Thebe Magugu is reshaping stale ideas of African luxury

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It’s impressive enough for a single designer to do this during a decades-long career, but it’s more impressive early in their career. South African fashion trailblazer Thebe Magugu has ticked all the aforementioned boxes of fashion collaboration to-dos: designer crossover with Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, a collaboration with Adidas and an intersectional co-creation with — the late Alber Elbaz’s — AZ Factory. What’s more is that all of this has happened in 2022 alone.

Reworking African Luxury
The momentum of Magugu’s career, and what it represents, is significant. Since skyrocketing to success after winning the 2019 LVMH Prize, Magugu’s collections and collaborations lean towards pret-a-porter, aka ready-to-wear, where he has a knack for delivering sublimely innovative, yet wearable, clothes that are unanimously South African.

Magugu’s Sisterhood emblem adorns pleated coat lapels, berets and is woven into knitwear, informing a luxurious foundation of garments. These clothes are exquisite and expensive, made to last through generations. Magugu’s vision, from the start of his career in Kimberley, had been crystal clear. He knows the work he does has purpose.

“This [work] is for something in the end […] There’s a focus there. It’s on silhouette and proportion,” tells Magugu guests at the Vogue screening of his design-swop with Maison Valentino.

In the short film by Vogue, who facilitated the project between Magugu and Pierpaolo Piccioli, the reinterpretations of each others’ designs are a beautiful marriage of the flou (soft) and tailleur (tailored) techniques fluent to contemporary fashion designers. Magugu does not hesitate to – strategically and oh, so delicately – dismantle the fuschia pink haute couture gown, once worn by the iconic Tracee Ellis Ross. Magugu exudes sangfroid as his vision comes to life, taking the dress from haute couture to ready-to-wear.

“The recontextualising of another designer’s pieces speaks to the conversations we’re already having on these ideas of overproduction. Instead of making new things, […] let’s reinterpret and upcycle – let’s change that,” Magugu says in the film.

Magugu’s design is a “very elevated” trench coat, while leftover fabric is transformed into a pair of floating tulle trousers. Magugu however, takes the idea one step further by screen pressing a hybrid motif that combines his Sisterhood emblem and that of Valentino, a ‘V’ to place on a headpiece that is regal, crown-like and daring. The elegance is lighthearted, audacious, yet aristocratic.

At the screening of the Vogue short film, loafers are the shoes worn by most attendees that evening, except for Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse, who sports Versace Tribute Medallion Buckle booties. As a woman in a political position, who is also attracted to beautiful clothes, Phalatse asks Magugu for fashion advice. As an elected official, there are expectations that confine her to more restricted, less playful, practical style choices.

“Spotlight fashion and emerging designers who are brilliant, but without platform,” Magugu says to Phalatse. “Look at what fashion has done for other regions – it elevates everyone to the world around them. People have stale ideas of Africa in luxury,” he adds.

Magugu’s words are not just for the mayor, but for those who move to the rhythm of la mode and speak to the larger purpose of creating beautiful clothes for those who love to wear them. In Magugu’s garments, anyone can be anyone and everyone is equal. Seeing the world of Thebe Magugu through a kaleidoscope of colours – purple, chartreuse, neutrals and punchy greens – reinforces that one can like fashion and be a serious person.

Inspired by African heritage, inclusivity and kinship
Magugu’s aesthetic is not one-dimensional. His designs are, however, consistently surreal and sophisticated, but most importantly, they are youthful and inspired. Thebe Magugu x Adidas embraces the pioneering moments of fashion that work with such energy, presenting dynamic, youthful ideas.

The collection speaks to the shifting trend that reimagines what sportswear can be while injecting themes that reflect the cultural zeitgeist: celebrating community, heritage and identity, which are underpinned by an extensive size range, gender-neutral designs, as well as female hijab swimwear, putting inclusivity at the forefront.

According to Adidas, “each garment features an abstract selection of bright and punchy colours including, impact orange and yellow, accents of shock pink, backgrounded by pulse lilac”, which are proving to stand out at the tennis US Open where Adidas athletes sport the collection.

But remember, the Thebe Magugu universe does not sit in a single dimension. The Adidas collection extends off the court, out of the pool and into the streets, remixing iconic Adidas silhouettes with the Magugu midas touch. The FW22 collaboration injects Magugu’s signature visuals into cult-classic sneakers like the Stan Smith, Astir and the Forum.

The fashion industry is going through transitional reckoning as it endures and overcomes the centuries of exclusion of non-Euro-centric ideals, the institutions of injustice and inequality, which reflect aspects of society. It has been a part of the fabric of our existence. It is the new school of young designers, which includes Magugu, who are changing these notions through their work with household-name brands.

Fashion is a language
Magugu’s mother is his muse; a symbol of strength and style. Magugu credits his love of fashion to “growing up around women of style and lovers of fashion in Kimberley”. It is this lens of history and heritage that makes Magugu not just a designer, but a historian.

The Thebe Magugu team says their work draws from “our continent’s storied past, complex present and exciting imagined futures, providing smart, multifaceted clothes that mirror the inspiring qualities of the people they are made for”.

The storied past of the African continent is retold via Magugu’s clothes such as garments that speak to apartheid spies, “South African black-hat bandits and white-hat heros”. This multifaceted storytelling ability is evident in the Thebe Magugu collection with French maison AZ Factory titled “Intersection”.

Intersection poses the question, “What if Africa were the birthplace of couture?” since the nature of haute couture is steeped in storytelling via long-lasting generational garments at the hands of expert crafters. Something Africa has done for centuries, long before the haute couturiers of Paris.

Referencial feathered headdresses, tie-dyed skirts in signature Magugu handkerchief silhouettes and embroidered blouses showcase his storytelling abilities.

Despite having ties to French fashion conglomerate LVMH and AZ Factory, Magugu proves South African fashion can participate on the global stage from the African continent. One does not have to pack up shop and relocate to Paris, Milan or New York to speak the language of style – his studio is in Johannesburg, and he take frequent trips to Paris.

Magugu’s South African fans and clientele passionately understand his genius, his crafting of clothes that dance with the wearer and clothes that speak volumes of luxurious nostalgia, history and refinement.

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