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Perspectives Fashion

Thebe Magugu on the Political Power of Fashion

The innovative designer speaks about how fashion can address social issues, from gender-based violence to government corruption.

Sep 10, 2021

A black-and-white photo of designer Thebe Magugu looking off to the side

Fashion designer Thebe Magugu founded his namesake label in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016 and quickly garnered critical acclaim for his thoughtful and inventive collections that comment on history, culture, and politics. The Met recently acquired its first example of his work, and this July—following social unrest in South Africa in the midst of a global pandemic—I had the opportunity to speak with Magugu over Zoom. He shared the story behind his “Girl Seeks Girl” dress, and we discussed his inspiration process, brand ethos, and the power of fashion.

A dress with a print depicting two women sitting next to each other

Thebe Magugu (South African, born 1993) and Phathu Nembilwi (South African, born 1993). “Girl Seeks Girl,” autumn/winter 2018–19, edition 2021. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dorothy Strelsin Foundation Inc. Gift, 2021 (2021.12)

Mellissa Huber:
What was it like studying fashion history in Johannesburg?

Thebe Magugu:
The curriculum changed while I was at LISOF [formerly London International School of Fashion, now STADIO School of Fashion]. In the beginning, it was incredibly Western, and focused heavily on the capital cities and the designers who stemmed from them. As the degree progressed, a conversation developed around decolonizing fashion. We started looking towards South African designers like Clive Rundle and Marianne Fassler, who do incredible work using their heritage to tell stories.

A big part of my learning happened after school because a lot of the subject matter that I am particularly interested in, like my tribe of people and Tswana culture, isn’t necessarily well documented. For it to be documented in fashion was completely nonexistent.

Africa is often treated by the West as a composite continent, rather than recognized for the culture inherent to each region. Your designs frequently draw on your South African heritage and interweave cultural and autobiographical aspects. I’m curious if that’s something that you think about and how it may or may not influence you.

That reminds me of a recent incident that happened to me in Milan. A lady told me that she feels like my work isn’t African enough! I was quite stunned to hear that. She was looking for a stereotypical interpretation of what it means to be a South African designer from the continent. She expected more of a performance. In my own small way, I hope to demystify, or rather disabuse, people’s stereotypical thinking when it comes to African or South African fashion.

I don’t think my work is rose-tinted. I’m not portraying this fantasy of being a South African. There are so many distinctions between South Africa and North Africa—including things that might not necessarily even read as “African.” For “Counterintelligence,” my spring/summer 2021 collection, I interviewed South African women who worked as spies during Apartheid. The current menswear collection for spring/summer 2022, “Doublethink,” explores how corruption debilitates the country and widens the inequality gap. These are modern African stories that can’t be explained by just slapping a print on a textile.

I do think that contemporaneity comes through in your work. It’s so captivating because it feels conversant and fluid, and that engages people in a powerful way.

I always say that although I grew up within an incredibly rich cultural heritage and history, I’m also quite globalized in my view. My family has indigenous beliefs that merge with their modern lifestyle. All these things come together to inform the work that I do.

I was looking at your publication Ipopeng Ext. “Anthro 1,” which shares autobiographical source material that inspired your autumn/winter 2020–21 collection, including images from your hometown. It’s named after the suburb where you grew up?

Yes. My hometown is Kimberley, and within Kimberley there’s the township called Galeshewe. I’m from a suburb called Ipopeng. In English, Ipopeng translates as “make yourself pretty.”

A color photograph of a woman next to a dress with a print of that photo

Left: “Prosopography” campaign, autumn/winter 2019–20, 2019. Photograph by Travys Owen, courtesy Thebe Magugu. Right: Photo of Matiego Magugu, 2000. Courtesy Thebe Magugu Family

That’s lovely—and so appropriate! In the epilogue you discuss the death of your grandmother, Matiego Magugu. It’s incredibly touching, and it underscores how significant your family and community have been to your story. Your spring/summer 2020 collection “Prosopography” featured a photograph of your grandmother on a skirt, and your mother and aunt regularly feature in your designs. In fact, you’ve described your mother as a blueprint for your collection.

