10 Minutes with Thebe Magugu, The Winner of The 2019 LVMH Prize
Nothing makes me more excited than competition reality TV. Project Runway, Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent or America’s Next Top Model – give me anything with high personal stakes and I’m there for it, popcorn and all. But my new favourite reality TV programme might just be the LVMH Prize. Described by Bethany Williams’ mum (she’s the hands behind all of her handmade knits) as “basically fashion X-factor,” the yearly prize competition awarded by the French fashion conglomerate has developed into somewhat of a staple in the fashion calendar since its inception in 2014. The €300,000 cash prize and a year-long mentorship by the internal LVMH team represent a pinnacle of success for any emerging fashion designer in the world. Even though it’s not televised on ITV or in fact any of your local channels, I got to experience the grand finale of the LVMH prize first-hand in the past 48 hours. And I got as emotionally involved as that time when Stacey Solomon went against Matt Cardle.
In a long-winded process which was even further extended this year (the finals were originally schedule for June), there were 20 shortlisted semi-finalists, out of which eight were carefully selected to compete in yesterday’s finals. This year, that list included Bethany Williams, Emily Adams Bode of Bode, Spencer Phipps with Phipps, Kenneth Ize, Kunihiko Morinaga at Anrealage and Stefan Cooke and Jake Burt of Stefan Cooke, as well as the two winners. Tel-Aviv-based Hed Mayner took home the first ever Karl Lagerfeld Prize, which includes €150k and a year of mentorship by the LVMH internal team.
The winner of the grand LVMH Prize, who persuaded the esteemed panel of judges which this year included Nicolas Ghèsquiere, Jonathan Anderson, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Clare Waight Keller (to name but a few) to give him the title and the whooping €300,000 in just a 10 minute presentation was Thebe Magugu. Hailing from Johannesburg, South Africa, he was perhaps one of the freshest faces on the list, winning the Internation Fashion Showcase programme only at the start of 2019. Not even a full year later, Thebe has obviously established himself as the talent to take notice of, especially with his political approach to glamour of womenswear. What made Thebe’s story particularly stand out is the fact that he is the first African designer to win the prize. After the announcement, I talked to all of the 6 finalists who haven’t won, each of them telling how genuinely happy they were for him to take the prize, each emphasising how nice of a person he is.
Proving how personality and attitude is as important as the talent, I got to know Thebe on the night before the prize, when the LVMH-backed e-tailer 24S hosted a pre-Prize party at the legendary Parisian restaurant Lapérouse. With less than 24 hours before the winner being announced, I interviewed all eight of the finalists on the night (you can see parts of the interview on @10magazine‘s highlights). Here is what Thebe told me…
Dino Bonacic: So, how are you feeling?
Thebe Magugu: I’m feeling quite a lot of things, but the biggest one is just excitement, excitement to show my collection.
DB: How did you prepare for tomorrow’s presentation?
TM: Walking up and down the room until midnight, prepping what I want to say in my mind. But you know, I think I have a strong sense of my brand and what I want it to become so I think I am always sort of prepared to talk about that.
DB: If you were to collaborate with one LVMH brand, which would you choose?
TM: I think I have such deep respect for Jonathan Anderson, not only in his work for JW Anderson but also Loewe. I really like his sensibility and his take on women and what they want to dress like, so that would be one of the brands I would love to collaborate with.
DB: And how does your home country South Africa influence who you are as a designer?
TM: I will say that South Africans are the most eclectic people and just the country in itself is at once both beautiful and very violent. There are all these opposites that come together in South Africa and I think it’s those dualities that inform my work.
DB: What makes you optimistic about the world right now?
TM: Wow, that’s a weirdly difficult question.
DB: It’s quite sad, no?
TM: It is quite sad, especially as there is a lot of unrest in the country right now. I think how I get over it is to withdraw from that and just create, it always energises me. Before I left South Africa there were buildings on fire, the shop that I wanted to source something from was on fire because there is so much socio-political unrest in the country right now. I kind of block all of that out.
