'Being shortlisted for the 2021 LVMH Prize was a huge honour. It was a beautiful moment,' says Adeju Thompson, the 29 year-old designer behind Lagos Space Programme. Thompson's brand is a non-binary, luxury design project exploring African futures - hence the science fiction-esque name - with a focus on craftsmanship and a dedication to slow fashion. Standout pieces from their last collection, Project 5: Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Ènìyàn / We greet dress before we greet its wearer, include a hand-knitted adire blouse dyed with natural indigo, gold, phallic objects (made at the workshop of a seventh generation bronze caster with Swiss artist Dunja Herzog), and an ethereal bespoke balaclava, replete with pearls and blue sequined lips. All of Thompson's pieces are one-offs, and the production of the clothes is exclusively carried out in Africa.
When I talk with Thompson over the phone in late April, the LVMH Prize nominees had not yet been whittled down from 20 designers to just nine - but, a week later, the results are in: nine designers including Bianca Saunders, Conner Ives and Nensi Dojaka are slowly closing on the €300,000 cash prize - and Thompson, unfortunately, did not make the final cut.
But winning the LVMH Prize is not at the top of their agenda. 'It's a journey, not a race,' they say, and besides, they did not apply for the prize in the first place - they were scouted. The ethos of Lagos Space Programme does not necessarily align with the values of the prize, which often catapults designers into superstardom and success (past winners include Marine Serre, Hood by Air, Wales Bonner and Jacquemus).
Thompson instead releases collections on their own time, not on fashion's typical seasonal schedule, and labels their collections with a project number, instead of a season-based Autumn/Winter or Spring/Summer tag. 'We will never conform to the fashion system. We will instead find ways to make the system work for us,' reads part of the brand's 2018 manifesto. They also cite the issue of mental health and burnout within the fashion industry as one of the reasons behind their commitment to slow fashion. Naturally, I ask Thompson how it felt to be nominated for a prize created by a luxury conglomerate that is arguably, the system itself (LVMH owns heritage fashion houses including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Givenchy). 'For someone like me, who creates as an outsider, it's been a long and arduous journey,' says Thompson. 'When you think of African fashion, you don't expect Lagos Space Programme. There is a misconception of what design from the continent is.' Although the brand may not necessarily gel with LVMH's principles, the prize allowed Thompson to both challenge assumptions about African fashion and gain a new, globalised audience.
Much has been made of African fashion in recent years - South African designer Thebe Magugu's slinky tailoring won him the LVMH Prize in 2019, while Nigeria-born designer Kenneth Ize's handwoven, acrid-coloured garments have been worn by celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Childish Gambino and Timothée Chalamet. But, all that these brands have in common with Lagos Space Programme is a vast continent and a dedication to craftsmanship. 'I see myself as a global designer. My clothes fit in any context - in Tokyo, London or Paris,' says Thompson.
Thompson began a BA in fashion design at Birmingham City University, but later dropped out due to personal and financial struggles. While studying there, they picked up some books from the library on Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo and the anti-fashion movement. 'I was spellbound. It was nothing like I was used to in Nigeria,' says Thompson. 'I connected with the way that design was coming from a vulnerable space. These people were dissecting where they were from and what they enjoyed. It opened my mind to what design could be. In that moment, I had a conviction that this was who I wanted to be.'
Lagos Space Programme's last collection (Project 5) was inspired by the centuries-old, gender-fluid Gélédé rituals of Thompson's Yoruba ancestors (the Yoruba people are an ethnic group scattered around western Africa, in places like Nigeria and Togo). 'Maybe my ancestors don't think of it as gender bending, but I can draw parallels with these ceremonies and the ballroom scene in New York in the 1980s,' says Thompson. This quality, of refracting fashion through a Nigerian, contemporary, queer lens, is what makes Lagos Space Programme so intoxicating. 'I'm trying to break down the misconception that queerness is a Western construct,' asserts Thompson. The centuries-old 'adire' technique of indigo-dyeing cotton cloths was also given a contemporary update by the brand; using a process they call 'post-adire,' Lagos Space Programme has pushed an ancient dyeing technique into a new context - knitwear.
Despite Lagos Space Programme's focus on Yoruba culture, Thompson's personal inspirations come from far and wide. 'I like watching films like Paris Is Burning. I'm a huge David Bowie fan, I adore SOPHIE. This is the culture that I soak up,' they say. American composer Julius Eastman is also a huge inspiration - he formed the basis of Lagos Space Programme's Project 4: Guerrilla collection. 'He was Black, homosexual and grappled with mental health struggles and addiction. People could find his life incredibly dark and tragic but I found so much beauty in it,' wrote Thompson on Instagram.
Despite the allure of fashion capitals like Paris, London or New York, Lagos Space Programme will be based in Nigeria for the foreseeable future. 'I will continue exploring Yoruba culture. By virtue of that, Lagos as a city is going to be a huge part of Lagos Space Programme. I have to always be here, because the artisans and adire dyers are here,' says Thompson. 'My work is a form of protest. When you live in a city like Lagos, which can be quite homogenous at times, and has anti-LGBTQI+ hate, you think, "What is my protest? What is my contribution?"' It's safe to say that, with Lagos Space Programme's queer ethos and slow, artisanal approach, Thompson is causing a quiet revolution of their very own making.