What is the role of women in your life and work? Did your family inspire you to begin your career with a focus on women’s wear, especially since you just showed your first menswear collection at Pitti Uomo this past July?

I grew up with my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt, who all had their own ways of dressing. My aunt was incredibly edgy whereas my grandmother was very conservative—she worked as a nurse and also went to church religiously. My mother was somewhere in between. Luckily, I was privy to information that they’d share about proportions, details they desired in a garment, and other fashion needs. As much as I feel like my collections are rooted in a concept and story, I also love to think that if you remove all of that, you can still appreciate the functionality of a jacket or how the pleats of a skirt feel on the body. At the end of the day, I want clothing to be quite wearable.

When Pitti asked me to design a menswear collection I welcomed the challenge because I’m always interested in things that push me to explore other sides of my aesthetic. I’ve become so comfortable with the female form and its clothing needs that when I had to dress some of the male models I actually felt uncomfortable! I see this menswear collection as a project. I don’t want to subscribe to the industry pressure that says if you are going to start something you have to continue with it, but that doesn’t take away from how important this particular collection was to me. The collection is about South African corruption and whistleblowers. It was almost a prediction, because as soon as I came back from the show, civil unrest broke out due to frustrations people have with our political leaders.

A print depicting two women sitting next to each other

Pathu Nembilwi (South African, born 1993). “Girl Seeks Girl” illustration, 2017. Courtesy Thebe Magugu

Fashion can feel prophetic, and because it’s so personal and inextricable from the self, it’s one of the most significant forms of communication that we have. I want to ask you about the “Girl Seeks Girl” dress, which is the first piece of your work that The Met has acquired.

That dress was from “Home Economics,” which was one of my first collections. I’m a very observational designer. I respond to what is in the air. The conversation that season was about the rising gender-based violence in South Africa—which has always been high, but really started to escalate around 2017.

Gender-based violence in South Africa comes from a place of misogyny. The attitude of abusers seems to stem from the idea that women should serve them and satisfy their needs, taking on all these domestic tasks. The palette that I used subverted this idea of domestic bliss. I picked colors from the types of chemicals found beneath the kitchen sink. There are a lot of alkaline pinks and sour, acidic shades, like chartreuse and yellow.

The collection’s statement piece was the “Girl Seeks Girl” dress. Phathu Nembilwi, the illustrator of the dress, is based here in South Africa. She creates art that celebrates women, the people who raised her, and her friends and community. Her recent work reflected what was happening culturally, so from our respective spaces within the arts we started a conversation about the state of how women are treated in South Africa. We had this idea that women need one another right now.

A photo of two women seated next to each other and a drawing based on that photo

Left: Photograph from Faculty Press, 2019. Image by Aart Verrips and Francois Ferreira, courtesy Thebe Magugu. Right: Sisterhood logo, 2019. Illustration by Commission Studio, courtesy Thebe Magugu

I’ve always felt like the brand is a refuge for women’s needs.

You introduced your design house’s logo in 2020, which also prominently features two women.

The logo is from an original image that was included in my publication Faculty Press. The photo features two women with beautiful, intricate hair sitting hand in hand. When I was discussing the image with Commission Studio, who created the logo, we talked about how I’ve always felt like the brand is a refuge for women’s needs. We felt that the outline of the women sitting and supporting one another, existing in their own universe, was so emblematic of the niche that I was trying to carve out.

It’s fascinating how the logo brings up different emotions in people. I always say that it’s like a Rorschach test. People project themselves, their experience, or their views onto that emblem. That’s actually what I like about it—how an individual receives it is up to their own internal landscape.

You’ve described fashion as an intelligent medium, above all else.

I have so much that I want to address, but I often fail speaking about it. I share my opinion through my collections—that’s how I feel heard.

When people think of South Africa they typically think of Apartheid, people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. People think of the men most frequently, and a lot of the women’s histories and smaller stories that were equally as important are left to the margins. I want the brand to function almost like an encyclopedia of those hidden gems that might otherwise run the risk of being forgotten.

