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Founder and designer Adeju Thompson is facilitating a conversation between the past, present, and future. 

By Sandiso Ngubane

Jan 27, 2023

In early 2022, Adeju Thomson, the designer behind Lagos Space Programme, met master dyer Iya Alaro during a research trip across South-West Nigeria. Describing Alaro, who is in her early 90s, as a “sadly forgotten, albeit very important national treasure,” Thompson says the two of them got to discussing the tragic erosion of cultural values and the loss of African artifacts and crafts—the art of creating adire, specifically.

The ancient West African traditional dye cloth has seen a resurgence as artists and designers like Thompson seek to tap into ancient crafts to preserve that which has been lost at a time when Western fashions have become De rigueur. “For me, when you’re trying to move a technical language forward, if you want to think about something futuristic, it has to be rooted in the past. It has to be a conversation between the past and the present,” Thompson says.

As such, Thompson is taking the knowledge gained from this trip specifically into a collaboration with Nigerian-American artist Chioma Ebinama, whose own work draws from the language and imagery of mythology. 

Portrait of Adeju Thompson. Photo: supplied by Lagos Space Programme.

More than just fashion

Founded in 2018, many have described Lagos Space Programme as a gender-neutral fashion label but its founder sees it as more than just that. “I don’t see LSP as a brand. We are a studio,” Thompson says. “Yes, ready-to-wear collections are a part of what we do but we also do research and consulting, among other things. We’re very passionate about what we do and our future endeavors, which include costume design, for instance. This is something I’m very fascinated by and it’s something we are working towards.”

In its short lifespan LSP has been recognized by the likes of the LVMH Prize for Young Designers, becoming one of 20 semi-finalists in 2021. The prize that year was eventually awarded to three designers including South Africa’s Lukhanyo Mdingi. This year, LSP is one of eight finalists for the International Woolmark Prize—another prestigious global fashion award for rising stars.

Beyond fashion, however, Thompson’s work has been part of an exhibition at Berlin’s Humboldt Forum. “It was an exhibition called ‘Benin: Past & Present’. It was around Benin’s bronzes. The museum is state-owned and they have the largest collection of, I guess, pillaged antiques outside of Britain and they agreed to send them back to the continent. Before they did, they agreed to do a large exhibition around the pieces.”

It is Thompson’s fascination with pre-colonial knowledge systems that got him invited to the exhibition. One of the designer’s collections involved bronze items cast in a Beninese workshop by a seventh generation artisan and created in collaboration with artist Dunja Herzog whose work is influenced by the effects of the colonial history between Europe and the continent. 

A craftswoman dyeing textiles for Lagos Space Programme. Photo: supplied by Lagos Space Programme.

Clothing hung to dry after being dyed. Photo: supplied by Lagos Space Programme.

Bronze accessories, masks, and  shoes. Photo: supplied by Lagos Space Programme.

Models wearing Lagos Space Programme for a photograph featured in the Fashioning the Afropolis book. Photo: supplied by Lagos Space Programme.

Echoes from the past

Thompson describes their own work as a resistance to society’s policing of individuality. The presence of materials like the bronze, the aforementioned adire and the referencing of Yoruba masquerades is about complicating patriarchal sensibilities, understanding their own heritage and identity as a queer-identifying person of Yoruba and African heritage. It’s about moving the conversation forward.

“I’m not trying to replicate the past,” they explain. “I’m interested in learning from craftspeople and using that knowledge as a foundation to say, what do these Beninese bronzes look like in 2023, for example. How are we moving forward?”

“These artifacts are a culturally significant part of our heritage but, for me, it’s like, that doesn’t reflect my contemporary reality. That’s pretty much how I approach my practice.”

Forward to the future

While LSP is very much rooted in facilitating a conversation between the past and present, much of it entails facilitating an alternative narrative that goes beyond what Thompson refers to as stereotypical. “I think a lot of my contemporaries get pigeonholed into this idea of a traditional African aesthetic. That’s very much who we are, but I do feel like this continent is such a big place. In Nigeria alone we are so diverse; we have over 300 different languages.”

“This is only just on a historical level. On a contemporary level, I grew up with friends who are very much into alternative punk rock music and heavy metal. That is also an African reality.” Thompson adds that when an African person is wearing Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, how they choose to wear it becomes African fashion by virtue of the wearer’s identity. “For me, it’s about breaking those stereotypes and recognizing that African designers draw from a myriad of sources. All my ideas, my interests and things that inspire me are from everywhere, but they are filtered through a Nigeria lens.” 

Lagos Space Programme editorial. Photo: supplied by Lagos Space Programme.

Models wearing Lagos Space Programme for a photograph featured in the Fashioning the Afropolis book. Photo: supplied by Lagos Space Programme.

Lagos Space Programme Project 7/Post-Adire editorial. Photo: supplied by Lagos Space Programme.