Designer Thebe Magugu has a strong desire to elevate perceptions of African fashion. Having studied design, fashion, and photography at the prestigious LISOF School of Fashion (now known as STADIO) in Johannesburg and gaining experience with several brands, he launched his eponymous label in 2015. Magugu creates modern clothes with an African twist, working with local resources, and employing with local crafters and artisans. In 2019, his brand won the LVMH Prize, and his designs often feature in exhibitions, including Africa Now at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Earlier this year, Magugu collaborated as an “amigo” with AZ Factory.
Tell us about a concept or idea you have explored this season? In what ways are you exploring new materials, methods, technology each season — or with this collection, specifically?
In working on my latest collection, “Discard Studies”, I have been thinking a lot about second-hand clothing, and how clothing in general is dumped onto Africa from Europe and America. This, of course, has environmental implications, but it’s also had an implication on the continent’s identity politics. It’s worth looking at critically how women in Johannesburg can be wearing a pair of traditional cloth heritage wrap skirts with a VODAPHONE or FEDEX tee. There is something to be explored in that intersection. So my SS23 collection is a commentary on this. In Johannesburg, there is a site called “Dunuza” [literally translates as ‘bend over’], where American and European garments are literally scattered on the grounds, and you bend over to [pick up] clothes. I [went] to Dunuza for piles of clothes and then analysed their proportions and details, reinterpreting this as a collection, then letting it go from landfill back to luxury. This suggests an inverted form of the trickle-down Theory of Luxury & Leisure coined by Thorstein Veblen in his essay from 1899. This collection proposes to trickle-up fashion, instead of how it’s always trickled down from the bourgeoisie.
Would you say your collections explore what’s happening in the world as you’re designing them?
My collections are almost real-time reactions to critical moments. I like to think that I am using them as encyclopaedias – each collection documenting an event, a person, a moment, a theory – for future generations to revisit. These are wearable relics that look at the past, the present, and are sometimes even proposing the future.
What is something or someplace you would like to explore in your lifetime?
I would like to delve further into my familial history, because my discoveries always unlock a new facet of the Thebe Magugu brand. All my silhouettes, inspirations, loves, and dread come from looking back at my environment and family – living, dead, or in the ancestral plane.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.