What’s incredibly powerful about fashion is how stories like this—when taken from history or from concept and introduced into clothing as an aesthetic—can reach a lot of people. Fashion’s power comes from its immediacy. I can say something and launch it onto a million bodies, and those stories will be present in Japan, in Europe, and in America—wherever.

If a piece is unwearable or purely couture, then even if the story is relevant a lot of people are prevented from embodying that story. I love introducing these concepts into ready-to-wear because it becomes accessible information, almost like an archiving process. All these stories are embedded into garments that live on for quite some time.

You’re clearly passionate about your research process. You reference literary sources frequently, and you’ve interviewed people to access primary information about a topic or a theme that you’re working on. For the “Home Economics” collection, you reference the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. For your spring 2021 collection, you cited Jonathan Ancer’s Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies. More recently for your menswear collection, “Doublethink,” you looked at Mandy Wiener’s book The Whistleblowers.

I’ve noticed that there is often continuity between themes, and you’ve even photographed multiple collections together, such the shoot where you dressed pieces from “Home Economics” and “Gender Studies” on scarecrows. Is that connection intentional or is it something that happens organically as you move from one collection to the next?

The Girl Seeks Girl dress phoographed on a scarecrow in the savanna

Look-book images from the “Figures of Fortitude” series: “Girl Seeks Girl” dress (left) and blanket (right), 2017. Photograph by Aart Verrips, courtesy Thebe Magugu

I hope to demystify, or rather disabuse, people’s stereotypical thinking when it comes to African or South African fashion.

Growth between collections is quite organic. “Home Economics” filtered into “Gender Studies,” but “Counterintelligence” was about female spies and the next season was the changing face of African spirituality. It really follows what’s most concerning to me at that moment. The “Gender Studies” and “Home Economics” collections relied on similar resources; I was going through a lot of the same reading material. I thought the scarecrow was such an apt object for both collections because they have a fragility but also an inherent strength. These two opposites can exist at once. That is a such a powerful ability, to range from vulnerability and fragility back into strength. A lot of the women I grew up with had that quality of depth.

Every new season is exciting because the research process is where I have the most fun. Depending on what subject I’m exploring, I get to meet incredible people. For “Alchemy,” I spoke with Noentla Khumalo, a traditional healer, who shared experiences like being underwater for three days and things that don’t necessarily make sense to a Western audience that might interpret traditional practices as something akin to magic or make-believe. Getting to hear her accounts, as someone who can swing between our reality and another plane, was just so fascinating. I’ve met people from unique walks of life. They inspire the collection, but they also have a big role in how it turns out in the end. The collection becomes a firsthand account through their participation.

You’re collecting oral histories and also writing history through your design work. This research process even extends to aspects like the textiles that you use. I’ve read that the fingerprints of the former spy Olivia Anne Marie Forsyth were a motif in your “Counterintelligence” collection.

Yes. From afar it looks like polka dots, but as you approach you can see the grooves of her fingerprint.

Have you always been interested in textile design?

I’d hate for the collections to speak a big game while the actual clothes don’t live up to the concept. It’s critical for the clothing to be a physical or aesthetic reflection of that concept. For example, “Alchemy” was about the changing face of African spirituality. To me, that automatically meant that things needed to be informed by the natural world and have a hand-worked quality to them. Two things that my culture is known for include our beadwork, or handwork, and our storytelling. I love to think that I carry on that heritage and culture through the work that I do.

One of the people I enlisted for that collection was Larissa Don, who’s an eco-textile maker in Ladysmith. She also practices divinity and spiritual healing, so she perfectly encapsulated the two worlds. When traditional healers consult with someone, they often burn a plant called imphepho. We came up with the idea of taking merino wool and transferring imphepho onto the garment to represent this idea of healing. This is how the concept and theory should align with the physical output of the collection.

