Meet Inimitable Storyteller THEBE MAGUGU and Marvel in Deciphering his Home-Honed Visual Lexicon.6 min read
All Image Credit Thebe Magugu www.thebemagugu.com and Thebe Magugu on Facebook.
Fashionistas in the know fervently confess their burning passion for the Thebe Magugu brand. One’s first encounter with this visual treasure trove is the stuff that flashbulb memories are made of … the first time you caught a glimpse of one of his extraordinary designs in an epic photo spread on the glossy pages of Vogue Italia … or a surprise discovery on the webstore of a boutique in Japan, Los Angeles or Madrid, or perhaps the very first time you witnessed the design genius in action on the runway at Paris Fashion Week … And once you’re hooked on this encyclopaedia of delights there’s no going back – fashion-wise, that is. This powerhouse designer has quietly, modestly been taking the global fashion world by storm, appealing to a devoted and fast-growing clan of Magugu-obsessed celebrities like Rihanna, Kylie Jenner, Miley Cyrus and Thandie Newton, all rallying around their creative guru.
By his own admission Thebe Magugu is a man of few words, instead, he lets his creations do the talking. And boy, do they have plenty to say! He is one of the most influential voices in fashion in Africa today, a household name in circles w-a-y beyond his native South Africa. Across the USA, Asia, Africa, Europe and the UK his creations are served up on the runways of global fashion weeks, gracing uber-high-brow retail outlets like Dover Street Market, Browns, Matches Fashion and Bergdorf Goodman and continuously bedazzle the glossy pages of Vogue, Elle and GQ magazines with their unique magic potion unmistakeably brewed up on African soil.
His humble beginnings (he was born in an unassuming mining town in central South Africa, Kimberley – yes, the home of that famous Eureka diamond! – and his first exposure to fashion would come via snippets of Alexander McQueen and Louis Vuitton on cable TV and sneak peeks into the odd fashion magazine whenever his mother could afford to spare a few rand on such an outrageous luxury) have only served to strengthen the character of this determined creative. His rejection from the famous Central St Martin’s in London was, in retrospect, a blessing in disguise, he says as he muses over the events that shaped his career and fashion philosophy over the years. These are the stories that make us who we are, and I’m hard pushed to think of anyone who can tell a story more aptly than Thebe Magugu. Stories, after all, are what we’re all primed to tune into naturally, whether they be tales of fashion, art or literature. Better still, folklore, the thread that ties one generation to another … and THIS is what Thebe Magugu does so expertly.
For his most recent project in 2022 he created a dress to celebrate each of the eight most prominent tribes of South Africa’s ‘rainbow nation’: Zulu, Tswana, Swati, Vhavenda, Pedi, Xhosa, Tsonga and Sotho. In a collaboration that saw local illustrator Phathu Nembilwi paint her own vision of the eight tribes, each abstract design was printed on crepe and shaped into what Magugu refers to as “bohemian-style dresses with open necklines”, deliberately structured for inclusivity, in a way that flatters every shape. Local photographer Aart Verrips, stylist Chloe Andrea Welgemoed, a bevy of local model friends of the designer and writer Vuyolwethu Reoagile joined forces to perfectly capture and communicate the message behind this endearing project. The dresses were typically paired with objects that one would find in a South African home, such as an array of exquisite basketry, shells, beaded ornaments and large woollen blankets.
His debut collection, “Feminist Utilitarianism ” back in 2017 already had all the hallmarks of a philosophy that transcends way beyond fabric, line and shape, with its aesthetic exploring complex issues such as women’s place in urban society and escapism into the great outdoors. These ideas were translated into practical pinafores, vibrant button-down shirts and plissé skirts. Subsequently themes of sexism, misogyny and femicide – all stark realities in South Africa – have been explored in Thebe Magugu’s collections. No wonder these universal issues have struck a chord with audiences worldwide.
2019 Brought unprecedented recognition: Thebe Magugu was the first African ever to be awarded the terribly prestigious LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton prize, which led to fashion magazines like Vogue falling over their feet to court him, the beginning of a spell of having a regular runway appearance at Paris Fashion Week and having his designs displayed at New York’s inimitable Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then followed his nomination as finalist for the highly acclaimed International Woolmark Prize, a long-standing competition that has in the past honoured heavyweights in the fashion industry like Yves St Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld.
The brand keeps flying the flag for showcasing the African experience in everything it undertakes: The 2021 Alchemy collection saw blankets utilized and revamped into desirable must-haves, knitwear, dresses, suits, blazers and coats reworked to suit a contemporary vision born from traditional origins – all bearing the unmistakable graphic handwriting of Thebe Magugu, all echoing functionality, comfort and meticulous craftsmanship, all delivering a cultural and socio-political message, a pride and appreciation of everything local and home-grown. A blazer with raised surfaces, for example, was a striking metaphor for the traditional African practice of scarification. Always ahead of the game, the Thebe Magugu empire and brand are also championing practices of sustainable design, manufacture and innovation (for example, the development of a yarn in South Africa with antiviral properties.)
Watch Thebe Magugu presenting his genealogy Collection here:
For his SS2022 collection, aptly named Genealogy, we’re afforded an emotive, nostalgic and poignant glimpse into this very private designer’s private life, with the designer seated between two matriarchs – his mother Iris and aunt Ester (“the Rihanna of her time” in his own words) looking through family photographs while models display pieces inspired by the old photos. He says, “my clothes are a constant ode to women – because that’s what I grew up round – strong, extremely independent thinking women.” As by magic the designer’s signature vibrant prints, super sharp tailoring and bold graphics come to life in front of our eyes as we’re allowed into to this very intimate circle. And if magic and miracles have a way of congregating around those who believe in them, this year a radiant Rihanna announced that her Fenty skin and beauty products will shortly be available in Africa, sporting … a virginal white knitted Thebe Magugu dress! Dreams have indeed materialised big time for this boy from Kimberley. It seems he – not the 1867 Eureka diamond – is the ultimate gem to have come from this nondescript little mining town in the middle of nowhere.