building a Brand Where Fashion, Function and Sustainability Coexist

“It’s about seeing what others have done and trying to do it in a way that hasn’t ever been done before.” — Tega Akinola

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Tega Akinola is swiftly making a name for herself by blending creativity with sustainability through her experimental and inventive use of discarded materials. The multidisciplinary artist based in the Midlands, UK, is part of a growing wave of designers shifting the notion that fashion thoughtfully made using second-hand materials is a luxury rather than a compromise. From her signature fleece mini-handbags to footwear adorned with discarded electrical cables, her designs redefine fashion norms with their unique fusion of materials and silhouettes.

Last year, Akinola embarked on the challenging journey of building a brand and establishing herself as a designer, seeking to create wearable products that resonate with people. A year into this new adventure, she has already established her brand with a fresh logo, a bigger and better collection of her signature fleece mini-bags and a collaboration with Nike to add to her resume. It’s safe to say the young creative is catching the attention of fashion aficionados and sustainable enthusiasts and she’s just getting started.

For our latest Baes with Kicks installment, we dive into the many ideas that circle in Akinola’s mind, her untraditional journey into fashion and her ongoing commitment to pushing the boundaries of fashion through sustainable practices.

Tega Akinola, Upcycling, Sneakers, Nike, Interviews

Name: Tega Akinoka

Location: Midlands, UK

Occupation: Multidisciplinary Artist and Designer 

You’ve made a name for yourself through your upcycled footwear projects. What inspired you to begin experimenting with footwear?

I’ve always loved footwear and sneakers. What inspired me to experiment with them is the fact I try to make things I haven’t seen before. My inspiration comes from various channels, and I try to bring them all together to create something new. I don’t believe anyone is inspired by something that has never been done before, but if we can combine various sources of inspiration and our own experiences to create something new, that’s the way to go. 

For example, with the fleece shoes I made, I’d seen people use fleece in different ways, but never on shoes. I thought, “Oh, I can make a concept out of this.” It’s about seeing what others have done and then trying to do it in a way that hasn’t been done before.

What has been your favorite footwear project to date?

I really like the cable heels that I did—the original ones where they were just glued on cables with a little block heel. I love doing the conceptual footwear projects because I don’t have to worry about things like, “Oh, if someone wears this, how long is it going to last?” Or “Can it withstand natural elements?” 

Another one I really liked is the toe stash pocket I did recently, but it always changes, which is good because that shows I’m constantly improving.
Tega Akinola, Upcycling, Sneakers, Nike, Interviews

You recently collaborated with Nike to create a full collection of accessories and apparel. What was the experience like?

In that sense, it was such a learning experience, but I think it came at the exact right time. I had been thinking about how upcycling could be done on a larger scale, beyond just one-of-one pieces. We’re talking about hundreds here. Even though that’s still quite small in production terms, it’s bigger than the usual upcycling method. During that process, I had to learn how to design things that could be reproduced easily. It’s easy to make a one-of-one piece because you can spend a lot of time on it, but when you work with different machinists working on something, it becomes more costly and difficult to produce. 

My design style and process changed because I had to consider how it would be sewn and how the material would be cut. This project shifted the way I think about design in a really beneficial way for my future work. 

What is one key takeaway from the whole experience that you didn’t expect?

A key thing was designing for commercial use. You have to be really on top of all the details when you’re creating something with a production partner. If you don’t get it right during the sampling stage and don’t check every single thing, you miss the chance to change it later. So, you really need attention to detail.

It’s harder when you’re making tech packs and have to write down so many details. It’s a lot of work, but it’s important because it makes sure you’re happy with the final product. Putting in the hard work early on really counts. I think a lot of people don’t realise how time-consuming the design process is and all the stuff that happens before you see a final product.

This experience also changed how I see other people’s designs. Before, I might have been quick to judge, but now, having gone through it myself, even on a smaller scale, I understand why things are done a certain way. I’ve learned not to be so critical because I know how much work actually goes into it. Tega Akinola, Upcycling, Sneakers, Nike, Interviews
Where were you drawing your inspiration for that collection?

I’ve always loved vintage Nike, especially the early ’00s era. That period is my favorite because of the vibrant colors, logos and graphics. I wanted to draw inspiration directly from that era because it resonated with me and tied into the idea of recreation; taking something old and making it new again.

When I started designing, I did some sketches, dreaming of what I could create with Nike. Some of my designs were chosen, which was really exciting! I drew inspiration from things that felt authentic to me, based on what I liked and what I wanted to see created. Serena Williams was a huge influence for my designs. I miss seeing someone like her, wearing full-on denim on the court, no one does it like her anymore. It would be amazing to bring that style back one day.

 

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You studied sport and exercise psychology at university, which had nothing to do with fashion. So, in what ways has that influenced your work? 

It showed me how people perceive clothes and how customers think about the way a brand is presenting something to them and how that affects their behavior. For example, there’s a study by Wang et al. called “Highly versus Normally Attractive Person in Picture Reviews” which indicates that people are more likely to buy something if they see it worn by someone they find attractive. This affects who a brand might decide to feature in a campaign. When you see it on someone you like or you have an affinity with, you’re more likely to buy it. 

Even though the sports side of my course isn’t directly related to my current work, sportswear has influenced me a lot. I love sports, and many of my favorite brands are sportswear brands. There’s a strong intersection between sports and fashion that’s really prominent right now. So, different elements like sportswear, consumer psychology and social psychology have all found their way into my work in some way. 
Tega Akinola, Upcycling, Sneakers, Nike, Interviews
What is something you think is often overlooked in the upcycling world?

I think there’s a notion that upcycling and repurposing might not be as valuable because they’re made from old things. Personally, I think there’s a bit of a connotation that upcycling is a very DIY, crafty thing and not as valuable as new items. This is just my opinion, but a lot of work goes into upcycling and repurposing, sometimes even more than starting from scratch with new materials.

It bothers me when people think upcycled items should be cheaper just because they’re sustainable. I understand the argument that sustainable items should be accessible, but sustainability also means paying workers fairly for their work. Upcycling isn’t necessarily low quality; it’s just a different process of making things. Maybe there needs to be more transparency about how upcycling is done, whether by brands or individuals. I think more process videos and showing the upcycling process can help change people’s attitudes and beliefs about it compared to ready-to-wear or new products.
Tega Akinola, Upcycling, Sneakers, Nike, Interviews
Lastly, in terms of what’s next for you, is there anything specific that you’re like, “Oh, I’d love to make something like that?”

I’m currently exploring how to create more accessible products while maintaining a sustainability focus. I’m planning to do more experiments and develop new concepts, and I’ll be sharing those.

I’d also love to develop my own materials. Technology fascinates me, so that’s something I’m eager to pursue. In terms of what I’m willing to try, I’m open to experimenting with all types of materials as long as I can make something cool from them. I find heat-reactive materials amazing, so I definitely want to explore and create something with them in the future.

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