So far, 2019 has been incredible for Thebe Magugu. The Kimberly-born fashion designer, who calls Johannesburg home, became the first African designer to take home the coveted LVMH Prize, an initiative created to support and uplift young designers. The winner gets a grant of €300 000 along with 12-month personalized support from the LVMH group.
The prize was a major win for the 26-year-old London International School of Fashion (LISOF) graduate, but it’s been years in the making. Since graduating in 2014, alongside peers like Rich Mnisi (who Beyonce wore while in South Africa), Magugu has been booked and busy. Shortly after, in 2017, he conceptualized a capsule collection with major South African retailer Woolworths for their StylebySA campaign.
His eponymous fashion line is known for drawing inspiration from the women in his life, South Africa’s rich cultural history and honoring the women there. In a brand statement on his website, he says: “We are constantly surrounded by women, and on a personal level, the trait I have always found most admirable is their powerful ability to possess both strength and vulnerability.”
For All The Pretty Birds, we chatted with Thebe Magugu about being an award-winning fashion designer, how South African history permeates into his designs and what he hopes for the growth of the South African fashion industry.
All The Pretty Birds: Congratulations on winning the LVMH Prize! How has the response been so far, both back home in South Africa and around the world?
Thebe Magugu: It’s been an absolute whirlwind, one that has both deeply humbled and motivated me. In South Africa, the news came to us during a break from an otherwise terrible week of xenophobia, racism and sexism [South Africa experienced an increase in xenophobic violence throughout 2019]. I remember the news reporting it as light in an otherwise dark times. It has been received with so much support and I think it made a lot of people hopeful here; that if I can make it, they most certainly can as well. Around the world, it seems like the news bore a significance about the bubbling interest around the continent and that this win is just one of the many indicators about the promise of Africa and South Africa, in particular.
ATPB: It’s often mentioned that you design for the women in your life, who remains a major inspiration for your brand?
TM: I feel like every designer says this (which makes sense because these women are our first introduction to women, their bodies, likes and dislikes) but I would have to say my mother. She has such an undying love for fashion;some of her theories include the fact that you can’t wear heels without carrying a bag as it “messes up the aerodynamics of walking”. Seeing the magnetism she allotted to herself though the clothes she wore made me want to one day give that sort of magnetism to others. She fully understood fashion’s ability to both reveal and conceal oneself, and its ability to inform and educate people.
ATPB: Your SS20 collection is inspired by Black Sash, a SA human rights organization that fought against apartheid injustice. What about the organization influenced your designs?
TM: My new collection is titled Prosopography SS20, which means the study of a group of people whose history or biography isn’t that well documented, which got me thinking about the women of The Black Sash. When one thinks about our history, it is often the men who come to mind and we often shirk aside the role women play. The women of The Black Sash fought endlessly for the rights and dignity of people of color in South Africa, putting themselves in a line of danger so that we could enjoy the freedoms we have today.
These women, who were middle-aged white women, left their lives of leisure to protest in the streets, which informed the collection in many ways. In my research, one lady told me she had to change from her day dress in the morning to wear jeans, an anorak and hiking boots to go protest. It shows you the ‘double lives’ these women lived, between domesticity and disobedience. This is reflected in the collection as all the pieces seem to be made of opposite elements, traditional vs modern, masculine vs feminine, and many other dualities. It was a fascinating journey for me to take, reading about these stellar woman while trying to inform others about them through the collection.
ATPB: Are you thinking about relocating abroad or will SA remain a home base?
TM: I want to stay in South Africa so I can try to contribute to its growth and join the many others who are trying to develop the industry. Places abroad – Paris, Milan, New York and London – have fully developed industries, so instead of feeding into that, I want to take the road less travelled and stay for a reward that I know will be bigger than me.
ATPB: You mentioned that you want to contribute to the local manufacturing industry. What do you think is necessary for the SA fashion industry to flourish and be more accessible for young designers?
TM: I think institutions and governments should align themselves to develop infrastructures, programs, grants and loans that will allow young designers opportunities to flourish, like how the U.K has invested in their fashion sector, particularly its younger designers. As I said, the talent is certainly there, it’s just systems that need to be put in place to support that talent.
ATPB: Can you name some of the South African designers (and your peers) that you look up to and have interacted with along this journey?
TM: From the established designers to the younger designers, I have had the privilege to call most of my peers, friends (it’s also a very small industry!). My best friends are all designers and we all support and gain strength from one another, namely Rich Mnisi, Nao Serati and Tsepo Tsotetsi. Established local designers like Clive Rundle and Marianne Fassler have really pushed the idea of intelligent fashion, merging that with our heritage. Thula Sindi and Ephymol are great designers who have a knack for business, which I learn quite a bit from.
ATPB: Africa, as a continent, is getting a lot of attention right now when it comes to fashion. What do you think SA designers bring aesthetically when it comes to fashion in Africa?
TM: I think it’s frustrating that sometimes, African designers ‘disappoint’ outsiders, who often comment “This doesn’t look African”. The new generation of African designers are creating authentic African fashion, removed from stereotypes but rather an amalgamation of their own experiences, likes, cultures and values, which doesn’t necessarily translates into a ‘stereotypical’ African look. It’s modern, forward looking, with a cultural aspect, making it be able to stand anywhere in the world.
ATPB: Your schedule is hectic, what do you do for self-care?
TM: I’ve recently entered into a new chapter of my life, which has come with a new set of stresses, meaning I need to develop a new set of healthy coping mechanisms. I’ll tell you more once I’ve figured it out, but right now I find that detaching is quite key. Yes, fashion – especially to designers – almost becomes a lifestyle, where working hours and personal hours all merge into one big blur but I have seen how that can drive designers off the edge, as they don’t have the time to step outside their industry and into their real lives. I have, for way too long, glamourised this idea of the fashion victim where nothing but fashion mattered but that I feel robbed me of life. Its simplified yes but taking a break to smell the roses is really important for your mind, body and soul.
ATPB: What advice would you give to young fashion and design students?
TM: Be persistent and consistent, even in the face of adversity. I think this covers a whole range of things, starting with the idea of sticking to your guns to recognizing that you will be thrown all kinds of hurdles. The going will get incredibly tough but it’s important to soldier on. Unfortunately, our industry is incredibly unforgiving and one must develop a thick skin.
ATPB: What’s an important lesson you’ve learnt since graduating?
TM: Exactly what I tell people in the answer above. It’s been my biggest life lesson – that, and operating from a place of kindness. I’ve always been insecure that to be in fashion, you have to essentially operate from a place of aggressive self-interest and while self preservation is important, I have found that my disposition as a person can be an approach in which I conduct business and in many ways, the repayment has come back twice fold.
ATPB: And, finally what can fans of Thebe Magugu look forward to in the future?
TM: I think our supporters can expect to find more touch-points with the brand as we expand by going into more stores, which has always been the enquiry! Also, we are currently working on the second issue of our zine, Faculty Press.
Follow Thebe Magugu on Instagram to keep up with his latest work and collections.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Images: Tim Hulme, Renwe Jules