Paris Fashion Week has just had its first glimpse of Nigerian designer Adeju Thompson, whose gender-fluid designs blend traditional adire, Eurocentric styles and the anti-fashion avant-garde. By Lucianne Tonti.
Adeju Thompson at Paris Fashion Week
In the basement of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, 12 models are standing shoulder-to-shoulder on an indigo-dyed adire cloth. Adeju Thompson, the Nigerian designer behind Lagos Space Programme, is about to embark on his first show in Paris Fashion Week, having won the prestigious Woolmark Prize last month.
In the soft blue of the cotton cloth on the floor are the outlines of leaves and plants in varying sizes. The patterns and tones are replicated in garments on three of the models. Adire is an ancient dyeing technique used in the traditional dress of Yoruba women in south-western Nigeria. Historically, these garments consisted of two pieces of cotton that were dyed, sewn together and wrapped around the body. Thompson, a Yoruba man, has reimagined them in a contemporary setting for an effect that he describes as “post-adire”.
One of the models wears a long-sleeved, button-up shirt in a light cotton with a pussybow tied loosely at the collarbone. It is styled open, over a high-necked white T-shirt tucked into a knee-length, wraparound skirt, which has also been dyed using his post-adire technique but with a slightly different motif. The model has his hands in the pockets at his hips.
Since its inception, Lagos Space Programme has embodied numerous concepts. The multidisciplinary label is non-binary and interprets codes from traditional African dress – such as adire – in a modern way. The name itself expresses this duality. “It is very much rooted in where I come from,” says Thompson. “But it is looking outwards towards space as this big vast expansive thing.”
Thompson has been designing Lagos Space Programme since 2018, slowly expanding his knowledge of and references to both African and what he describes as Eurocentric style. He is aware of the political nature of his designs and the potential he has to use his platform for good – whether that’s breaking down stereotypes of African style, or advocating for the queer community of which he is a proud member.
Thompson wants to dispel the false notion that queerness is a Western construct and to raise awareness of cultural archetypes and communities in Nigeria that have always contributed to conversations about masculinity, gender and sexuality. Two years ago, he used centuries-old Gẹlẹdẹ rituals of the Yoruba people to celebrate gender fluidity and the power of the feminine as the basis of his collection. The collection on display in Paris is titled “Cloth as a Queer Archive”.
Thompson was born in Lagos in 1991 to “two very young people”, so his childhood was somewhat unorthodox.
“I lived all over the place with grandmas, grandfathers, aunties, uncles, my parents’ friends,” he says. “I think looking back I would’ve wanted something much more traditional, but I also had access to very interesting people.”
In Nigerian society, which Thompson describes as hyper-masculine, being exposed to a diverse community was a godsend for a young boy who would go around picking flowers and giving kisses. One of his uncles was a queer man and plant enthusiast who taught Thompson it was possible to be sensitive and to chase your passions. “I would spend weekends with him, and we would go through these rare plants he had collected from all over the world. I was allowed to express myself.”
The beauty and impact of this time with his uncle informs how he reinterprets this ancient art of adire dyeing. Traditionally, the patterns and motifs on adire cloths have symbolic significance or tell stories. They might be worn in celebration or to mark the birth of a child. To make his post-adire patterns, Thompson studied his own collection of plants in Lagos and thought about other queer artists’ gardens – such as Cecil Beaton’s conservatory in Wiltshire and Derek Jarman’s cottage in Dungeness, in England – eventually channelling the leaves and flowers into the motifs on display.
As a child Thompson also spent lots of time with his paternal grandfather, who was quite well-to-do. He was a banker, and although he wasn’t extravagant with money, he often travelled to London to buy good-quality belts and shoes. “He made me understand what it was to be a gentleman, that it’s very important to think about how you present yourself to the world,” says Thompson.
“I remember there was a time when we came back from church and my grandfather was trying to get into our house and he was standing by his red Mercedes-Benz in his oxblood-red suit. He looked so amazing; I’ll never forget it.”
Among the post-adire pieces is a long jacket, layered beneath a pinstripe suit in a lightweight, summer wool. The jacket is oversized and boxy, slipping off the model’s shoulders, so it hangs loose through the body. It has a shallow lapel, a single breast closure, and heavy, exposed zips where the pockets would be. The pants are wide-legged and slightly cropped.
The deconstructed blazer and pants could be from Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, Yohji Yamamoto or any number of the designers from the anti-fashion movement of the 1980s and ’90s that Thompson lists as his inspiration. A professor at art school in Wales pointed him in the direction of these designers, who used ancient concepts to defy classic construction and change the fashion industry.
As he develops his own perspective on Yoruba tailoring, Thompson is drawing on similar lines of thought to marry traditional garments with Eurocentric styles by emphasising their similarities and showing how they can complement each other in a very “easy and conscious way”.
The pants featured widely throughout the collection are almost an exact replica of traditional Yoruba worker trousers. They comprise several rectangular panels sewn together. A horizontal seam runs around the hips. The waist is cinched with a drawstring. The crotch drops low between trouser legs that hang loose and wide to the ankle. Some of the cuffs are trimmed in a heavy, wool lace from Switzerland. Traditionally, the pants were made from a stiff cotton fabric or woven silks for special occasions.
In his research, Thompson says he became fascinated by paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries that depicted Black people at the centre of European life. A deeper study would often reveal a dark undertone to each image, such as adoption through endowment or slavery, he says. “The depictions made me think about where I come from, and seeing these beautiful paintings of my own ancestors dressed in very beautiful, opulent textiles and jewellery.”
This inspiration shows in a striking piece in the collection – a cream wool suit. The trousers are another updated version of the worker’s trousers, with a matching oversized jacket. The sleeves are so long they almost cover the model’s entire hand; the jacket finishes at the knee. It is single-breasted, with a simple collar, and has been styled with a stiff, cream sash that runs over the model’s right shoulder and across the body, to tie above his left hip. The stiffness comes from rows and rows of tiny glass beads that cover every inch of it. In their midst are loose strands of beads that fall like tassels towards the floor.
The entire outfit is so beautifully sartorial, the perfect example of Thompson’s mission to celebrate the legacy of Yoruba style, alongside his grandfather’s sleek Western tailoring but informed by the legacy of his avant-garde muses.
For Thompson it seems the journey to the future of Nigerian fashion takes him far away but always draws him back home. Halfway through the presentation at the Palais de Tokyo, a film starts to play on the wall beside the line of models. Against a black background, white words read: “Come to me, I’m already here.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Space odyssey".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription