On an average day, you might run into Tega Akinola sporting her Skechers D’Lites but don’t let that fool you because this girl is a major tastemaker. With co-signs from Puma and even Vogue, she’s on the way to upcycling our future of dreams.
When she was seven, her family moved from Nigeria to London. There they lived in a creative household with constantly making things and sold their art at local markets as children; it wasn’t until then that Akinola realized how much talent she possessed would one day be used for. Akinola’s parents were always encouraging their kids’ creativity through drawing–even if there weren’t any electronics around (or time).
Though she was surrounded by sports throughout her childhood, it wasn’t until the age of 12 that Akinola truly fell in love with one sport. She spent most days watching soccer from England and eventually became an avid fan favorite thanks to how much time she would spend on these teams outside school – even though there were few televisions back then.
It’s so weird calling them sneakers. We call them trainers over here, but I had always been interested in sneakers. Growing up I didn’t really have money to buy cool sneakers, so when I got my first job at 16 I was like, ‘I’m going to buy all the shoes I want.
When Akinola was able to buy herself a pair of Adidas Superstars in “Triple Black,” she did so with the following thoughts. While her classmates were interested in silhouettes that were more sporty and complicated, this always appreciated sneakers having a more timeless style which made them perfect for someone like her who appreciates classic pieces over modern ones oftentimes.
From memories of growing up, when I was around my peers, everyone was always trying to get the latest shoes or the coolest sneakers, but I kind of didn’t think the ones that were going around were that cool. It was like ZX Fluxes and Nike Huaraches. Those were like the ‘in’ things with teenagers at the time in the UK Midlands, but I didn’t really like those. I liked more of the classic sneakers like the Air Force 1s, the high-tops, and then obviously you’ve got the Superstars as well. Those are more what I lean to.
After Akinola finished secondary school, she decided to attend university and study Sports Psychology. Her studies were interrupted by the global COVID-19 pandemic which has now become obvious at this point in time; however, it seemed never coming until then. Up until recently (when) she had just started experimenting with creative projects using Instagram as an outlet – but nothing too serious or long-lasting yet anyway.
I tried a lot of different things to see if I could do it and if I liked it. One of the things I tried when I was first getting started was outfit pictures. I liked seeing what others were doing and I wanted to try and do it myself. It went off from there.
The internet is a wild place. One woman’s crafts and innovations can spread like wildfire on social media, leading to fame overnight or just another day in the life for some people who have used it by now. Akinola began accessorizing with chain laces and even Nike Swoosh hoops that she handmade herself but didn’t gain popularity until one year later when posted her first concept shoe design which would quickly become iconic among hip-hop fans all around America.
The design of this post is something that many people can identify with. When she first put it out, there were some nerves involved but in an exciting way. She paired black patent leather shoes alongside yellow socks and orange laces to create a feminine look that would eventually become one-of-kind for her own personal style signature. “I’ve always loved shoe design, but especially sneakers,” said Akinola. “I just think they look so cool with an outfit. I wear sneakers more than heels, actually. I rarely wear heels.”
While on quarantine, Akinola found an old bag of charging cables. The USB cord reminded her of something and she got to work cutting it up into pieces for creativity’s sake- but not just any shape. She carefully placed each piece onto a different part of your shoe so that when you walk down the street all people can see are these beautiful designs glowing against their skin from within maze-like formations created by this talented artist.
My thing is just trying, first of all. I didn’t know I could do it until I tried to do it. I don’t know if this is going to sound cocky, but I’m not the sort of person who believes I can’t do something, before I at least try to do it, and then you have to stick with the process because it can get challenging, and a bit less fun at times. That’s how I approach life in general actually.
With her cable heels being such a success, Akinola decided to take the concept to one of her all-time favorite silhouettes, the Nike Air Force 1. “The Air Force 1 is a classic silhouette to do an upcycling project, so that’s what I did. The cables show a sort of kinetic energy that flows around the Swoosh. I hadn’t seen anyone do cables on sneakers in that way, so I wanted to try it out.”
Since then, Akinola has taken on many different upcycling projects. Working predominantly with sneakers and heels she’s been inspired by designers like Matthew Williams who is known for combining streetwear into luxury designs (and also featuring prominently in our list of top 10 influential people). Her other major influence comes from Helen Kirkum- an American architect that specializes in refurbishing vintage objects such as shoes or bags.
I like to focus on the details. Even when it comes to stitching, what color the thread is, or how the stitching looks – whether it’s messy on purpose or if it’s clean, and where it goes. Even when I draw out my sketches I focus on the stitching. So details like that, just the little bits that come together to make one piece, that’s what I like to focus on. I see that a lot with Helen Kirkum as well. The details in her work are amazing and I’m so inspired by that.
I’m very casual day-to-day, but streetwear is one of my main inspirations when it comes to my personal style. It’s a more masculine style in a way, with the baggy trousers and oversized fit, but I love that it’s not so masculine anymore, women can wear it too. Especially New York Hip-Hop back in the day. The stuff they were doing, I loved it. I try to translate that into my style.
Even though the sneaker industry is largely male-driven, Akinola doesn’t shy away from wearing what she wants and doing her passionate thing. She gravitates towards women’s heels or purses with unique shapes that are perfect for sneakers but still remains special to her most recent cop Comme Des Garcons x Nike Carnivore ID (which also happens to be one of my favorite pairs). In recent years there have been more pathways available in which female creatives can get involved on this site – so we’ll keep pushing.
“I think female creatives are more overlooked than male creatives. Sneakers are traditionally seen as a masculine thing, but I think it’s getting a lot better. There are so many female creatives out there now and we’re seeing a lot more women in sneakers,” said Akinola.
Working with brands like Nike, Patagonia, and North Face is an inevitable evolution for Akinola. She commonly uses garments from these companies to create her upcycling designs that are both stylish yet meaningful pieces in the context of their original form.
I want to grow my process a bit more with the stuff I make. I want it to be more streamline and create more. Then I want to collaborate or partner with brands to do campaigns or initiatives, or even capsule collections. Those are the goals I want to achieve in the next five years. I think all the brands that I make stuff with, I can see myself doing something with them.
There is no doubt that Akinola’s work has been well-received across social media. From the hundreds of followers, she garnered on Instagram, it’s clear people are excited about what they see from this up-and-coming influencer. With such support now at hand for all her efforts in photography – which includes so many opportunities provided by our digital world too–Akinola can’t help but feel gratitude towards everything, God gives each day.
With all the love, Akinola says she still gets nervous about sharing her work. But more than anything else it’s having the courage and expressing yourself that makes for a successful artist in today’s world – so even though there are always risks involved with putting your heart out into this public space (or any), at least you know what kind of person they want to see coming back next time around.
It’s amazing to get this much support. I really appreciate it from everyone, but at the same time, I also feel like I’m still just me. There’s still a sort of imposter syndrome at times because I’m myself, and I know what I go through to do all this stuff, but I’m really grateful for the support. It’s crazy to see how everything has progressed.
I think you can be nervous, but still do it anyway, because if you give-in to the nerves too much you’re not going to get anywhere. If you let it stop you from doing something you want to do, you’re not going to get anywhere. So you have to just accept the nerves and try to push yourself to do it. Don’t be too nervous of other people’s opinions. Obviously positive opinions are good, but they’ll always be negative opinions, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think it will happen by default because people think differently and view creations differently. So you kind of have to expect it and then actually be glad that they looked at your work, and thought about it long enough that they talked about it, and that they even had the energy to actually type something. It’s getting their attention.