In Conversation with Thebe Magugu
In our latest On The Radar profile, we feature young South African designer, Thebe Magugu. In compiling our list of the most influential creative figures from across the continent his inclusion was a no-brainer. His ability to infuse his creations with the power of the past in order to create works of such beauty and nostalgia is uncanny. In doing so he draws not only from his own experiences but those of the people he raised him to deconstruct then reimagine the stories of today.
Words: Tshiamo Seape
Thebe Magugu started out as a designer but has morphed into more of a storyteller as time has gone on – clothes are not just clothes. With every consecutive collection of his eponymous womenswear line, Thebe adds layers to an engrossing narrative that speaks to women and their roles and expectations in a modern and often unforgiving society.
Since his beginnings in fashion, Thebe has proven himself to be a formidable force, producing well crafted and beautiful clothing that has not only put him at the top of our Radar but those of fashion insiders here at home and abroad. His past is storied; his present is dynamic and his future is undoubtedly filled with promise. Here’s getting to know Thebe Magugu.
The Radar is about highlighting young and up an coming creatives and their influence. With that being said, what do you think South African and African Influencers lack and what do we excel at?
I think many of them do it right – we have industry standards like Lulama Wolf and Trevor Stuurman who are smart and can brilliantly package aesthetics, moods and ideas. I think as Africans, we can inherently tell our stories best so problems arise when you do something that isn’t authentic to you – things that always show. Someone who is a minimalist at heart shouldn’t feel pressured to do African maximalism or vice versa. Authenticity always wins.
How do you hope to use your influence?
It sounds like a beauty pageant answer but hopefully for good. Although I am also learning, I would like to hold the gate open for those who are brilliant but still knocking on doors. There are so many incredible talents in South Africa and most go unrecognised because of rigid gate-keepers who don’t want the younger generation to flourish.
You’re good friends with fellow designer and Radar alum, Rich Mnisi. When did you meet and what is the best part about working with him?
We met in fashion school and I think the best thing about him is his unwavering dedication to his craft.
What’s your favourite piece you’ve designed?
For my graduate collection, I designed a skirt I feel like to this day encapsulates the THEBE MAGUGU approach to design. It was a wrap skirt that took inspiration from the men’s formal jacket. I love juxtapositioning in my clothes: oversizes vs truncated, masculine vs feminine. That skirt was a myriad of purposeful contradictions.
You designed a chair as a companion piece for one of your previous collections that was very well received. How extensive is your design repertoire outside of fashion – please say you have something more in the works.
I am working on other cross-industry projects – I want my brand to be multidisciplinary in its approach to fashion and design.
Your latest collection – Home Economics which speaks to the autonomy of women and making the most of an unkind socio-economic environment is an evolution of your Summer ‘17 collection, Geology – which dealt with escapism.
What will the narrative of this woman become in your next collection?
Interestingly enough, my next collection is Gender Studies, with an emphasis on queer studies. This season is about actively deconstructing ‘expected’ feminine traits – traits that have been dictated down to women for centuries – in favour of a more authentic representation of female identity, which isn’t always pretty, which isn’t always refined, which isn’t always safe.
Do you think fashion as a whole needs more social commentary?
I believe so. I think there are so many clothes in the world, and the ones that stick out have to mean something more than their visual appeal. I find that I am quite outspoken – but can only use fashion to express myself. Verbally, I’m quite reserved.
A lot of your work deals with nostalgia. For you, is it merely an inspiration or is there some catharsis that comes with drawing from the past?
It’s not nostalgia as much as it is observations. I’m always reading about the past, the present and mulling over the future so I always create around things that stick out in particular. Home economics happened because of atrocities that are happening in current day South Africa [Karabo Mokoena as a very big example], Geology was about escaping into a past I remember having and my next collection, Gender Studies, is a proposal for future dressing; a manifesto if you will.
What do you count as your biggest accomplishment so far?
Collaborating with Woolworths and, to be honest, having people wear my clothes in general. I think that’s the point of it all.
What are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?
Growing the THEBE MAGUGU brand into something ICONIC.