DB: What was the most nerve-wracking moment of the LVMH prize process this year?
TM: I’m not much of a public speaker so I think having to speak in front of 70-plus people all at once was the hardest part. Speaking in front of the jury tomorrow is much easier then…
DB: How would you grow your brand with the help of the LVMH prize?
TM: In quite a few ways, the prize money is €300,000 here, but in South Africa that goes a very long way. That’s roughly 4.5 million rands and the first thing I would do is to get a studio. I would love to move from home and get a proper studio where people can physically come into the brand instead of them getting something online or at a wholesaler like a department store. The other thing, I would definitely get more staff. At the minute it’s just me and my machinist, believe it or not, and he just sews things. I do everything – the bookkeeping, the admin, the pattern-making, the cutting, the fabric sourcing… It’s stretching me quite thin, so definitely with the prize money, one of the first things I would do is get a studio and then get staff.
DB: But you would stay in South Africa?
TM: Yeah, definitely, I think that’s my mission to create this brand with global implications, all based from South Africa because I weave fabric in the country and manufacture there too. Absolutely everything happens in South Africa with my brand.
DB: What piece in the collection you’re showing tomorrow best describes you?
TM: Yes, I like unexpected things in my work and there’s this one piece in particular – a white garment with red satin sashes all over it. One could think it’s a print but it’s actually mud I used to create that print, actually mud from a witch doctor, who literally lives on top of a mountain. Obviously, we had to cure it and apply an immense amount of heat to it so it just doesn’t wash off as dirt. It’s a beautiful red garment, so I think that’s the surprising hidden details that I really love in my clothes. Also, all my labels from this season going forward have been chipped so you tap your phone and it shows you exactly who sewed that garment.
DB: Is there a specific app for it or?
TM: Yes, it’s called Verisium and you tap my label and it shows you everything to do with that garment so it’s really special.
DB: Oh, and one more question! What would you spend the last €10 on if you won the LVMH prize?
TM: I would probably spend it on my Netflix subscription.
DB: Amazing – well, good luck tomorrow!
I catch up with Thebe the following day at the Louis Vuitton Fondation, just moments after he’s been announced as the winner of this year’s grand LVMH prize. He’s visibly confused and excited (and rightfully so), but still carries the same sense of levelled enthusiasm when answering the questions. Attempting to stay serious, there’s a smile that just won’t leave his face. He’s clutching the gold statue which was given to him by actress and LVMH ambassador Alicia Vikander – it’s not leaving his hands anytime soon.
DB: Congratulations Thebe!!! How are you feeling now?
TM: I’m feeling so many things I won’t lie. But I think the main one is just I’m very humbled at this award, especially given to me by people I’ve admired since high school.
DB: How was the interview experience with the panel today? What happened in those 10 minutes?
TM: It’s very nerve-wracking going into that room, but they were so nice and all they wanted to know is how the Prize can help you. I told them my immediate challenges and the way I’d filter the money through and, at the end, they really asked me what my dream is. I told them that I really just want to create a brand with global implications that is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. That’s really my dream – to have a brand that fully sustains itself within the country.
DB: What’s the first step you’re going to take right now?
TM: I keep on saying I wanna breathe for the first time in years …
DB: Of course, especially in the last year! It probably feels like you’ve been holding your breath from the moment you applied?
TM: Yes! The two things that I really want to do is to create a great working studio that I practice do my craft from and then hire people in key areas to help ease the burden. As I said, until now I do the patterns, the cutting, the sourcing the bookkeeping and it will be a really nice relief to have people to do that for me.
DB: I’m sure that will happen – good luck. Oh, and what’s the are you going to spend the first 10 euros from the prize on?
TM: The first 10 euros will have to go on the Uber back home from the airport… [laughs]
You can find out all details about this year’s LVMH Prize here.