‘Queerness is not a Western concept’: Adju Thompson bringing genderless Nigerian fashion to the world


written by Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, CNN

“There are very early examples of gender bending in African culture,” explains the designer behind the gender-fluid Nigerian clothing label Lagos Space Program. “Querness is not a Western concept.”

From West Africa to Europe and beyond, non-binary fashion designer Adju Thompson is showcasing genderless African fashion on the world stage.

Thompson, 30, who uses the pronoun they/them, grew up in Lagos and, having spent a stint studying fashion design in the UK, lived his entire life in Nigeria. In 2018, Thompson founded the label Lagos Space Program. “By adding all these things together, I’m always adding different ideas,” Thompson said. “To expose the queer community and also to make fun of myself and make fun of fashion.”

The result is luxurious indigo-hued organic fabrics and elegant knitwear, offset by strikingly sculptural handcrafted brass furnishings that flirt with queer iconography.

Many of Thompson’s designs use edire, an indigo resist-dyed textile—a major component of traditional clothing worn by the West African Yoruba people. Heritage Textiles has been reimagined by Thompson in a modern context, applying dye techniques to knitwear. Thompson calls this reinvestment “post adair”.

‘We greet the wearer before we greet him’

Over the past year, the Lagos space program has skyrocketed globally, showing collections in Lagos, Paris and Milan. In January, Thompson debuted her spring-summer 2021 collection at Milan Fashion Week.

The collection, called “aso lonki, ki ato ki nìyàn”, takes its name from Yoruba, which translates as: “We greet the dress before greeting its wearer.” Thompson says the collection responds to a turbulent year of pandemic and socio-political unrest in Nigeria, by addressing the community and shared identity through clothing, to remind people that they are still together, Even though they are physically isolated.

A hand-knit “post-adair” cape blouse made of adair patterned fabric dyed with natural indigo, paired with Yoruba wide trousers. Credits: trustee

The designs are also informed by the period Thompson spent in Osun in south-west Nigeria, at the time of the personal revelation.

While there, an Osun high priest showed Thompson two objects of great spiritual value: a dagger and a fan. In traditional ritual, Yoruba people wear both objects, which represent the balance between femininity and masculinity in the individual. “It was always a part of our identity,” Thompson explained.

“As a kid I was bullied because I wasn’t very masculine, and I’ve always felt more connected to my feminine side,” Thompson told CNN. “There’s a lot of trauma to me surrounding my masculinity, and I love that as an adult I can fashion the life I want, and that I can easily mediate between both sexes and take a place.” I can make one that works for me.”

“I’ve always felt incredibly fluid in expressing myself, because it’s always felt so natural to me,” Thompson explained. “I’m so aware, on a historical and personal level, of the damage that toxic masculinity can cause. It’s just not a place I connect.”

“It’s very important for me to express myself and share my story through my work,” Thompson said. “(It) is my contribution to the political and cultural dialogue.”

beyond the runway

During the lockdown, queer British photographer Craig Waddell reached out to Thompson on social media, asking to collaborate.

“Usually when I show up at my work it’s on black bodies, but this photographer is a white non-binary photographer from London,” Thompson told CNN. “The models on which they showed the Lagos space program were white. When I design for the Lagos space program, the designs are for everyone.”

Adju Thompson.

Edju Thompson. Credits: Courtesy Konstantin Vulkov

This fall, the label will launch a collection of designs at Alara, a Nigerian high-end fashion store. Celebrating contemporary design and queerness meeting heritage, the collection will be inaugurated as an Adair Textile Symposium.

The collection’s opening is set to coincide with the second display of the Lagos Space Program at Milan Fashion Week this September. “This time around, I specifically asked them to show up in their women’s wear collection,” says Thompson, citing her desire to dismantle gender norms by using non-binary and male models to drive her designs. By explaining.

Sophisticated and subversive, Thompson’s designs are also gaining traction beyond the runway. Earlier this year, the Lagos Space Program was invited to exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London at the Africa Fashion Exhibition 2022, which is set to open next June.

“I want the Lagos Space Program to champion dialogue to uncover an alternative narrative around gender, indigenous knowledge and the African experience,” Thompson said.

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