Thebe Magugu: “I Want My Clothes to Be Relics for South Africa”

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Thebe Magugu was born for fashion – it’s in his name. “A thebe is a black and white African shield with a hardened hide on it,” the 28-year-old designer says over Zoom from his home in Johannesburg. It’s part of an ensemble worn by his ancestors that includes feathered aprons and cowhide armbands – “It’s normally associated with Zulu culture but originates in Botswana,” he adds. His name reflects his work: his own history, identity and experiences are woven into a wider fashion conversation. Sometimes it’s general – his aptitude with colour palettes that run from sun-bleached pastels to blazing neons, his love of wrapped and draped silhouettes, his gestures to the doek headwraps of South Africa. In his Spring/Summer 2021 collection there was a black and white polka-dot print. It looks a bit like old Yves Saint Laurent, but it’s composed of the fingerprints of Olivia Forsyth, a former spy for the apartheid government in the 1980s.

“I want my clothes to be modern relics for the stories of South Africa,” Magugu says. And his home country – where he lives and works – is reflected in every facet of what he creates. Film and photographic collaborations with South African photographer and director Kristin-Lee Moolman and Sierra Leone-born stylist IB Kamara, among others, feature his friends as models, often with his hometown and landscapes familiar to him as backdrop. His studio is based in South Africa and his clothing is manufactured there.

This season, he created his most personal collection yet – titled Genealogy, it was a sartorial family album of sorts. A video presentation, one side of a split screen shows Magugu sitting with his mother Iris and aunt Esther – in his words, “the Rihanna of her time” – looking through a small box of old family photos. On the other side, models present looks inspired by the photos being discussed. “I love this idea of memory as a reservoir for optimism,” Magugu says on camera. Outfits are rediscovered – the suit worn by his mother for her first day at work, the polished look of Magugu’s dandy uncle – and reinvented. “My family had a very strong sense of self and of individualistic fashion,” he says. “The clothes they were wearing in those photos were so modern that I don’t feel I did a lot to change them.” The clothes have the sharp tailoring, vibrant colour and inventive print Magugu is known for. But the overriding message is about the power of clothing as a repository for memory, a medium to evoke emotion. Quietly presented at the Palais de Tokyo during Paris Fashion Week, Genealogy was one of the season’s stand-out collections.

Magugu is originally from Kimberley, a small mining town in the Northern Cape province. He launched his label in 2016, two years after graduating from LISOF in Johannesburg, where he studied fashion design, photography and media. Recognition was swift: he won both the International Fashion Showcase and the LVMH Prize for emerging talent in 2019, becoming the first African designer to receive the latter. Shortly after Genealogy was presented, he was among the 40-plus designers who participated in a tribute show to Alber Elbaz. Magugu’s look was a pleated skirt and blouse in white recycled satin. A throwback to an outfit from Elbaz’s time at Guy Laroche in the late 1990s, it was worn with a huge ostrich-feather hat created with South African milliner Crystal Birch. “Being included in that was so special to me,” Magugu says.

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