African representation in luxury fashion isn’t rife. Usually, when we refer to African designers, there’s an expectation of seeing some sort of identifiable cloth distinct to one nation or tribe. However, after a rocky relationship with the global fashion industry that has been marred with cultural exploitation amongst many things, we are finally seeing African bred designers garnering international attention and acclaim they rightfully deserve. Enter Thebe Magugu, the 28-year-old designer from Johannesburg, South Africa.
From a small town named Kimberly, like many of us, Thebe spent a portion of his childhood glued to the TV station in his mother’s living room. While the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood were watching football, the would-be luxury designer was fixated on runway shows from Paris and New York. His keen interest in fashion and his design instincts would be born here.
In search of greener pastures, Magugu would eventually move to South Africa’s capital of Johannesburg in his late teens to pursue his fashion dreams. A student at the Leaders in Science of Fashion School, the young designer was tutored in fashion design, fashion photography and fashion media. It would be these elements he would harness to be a vanguard of African creativity and global style.
Setting himself apart from the start, Thebe’s knack for retelling stories of his hometown and South Africa’s history would make him the first African to win the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2019 and the British Fashion Council’s International Showcase for curation and fashion content. However, it’s not his accolades that make him the future of fashion. No, there’s much more to Thebe Magugu. Founding his namesake brand in 2016, Thebe would build on a wave that has seen African designers become a powerful force in the global fashion industry, shedding the ‘African designer’ moniker to just designers.
Like many designers before him, Thebe draws inspiration from his origins, harkening back to his formative years and the storied past of his native country to offer forward-looking seasonal collections that redefine ready-to-wear pieces. While this may be enough for any other designer, for Thebe, this is just the entrée in his menu of deliverables. Rooted in education, a subject that is near and dear to many Africans, Thebe Magugu is inspired by the stories of those in its periphery but states it is informing the world about the stories and craft the brand finds itself in. Meaning with masterful storytelling, Thebe Magugu doesn’t regurgitate stories of the many cultures in South Africa. Instead, he tells stories of the South Africa he grew up in to the consumer.
With a considered approach to designing, Magugu is a world builder. Of the same cloth as Rick Owens, Margiela, or even Raf Simons, Magugu is a rare breed of designer. One that sets out a world for himself creatively, in which each collection transports you to the different corners of his created universe. Constantly seeking new ways to present men’s and women’s wear pieces, Magugu’s collection expresses South African history in a nostalgic interpersonal style that resonates far and wide. He avoids the vagueness that often shrouds fashion narratives, giving us a glimpse into how his personal life and creative expression intersect. Thebe’s editorial campaigns illustrate a commentary drenched in historical lore that weaves a tapestry of his everyday life.
Steadfast in his values of cultural honour, novelty and uncompromising quality, Magugu uses his global platform to pour back into his beloved country. As Africa suffers from an ongoing brain drain crisis, with creatives looking ashore for better opportunities, Magugu, with his eponymous brand, shines a light on the rapidly growing creative industry right on his doorstep. Relying on artisans and factories based in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Thebe has figured out the puzzle of producing his collections locally – a challenge that has plagued many designers.
If you’re still wondering why Thebe Magugu is not only one to watch but is a future fashion superstar, then let’s cement it once and for all. Everything else aside, Magugu is an outlier, one whose work will become the feeding ground for the next generation of creatives, not just African ones. Able to so clearly grasp and execute concepts, he has carved out a space for himself and those who look like him to tell African stories through different mediums to an international audience without relying on African print. Magugu’s Faculty Press culture journal documents the true face of contemporary South Africa, Africa, and their diaspora, using short films and emerging voices advancing the cultural landscape the brand calls home. Thebe Magugu is not only rejecting conventional fashion norms but is creating new ones in the process.
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