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How One Outfit Changed the Life of a Former Berkeley High Teacher

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'Even people who are not necessarily into fashion see my outfits, and they're just like, ‘There's something about your outfit that makes me happy,’' says Zakiya Zazaboi, pictured in San Francisco on Dec. 15, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Fit Check is a series about style and personal expression in the Bay Area. See other installments here.

One summer night three years ago, Zakiya Zazaboi’s outfit changed her life.

At the time, Zazaboi was a history teacher at Berkeley High School, and her students used to tell her that she was too cool for school — literally. “‘It’s honestly really sad seeing you here,’” Zazaboi remembers a student telling her, with brutal teenage conviction.

Zazaboi waved off her students’ suggestions that she should quit to do something “cooler.” But a party at Miss Ollie’s in Oakland had other plans. That night in May 2021, at a long dining table in Oakland lined with saltfish, jerk chicken and artists of all kinds, Zazaboi met fashion stylist Mai-lei Pecorari.

Zazaboi had shown up in cerulean vintage bell bottoms, a Danish knit sweater with enormous silver clasps, oversized white glasses and white cowboy boots. Pecorari, who’s styled the likes of NBA player Draymond Green and DJ Honey Dijon, looked Zazaboi up and down and asked her about her outfit.

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“‘Do you just do this as a passion project, or professionally?’” Zazaboi remembers Pecorari asking her.

A person with a leather jacket holds a circular necklace.
Zakiya Zazaboi shows off her collection of silver jewelry, including a necklace engraved with her late mother’s thumbprint. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

And then Pecorari just sort of whisked her off into the world of fashion, Zazaboi says. Just a few months later, she got a call from Pecorari about a styling job at a photoshoot, and then another, and another.

“I began making more than I was as a public school teacher,” she says.

Zazaboi has been a stylist ever since.

‘It’s Very Political’

Zazaboi, who was born in Daly City but now lives between Oakland and L.A., describes the style sensibility that transformed her career as bright and emotional. “It’s very queer, too, just because of the ways that I play around with my own masculine energy,” she says. “And it’s very political.”

A person dressed in black poses for a photo.
Zakiya Zazaboi sports a leather jacket from San Francisco vintage shop Wasteland and a skirt from Goodwill. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It’s a sunny December day in San Francsico when I catch up with Zazaboi at a warehouse building in SOMA. Working a photoshoot for Banana Republic, she wears speed-bump yellow boots, red shorts and a leather vest with two patches — one on the front and one on the back.

“I tend to put a lot of different patches on my outfits to reflect things that are going on politically,” she says, her neck, wrists and fingers glimmering with a constellation of silver jewelry. “I like to keep it very pro African, a lot of poetry.”

Zazaboi had also printed a photo she found on Tumblr of a group of young Black boys onto a large piece of canvas. Sewn into her vest, the image is stunning and conspicuous, stretching across the length and width of Zazaboi’s back.

“It’s a pretty punk thing to do, very gritty DIY,” she says.

The front panel of the vest bears the words “I can feel you forgetting me” in medieval script, backdropped by red. (“I definitely have a bit of a sad bone to me because of my Cancer side,” she explains.)

A person long hair poses for a photo with an old photo stitched to the back of their leather vest.
Zakiya Zazaboi adorns her outwear with custom patches using images that speak to her. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At Berkeley High, a fellow teacher let Zazaboi experiment with her garment printer, and she soon started installing patches on her clothes. They now ornament Zazaboi’s collection of outerwear and add dimension to an already distinct wardrobe.

She also credits her former students at Berkeley High for their influence. “They have some of the best outfits out here, and they’re very trendy and on it,” she says, “It’s probably the one thing I miss the most about teaching — I’m not constantly being inspired by a lot of our younger generations’ outfits.”

On the long San Francisco street outside the Banana Republic photoshoot, Zazaboi clicks the heels of her bright yellow boots — a beam of sunshine in a field of concrete.

“I grew up around Filipinos, and their shoe game was on top of it,” she says. “I learned a lot about shoes in Daly City.”

A person long hair and red shorts is photographed.
Color and texture are big considerations for Zakiya Zazaboi when putting together her looks. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Keeping It Attainable

Zazaboi also learned about how to budget her money for clothes, and has advice for the rest of us.

“I definitely look at a lot of high-end fashion all the time, but babe, I don’t have high fashion money,” she says, “So I’m always keeping in mind longevity, and ‘How’s this gonna look when it’s dirty and beat up? Will it still look good?’”

More than anything, she wants fashion to be attainable.

“I know that people are going to ask me where I got my outfit from, and I’m not the type of babe that’s gonna be like ‘Valentino’ or ‘Gucci,’” she says.

For Zazaboi, there’s something much more valuable and lasting than access to brand names. It helps her find gems in the most random piles of clothes, and it’s accessible to others too.

“I just have an eye for things,” she says.

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