A jacket with braided lettering

“Scarification” blazer, from “Alchemy,” autumn/winter 2021–22, 2021. Image by Tatenda Chidora and Chloe Andrea Welgemoed, courtesy Thebe Magugu

Textiles are a critical way of showing that narrative. The scarification jacket, which is so important to me, references the scarification practices of certain tribes, but then takes that reference even further and turns those pits into Braille through knitting. This allowed me to introduce a favorite quote to the textile, which I’ve been told since I was a child: “What you do for your ancestors, your children will do unto you.”

In that same collection you mentioned that one of the healers who you worked with threw bones that you photographed and also made into a print.

That was a very special piece for me, because that’s Noentla’s medium of communicating with the ancestors. So to have had the opportunity for her to come into the studio was incredible. Before she threw the bones, she asked, “What’s next?” She claimed to have the answer, but I told her that I’d rather not know. I think that there’s a beauty in the interpretation; I want whoever wears that garment to decide for themselves.

I draw so much inspiration from the people around me, and that’s why it’s equally as important to empower them. I made sure that a percentage of each garment’s cost would go to Noentla, almost like a royalty. If I’m taking so much from the community and people who do things for me, I have to make sure that I’m quite fair in giving back as well.

A long, colorful dress

“Sangoma” pleated set,” from “Alchemy,” autumn/winter 2021–22, 2021. Image by Tatenda Chidora and Chloe Andrea Welgemoed, courtesy Thebe Magugu

I think that’s really admirable. You’ve also talked about how your publication Faculty Press became an opportunity to showcase others’ work. Its inaugural issue launched to coincide with an installation that you created for the exhibition Brave New Worlds: The Changing Landscape of Fashion at the International Fashion Showcase in London in 2019. The publication team includes Lelo “Lelowhatsgood” Melani, a writer and DJ; sibling artists Abi and Claire Meekel; and Amy Zama, a freelance stylist, creative director, and consultant. It features work by many other creatives including other South African designers like Rich Mnisi and Nao Serati and the musical performance artists FAKA.

When I was working on the International Fashion Showcase in London, I recognized it was an incredible opportunity for more than just my own brand. The exhibition that I created, which concerned itself with what’s happening culturally in South Africa, readdressed people’s views of South Africa’s creative landscape and reflected how nuanced and sophisticated it is today. I know so many people—whether photographers, graphic artists, writers, stylists—who have great potential but don’t get to enjoy the visibility that I know they deserve. My Faculty Press publication was a way to sneak them in the door with me. Featuring FAKA on the cover was especially important to me—their sound represents the vitality and newness that I wanted to promote.

For “Doublethink,” you collaborated with a South African newspaper and enlisted some of the country’s leading journalists to contribute to an associated publication that you produced. How did that collaboration come about?

I discovered so much speaking to the investigative journalist Mandy Wiener and reading articles about corruption. It recently came out that one family essentially controlled the state government in South Africa. The Daily Maverick concerns itself with corruption and its effects on the country, so it was natural for us to work together. The newspaper contains my editor’s note alongside look-book images and reportage about unemployment in South Africa as well as its connection to corruption. All these stories piece together how devastating these entrusted leaders’ actions are to the country.

In 2019, when you were nominated for the LVMH Prize, you shared a checklist that you described as something that you continuously hold the brand to. The quote that I’m pulling from mentioned: “Creating clothes with cultural significance, exploring social issues, sharing stories from my country, empowering those I can, and making beautiful yet functional clothes that women want to wear.” The last three years have been extremely eventful on a global scale, and I’m curious if that list may have changed?

Even though the world has completely reorganized in so many ways, those are still core pillars of the brand that I haven’t deviated from. If anything, I’ve leaned into them even more! Lockdown gave me a lot of time to think. One of the things that I kept contemplating was the idea of purpose. I always say that fashion is at its weakest when it’s making clothes for clothes’ sake, and at its strongest when it calls people to action, brings issues to light, or addresses something. Fashion is a powerful medium, and if used in the correct way, it can make a significant contribution to the betterment of our society. I want to contribute to that in whatever way I can.

Marquee: Photo of Thebe Magugu by Aart Verrips, courtesy Thebe Magugu

About the contributors

Assistant Curator, The Costume Institute