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Person to Know: In South Africa, a Designer Making Personal Clothes With Political Messages

By Flo Wales Bonner

The designer Thebe Magugu, photographed in his Johannesburg studio.
Anthony Bila
The designer Thebe Magugu, photographed in his Johannesburg studio.

When the Johannesburg-based womenswear designer Thebe Magugu, now 25, had nightmares as a child growing up in Kimberley, South Africa, his mother would tell him to record them in a journal. “I found them recently and thought to incorporate them in my work,” he says. He showed the results during his fall 2019 show in Johannesburg in October: a black mesh blouse, a full circle skirt spliced with white duchess satin printed with segments of text (one passage recounts a recurring dream involving dead horses). Transposing these disturbing dreams onto clothing was a statement, the designer says, about turning “times of suffering into a positive, beautiful thing” — in this case, elegant garments that reference unapologetically traditional feminine silhouettes. Magugu, who is the winner for this year’s LVMH Prize, says that his mother not only inspired these pieces but that she has been a formative influence on his practice. “I’ve always been surrounded by women,” he says. “Independent, strong, headstrong women at that.”

Anthony BilaLooks from Magugu’s fall 2019 collection.
Looks from Magugu’s fall 2019 collection.

Magugu’s namesake brand, founded in 2016, engages with the complexities of womanhood in South Africa. Each collection is a gentle political statement; while his structural dresses and forward-looking tailoring are flattering and often feature nipped-in waists and elements of corsetry, there is also plenty of strangeness and asymmetry — think wonky hems, unexpected slits and garments that are half one thing, half another. Magugu is not afraid to explore the darkness under the surface. In Home Economics, his collection for fall 2018, for instance, he alluded to a series of highly publicized femicides that took place in South Africa in 2017 and 2018, including that of Karabo Mokoena, who was murdered by a former boyfriend in Johannesburg. The story was just one of many examples of “conditions that women find themselves in here,” says Magugu, explaining that misogynistic violence is still rife in his home country. In response, his designs subverted traditional female societal roles. He used colours that called to mind cleaning chemicals — sulfuric yellows, alkaline pinks and purples — but gave them new power by combining them with angular asymmetric tailoring and belted smocks with utilitarian work-wear references. The collection sang of the future pulling against the past; warrior women fortifying themselves to claim space and influence in a changing South Africa. 

In the three years since his brand began, Magugu’s work has drawn international attention. In addition to his LVMH Prize nomination and a forthcoming capsule collection with 24 Sèvres in Paris, he recently won the top prize at the International Fashion Showcase in London. But “it’s not enough for me to occupy LVMH and the IFS on my own,” he says. In February, driven by a desire to support other South African talent, he started Faculty Press, a zine that showcases what he describes as the often-overlooked “brilliant minds” of his country’s emerging fashion and creative scenes. His latest collection, titled African Studies, for spring 2019, is also a tribute to his home country. It combines motifs from traditional South African cultures with “something more modern,” he says. Half of a tailored cobalt blue wool and cashmere suit jacket falls away into a loose shawl — referencing the wrap-style garments common within his Tswana tribe — while the straight lines of a pleated bottle-green skirt splay out unexpectedly into an intricate chevron pattern that nods to his culture’s keen handiwork tradition. For the prints, he collaborated with the Johannesburg-based artist Phathu Nembilwi, whose work he first came across on Instagram. Her illustrations joyfully embrace the black female form — “which has in the past been excluded or fetishized,” Magugu says — in all its complexity. “Celebrating bodies is also quite South African,” he adds. “We’re not shy.”


Anthony BilaAt the sewing machine, Magugu works on designs for his next collection.
At the sewing machine, Magugu works on designs for his next collection.

To present the collection at the International Fashion Showcase in London in February, he created a striking installation. It depicted three women, sporting elaborate variations on Afro hairstyles, seated around a table that was suspended in the air. From this table fell a scroll inscribed with the country’s constitution, which is “among the most progressive in the world,” says Magugu, describing it as an attempt to “rewrite and right the wrongs of apartheid, which meant that people like me couldn’t occupy certain spaces.” He called the installation “Dawning,” in honor of the women, like those who daily inspire his work, who are shaping their country despite the many obstacles they encounter, including sexism and gender-based violence. It delivered a defiant, uplifting message, which is fast becoming the designer’s trademark. While he takes pride in the fact that his collections reflect his heritage, and that everything is designed and manufactured in Johannesburg, his ultimate aim, he says, is “to create an African brand with truly international implications.”