Lagos Space Programme Wins International Woolmark Prize

PARIS — Lagos Space Programme, a Nigeria-based label that seeks to challenge the image of African fashion with designs rooted in Yoruba tradition and queer identity, was named the winner of the 2023 International Woolmark Prize at a ceremony hosted at the Petit Palais in Paris on Monday.

Founder Adeju Thompson, who goes by the pronouns they/them, plans to invest the prize money in boosting manufacturing capacity in a country that they described as plagued by political corruption and energy shortages.

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“I’m just happy. I’m speechless,” said Thompson after French singer Lou Doillon announced their win. The designer will receive a cash prize of 200,000 Australian dollars, or $134,000, the opportunity to be stocked at top fashion retailers, and business mentorship.

Thompson said the award was especially meaningful as Nigeria lacks the kind of sponsorship and bursaries available to Western designers.

“Due to rampant government corruption and everything, a lot of people that would have been considered national treasures have been forgotten and through LSP, it does elevate voices, support people financially and this is also a win for them,” they said.

Thompson plans to invest in the brand’s infrastructure, as the new administration of president-elect Bola Tinubu prepares to remove a fuel subsidy next month.

“Operating in Nigeria, the power is so bad so I was discussing with my business partner installing a solar panel so we’re off the national grid,” they told WWD. “We have a generator in my studio now. We spend a lot of money every week to power it, so if we invest in solar, it’s a huge investment obviously, but it means in the long run we’re saving so much money.”

Lagos Space Programme was selected among eight finalists who were tasked with designing six merino wool looks as part of their fall 2023 collections, or a stand-alone capsule line highlighting “the innate versatility, innovative nature and eco-credentials of merino wool.”

They were judged by a panel of industry experts including Alaïa creative director Pieter Mulier; Alessandro Sartori, artistic director of Zegna; Marni creative director Francesco Risso; footwear designer Salehe Bembury; photographer Tyler Mitchell, and Elizabeth von der Goltz, chief executive officer of Browns and chief fashion and merchandising officer of Farfetch.

Previously a semifinalist for the LVMH Prize for Young Designers in 2021, Lagos Space Programme impressed the Woolmark jury with a collection that melded tailored pieces, some lined with the indigo-dyed Adire cloth made in southwestern Nigeria, and looser pieces like its signature Yoruba wide pants, which are especially popular in Japan.

Thompson, who cites designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo as early influences, worked with suppliers including Kunishima, a historic Japanese manufacturer of wool fabrics.

“It was really more centered around this idea of cultural preservation and cultural celebration, too, but also to communicate about how there’s an element of activism in the work I do. As a queer person from Nigeria, it’s very important to communicate who I am,” Thompson said.

“But also I’d like to really break misconceptions about African design,” the designer continued. “Even though I tap into my Nigerian identity, I don’t want to be defined by it because I’m a global designer and I want to create clothes that whatever context they are in, you can appreciate them first and foremost for being good design.”

Amalie Roege Hove (right) attends the International Woolmark Prize 2023 ceremony with a model wearing one of her designs.

The Karl Lagerfeld Award for Innovation went to Danish knitwear brand A. Roege Hove. Caroline Lebar, senior vice president, image and communications at Karl Lagerfeld, and Sébastien Jondeau, who logged two decades as the designer’s personal assistant and bodyguard, presented the prize to designer Amalie Roege Hove.

She will receive 100,000 Australian dollars, or $67,000, and plans to invest in everything from new machines for her studio to developing yarns.

“I really like when we work a little bit like a lab,” she told WWD. “We have three knitting machines in our studio and that constant process of us testing, sometimes making mistakes, learning from them, that’s really what also makes us able to create something that I feel is quite special.”

The three-year-old brand wowed the jury with high-concept designs including a jacket in a 3D grid of transparent squares exposing floating threads inside — all knitted as a single piece.

“I want to create something where there’s nothing that’s hidden. There’s not a material in this jacket that you can’t see,” Roege Hove explained. “We always want to make sure that people don’t have certain expectations for a certain craft or material, because I do think it’s a shame if crafts or materials are put in a box.”

Mulier singled out her designs as his favorite. “I like that wool becomes sensual so for me, that was one of my highlights — this idea of turning wool into an object of desire,” the Alaïa designer said.

The International Woolmark Prize finalists at the Petit Palais
The International Woolmark Prize finalists at the Petit Palais.

The other finalists were U.S. brand Rhude, South Korean brand Maxxij, France’s Bluemarble, Irish men’s label Robyn Lynch, Marco Rambaldi from Italy and London-based brand Paolina Russo. A troupe of dancers, each wearing a key look from the participating brands, took part in a performance choreographed by last year’s winner Saul Nash.

Risso said he was struck by their collective commitment toward sustainable design.

“That was quite striking. Everyone had that in their mission, and this is something quite beautiful to perceive,” he said. “It’s not easy for anyone but it’s at the base of their core thinking, so I think that it’s already something that makes you perceive things differently than maybe how we used to perceive the industry years ago.”

The Woolmark Supply Chain Award, celebrating outstanding contribution from a trade partner driving wool supply chain innovation, went to Amsterdam-based textile studio Byborre.

John Roberts, managing director of The Woolmark Company, noted the prize was born in Paris 70 years ago, catapulting the careers of Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. The ceremony was last held in the French capital in 2017, when Gabriela Hearst scooped the prize.

“Paris is a long way from the sheep stations in Australia, but it’s very much at the heart of our industry,” Roberts said. “To be back here, celebrating fiber again, is critically important.”

Mulier noted that the winners of the prize not only gain in notoriety, but also enter a network that continues to support them over time. “It’s the history of the Woolmark Prize that immediately puts the designer or designers on the level with the greats of fashion, which I like a lot,” he said.

Sartori said some of the projects might prove a good fit for Zegna’s Oasi Cashmere project, launched last September as part of the Italian luxury menswear company’s wider commitment to make its entire textile offering traceable by 2030 — though he consciously avoided viewing them through that spectrum.

“I didn’t want to be trapped to choose one because of that,” he said. “At the end it’s important to be commercial, but I try to see the innovation, the sustainable and the creative minds before that.”

In fact, he cautioned against trying to find a balance between being creative or commercial. “I don’t think that’s the answer,” Sartori said. “I would start thinking and suggesting to young talents to try to be, as much as they can, honest with their own dream and creativity.”

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