Ten Meets Thebe Magugu, The LVMH-Prize Winning Designer Hailing from South Africa
A modern-day success story usually goes something like this: young creative escapes from the confines of their hometown, flees to the big city and discovers a clan of fellow escapees, each desperate not to return to their previous life. Thebe Magugu defies this narrative. Instead of leaving his sense of home behind him as he forges on to global success, the 27-year-old designer keeps it with him: life in South Africa, and the family that surrounded him growing up, shape his practice entirely.
Perhaps it’s this sense of familiarity that Magugu carries with him, wherever he is in the world, that gives the designer his unusual strength and calmness, even within times of such uncertainty. We chat one balmy afternoon at the tail end of July. I, along with 8.9 million other Londoners, am living in a post-Covid climate. Outside Ten Towers, people dine in cramped cafes and browse the shelves of freshly opened stores without wearing masks. I can hear punters chanting in the distance as they stagger through Soho, searching for their next socially distanced pint. Halfway across the world, in Johannesburg, life couldn’t be more different.
At the time of writing this, more than 1 million Africans have been infected with coronavirus. South Africa has recorded 529,000 of these cases and has the highest number of deaths in the entire continent (9,604), followed by Egypt, which is currently nearing 5,000 fatalities. “We’re still in the thick of it, so it’s still quite murky on my side,” says Magugu, who calls me from his studio. He has spent the past two months working from home, and describes the streets of Johannesburg as being like a “complete ghost town”. While we’ve had the privilege of being able to meet our mates in the park for a few tinnies, the entire city of Johannesburg was on a strict lockdown until the beginning of June, with travel only allowed under extreme circumstances and alcohol sales banned.
Such rigid rules had its pros and cons for the designer. Alone time, without life’s usual distractions, has given him the chance to put his head down and figure out what he wants for his business in the long term. “I’ve been on overdrive since last year. I didn’t really get to rest or have any sort of downtime,” he says. But all this time away from human interaction has taken its toll: while Magugu lives in Johannesburg, his family and closest friendship circle live in Kimberley, Magugu’s birthplace, 266 miles away. This prolonged isolation from his nearest and dearest feels particularly poignant following on from Ipopeng Ext, the designer’s celebratory exhibition staged in the basement of the Palais de Tokyo during Paris Fashion Week back in February.
Named after the area of the city where he grew up, which actually translates as “to beautify oneself”, it’s a visual narrative that pays tribute to the people of Magugu’s hometown, and Magugu teamed up with the photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman, a fellow South African, and Sierra Leone-born stylist Ibrahim Kamara to produce it. “I’ve always been attracted to their work, not only when they work together, but as individuals as well,” Magugu says. “There’s this sense of realistic abstraction, because there’s something so familiar about it, especially with them being African. There’s something very otherworldly about their image-making.”
The evocative set of images, some of which are seen here, features Magugu’s AW20 collection, his first after winning the LVMH Prize back in 2019. He was the first African designer to win the prestigious achievement in its seven-year history, beating out stiff competition from other finalists, which included the labels Bethany Williams, Kenneth Ize and Bode. It’s quite astounding to hear that the designer nearly bottled out of applying for the prize in the first place. “I felt like a bit of an outsider going into it – you know, geographically I’m not from a fashion hotspot – I couldn’t afford to go to Paris or Central Saint Martins.” Magugu’s victory isn’t simply a win for him, but for the whole South African fashion sphere, as the Eurocentric industry begins to take notice of the incredible African talent just waiting to be discovered.
Since winning the prize, Magugu has been able to graduate from his home-studio set-up and into a proper space buried away in an industrial area of Johannesburg. He has also been able to expand his small team, now equipped with the production help needed to launch his first online store. “We’re working very hard on that because I think my clothes still seem to be quite inaccessible to people, so it would be great for everyone to have access all over the world,” he says. This month, you’ll be able to purchase Thebe Magugu from all corners of the globe, including here in the UK, where Magugu is one of 12 labels included in Matches Fashion’s The Innovators programme.
Then there’s Faculty Press, a zine creatively directed by the designer that shines a spotlight on the key moments, ideas and thoughts of South Africa’s finest emerging talent. This is part of a bigger picture for Magugu, who hopes the days of having to travel to the US, UK or Europe to sustain a successful fashion business are long gone. “It’s exciting to be part of a generation of designers who are really interrogating how to make a global business based in Johannesburg work,” he says, a notable giddiness in his voice. “I think there is so much potential and I want to be able to say I contributed to that by really sticking around.”
Ipopeng Ext was Magugu’s first time at Paris Fashion Week, and was an intimate introduction to where the designer comes from. The photo series features a cohort of Magugu’s family and community, who inspired the collection in the first place. His younger cousin Smangaliso can be seen sporting a fuzzy, lilac sweaterdress as she poses inside the town’s church – joined in another shot by a local pastor. While there are no obvious references to Catholicism in the clothes, the collection’s deeply feminine tropes are derived from the women of his village, who would peacock through his formative years in their Sunday best.
Kimberley, and more specifically Ipopeng, shapes the collection from the inside out. A purple trench coat with drawstrings at the waistline comes with a print inspired by a tablecloth from Magugu’s childhood. Another standout, this time a button-down shirt with marabou feathers, is emblazoned with a photo print of his aunt’s corrugated iron roof – mimicking grainy, distressed denim. Each look was shot in a different area of town, including by a dam that is a breeding area for flamingos, and Magugu’s own family living room, which when not behind Moolman’s lens, can appear quite dull, admits the designer.
Magugu’s uncle Nephtaly sits parked up on a motorbike, sporting a shirt made in collaboration with local artist Phathu Nembilwi. “When he was dressed in the collection he became someone else completely, this sort of moody character with the glasses on and the motorbike,” says the designer. “I love this idea of the clothes removing you from your context and elevating you. I think that’s something quite interesting.”
Such personal insights into the world Magugu grew up in feel special, particularly when hearing that it was his mother who encouraged him to head down the design route in the first place. When boys his age were playing with action figures and toy cars, she bought him stationery and templates so that he could begin turning his big ideas of making clothes into actuality. “She was very instrumental because she could always tell I was inherently attracted to clothes,” he recalls. “A significant memory was her saving up to buy satellite television, and literally the first thing that came on was FashionTV – a Marc Jacobs show was playing. It was always small things like that that pointed me to the industry.”
Magugu founded his label in 2016, two years after graduating from LISOF in Johannesburg. It was there he studied fashion design, fashion photography and fashion media – aiding the budding young talent in his multifaceted approach to starting his own business. Seven months before winning the LVMH Prize, he bagged the top spot at the International Fashion Showcase in London, where he was praised not only for his beautiful clothes, but the subtle political messages woven into their seams. A notable example of this was Magugu’s AW18 collection, called Home Economics, which served as a quiet commentary on a series of femicides that took place in South Africa in 2017 and 2018.
“African history tends to be quite generalised,” says Magugu. “I want to be a documenter of all these histories, of which a lot involve women, but that’s never spoken about.” Now such stories will finally be told, not through books or via tales, but within dress – crafted by a designer who will not only tell them with justice, but with the utmost honour.
Photography by Kristin-Lee Moolman, styling by Ibrahim Kamara. Taken from Issue 65 of 10 Magazine – FAMILY, FOREVER, LOVE – available to purchase here.