Multidisciplinary fashion designer Thebe Magugu is in the business of making both history and clothes. Winning the International Fashion Showcase at London Fashion Week earlier this year was just the preview. Magugu has recently become the first African designer to win the coveted LVMH Prize 2019 (at age 26, the youngest contender of the group), which means the fashion world is craning its neck with interest towards this blossoming Johannesburg-based luxury label. LVMH awarded Thebe Magugu €300,000 plus a one-year mentorship programme to further build his brand. That’s big. But it’s merely the beginning.
Thebe Magugu hails from the Northern Cape city of Kimberley in South Africa, where he was born a year before Apartheid ended. This oppressive, white supremacist separatist regime was formally disbanded but the scars and remains of inequality run deep until this day for many South Africans. When Thebe had nightmares as a child, his mother would encourage him to journal. She implored him to sketch from the age of eight, as he first experienced fashion through the din of FashionTV (and its infamously glitzy montages). His anxious journal scribblings would form the basis of a future fashion collection one day. Alchemizing pain into beauty through design is a recurring theme in Magugu’s life, one that sets the designer firmly apart from peers. His fashion dream had been taking shape from grade four onwards, so as a student, Thebe left for his current living place of Johannesburg to study fashion design, photography and fashion media at LISOF. His academic degree plus two years of work experience for a selection of designers, fashion institutions and stores lent him the needed knowhow to found his namesake luxury womenswear label in 2016, including accessories and smaller multidisciplinary projects. It was a leap he took without a business plan, working on lookbooks and sketches for other brands to support his fledgling label. The bet paid off.
“I think in art, certain movements stem from times of suffering, because art allows people to deal with traumas in a proactive and beautiful way. That’s what I do with my clothes. I tend to look at South Africa through this lens and ask how I can turn all of this pain on its head”, Thebe Magugu told Vogue earlier this year. Simultaneously rejecting the trauma-focused view the wider world holds of his native country, Magugu works consciously to deepen the perceptions and aesthetics of South African design of today. The SS19 “African Studies” collection references African heritage in sleekly tailored shapes and clever detailing. Taking an academic approach to his collections, Thebe Magugu worked on his vision of empowered African femininity as inspired by his main influences: his mother, grandmother and aunt. “My grandmother is Tswana, my grandad is Sotho, all those cultures have their own set of aesthetics and cultural cues that I grew up with. All those cues end up going into my collections”, the designer has stated. Past collections have referenced topics such as domestic violence and the current political climate both locally and internationally, mostly regarding the expectations put on women. “Here in South Africa, we are in a state of socio-political flux. Among all the beauty in the country, there are some very stressful and damaging events coming into light almost with each passing day. So I just started imagining a woman taking to the great outdoors, to escape the pressures and noise of urban living. She takes time to recover, think, breathe and regroup”, Magugu shared about his SS17 collection.
Campbell Addy, Ib Kamara and Naomi Campbell are followers. Edward Enninful, HRH The Duchess of Sussex and Julia Sarr-Jamois put a full Magugu look on supermodel Adut Akech for their 2019 British Vogue September issue collaboration. Delphine Arnault and the entire LVMH 2019 jury including Kris Van Assche, Jonathan Anderson and Nicolas Ghesquière are fans too, of course. But his early supporters, businesswomen of Johannesburg have most shaped the brand DNA of cinched, form-following and brightly hued silhouettes: “That’s what I hold my brand to, clothes with a function. Breathable fabrics, smart design inside with pockets — just things that assist day-to-day living”, Magugu informed Vogue Business.
Not content being pinned down, Thebe Magugu founded fashion zine Faculty Press in 2019. The inaugural publication contains over 150 pages of powerful editorials shot throughout South Africa as well as writings spotlighting local artists such as activist Lady Skollie, photographer Travys Owen and queer performance art duo/Faculty Press cover stars FAKA. “I think FAKA perfectly illustrates the power of global Africans who use their very storied past to create art and music that’s very forward-looking and quite modern,” Magugu explained to Dazed. The magazine is a standout in its inclusive, future-driven gaze and editors Lelo Meslani and Amy Zama as well as art directors Abi and Claire Meekel work in tandem to showcase South African youth culture while exploring gender, feminism, and LGBTQ+ rights. In Magugu’s words, it’s a “zine dedicated to capturing key moments, ideas, and thoughts from the emerging voices that engage with and move our cultural landscape forward.”
Where to shop THEBE MAGUGU? Le Bon Marché online store 24S (formerly 24Sèvres) is the exclusive e-retailer for Europe.
The designer’s ultimate aim, as told to the New York Times, is “to create an African brand with truly international implications.” The vision is clear: “I want my brand to be something that really moves South Africa forward. Not just in the clothes. One day I can make opportunities for other people, whether that’s raising funds for other designers or other people to study certain things. [I’d only want to design for a heritage house] if I could still do my brand, like [Jonathan] Anderson has his brand and then Loewe. He and Miuccia [Prada] — those two are my heroes in fashion.”
Thebe Magugu’s LVMH-Prize winning AW19 collection is titled “Prosopography” – inspired by the Black Sash, a revolutionary women’s group that fought for the rights and dignity of people of colour during Apartheid. The collection will debut officially at NOB SHOWROOM (43 rue de Montmorency, 75003 Paris) from September 27 until October 3 2019 (upon appointment).
Header image: Anthony Bila for T Magazine