“So many African countries have past and present realities that have been stifled by their respective colonisers,” the designer tells Bernard Dayo. “Let’s retell and rewrite our own story.”
- Who is it? Thebe Magugu is an International Woolmark Prize-nominated South African designer committed to retelling African stories through fashion.
- Why do I want it? Comfortable, functional and sustainable, Magugu’s collections employ both local craftmanship and innovative fabric techniques.
- Where can I find it? Online at thebemagugu.com and in store at Koibird in London, Leclaireur in Paris, Communitie in New York, and more stockists which can be found here.
Who is it? Although the global fashion stage is blighted by tokenism, credit has to be given to South African designer Thebe Magugu and what his presence means for African representation. Born in Kimberly, a small mining town in the middle of South Africa, Magugu’s introduction to fashion came via small but pivotal moments such as getting cable TV and a copy of Elle whenever his mother had some change to spare.
But it also came via larger, more deliberate steps, such as his decision to study fashion design, photography and media at what was formally known as Lisof Fashion School in Johannesburg. He had wanted to study at Central Saint Martins in London but was rejected, something he is philosophical about today. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway,” Magugu says, “I’m so happy with the way things worked out though because I really got to interact with my locale and culture, which in turn inspired the creation of my brand, which seeks to tell stories from our heritage and history in relevant ways so that they don’t get forgotten. A visual encyclopaedia if you will.”
That interaction – the exploring of the cultural, social and political paradigms of his native land – informs Magugu’s aesthetic. Unveiled in 2017, his debut collection explored escapism for women into the great outdoors, sequestered away from the noise and pressures from urban living and reliving games from their childhood. “Feminine utilitarianism” he describes the garments, which included denim pinafores, koi-fish print wrap dresses, fishnet leggings, plissé skirts, button-down shirts in shades of red, orange, plum and burgundy.
Arriving in 2018, his sophomore collection was a commentary on the ways women navigate unchecked sexism and misogyny in South Africa, along with the country’s shockingly high rates of femicide. And his Spring/Summer 2020 collection, which came the following year, exhumed South Africa’s apartheid past and the revolutionaries who fought against it.
Through his brand, Magugu is bringing pertinent issues to the fore and when he won the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2019, the first African designer to receive such recognition, it opened even more doors for him – from interviews with Vogue, Paper and other publications, to staging his debut presentation at Paris Fashion Week last year, and having one of his designs displayed at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
This year, he became a finalist for the International Woolmark Prize, a historic fashion competition that has previously honoured designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. “I am deeply appreciative of anything that allows me to continue telling my story and the support I have received from both bodies has granted me access and visibility – which are one of the most important elements for any designer,” Magugu says of this accolade.
Why do I want it? Much of what Magugu seeks to do is retell the African experience outside the structures of colonisation, restoring pride in local craftsmanship, and employing images and motifs associated with ancestral existence. Whether it’s blankets from his Autumn/Winter 2021 Alchemy collection, which are a cultural staple of the Basotho people, or a blazer with raised surfaces at the back that mimics the practice of scarification, the brand continues to carry a cultural and political echo.
“So many African countries have past and present realities that have been stifled by their respective colonisers,” the designer says. “Let’s retell and rewrite our own story.”
Thebe Magugu pieces prioritise comfort and functionality, worn together or cherry-picked as separates. Technical detailing also appears in the suiting and coats, reworking dresses or everyday essentials to suit a contemporary vision. Foraying into knitwear has produced interesting outcomes, and prints continue to be a visible element for the brand.
Thebe Magugu is also creating new frontiers in fabric innovation, developing a yarn in South Africa with antiviral properties. The brand is also a champion of sustainability, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic reinforcing its commitment towards ethical and environmental-friendly practices.