The first days of digital Paris Fashion Week are definitely lively – especially, thanks to new-gen designers who aren’t really Paris-based. In the last several years, South African designer Thebe Magugu observed friends and relatives overhauling their lives while studying traditional healing. Compelled by their connection to their ancestors, these young creatives began to learn practices with roots in antiquity, an experience that altered their perspectives. “It’s called ukuthwasa, and the way it manifests itself is quite interesting because it starts as a sickness, a kind of spiritual illness,” explained Magugu on Zoom to Vogue. “It causes people to take this monumental journey where you leave for months on end to train under a traditional healer. In the past it was something that felt far away from me, but now, as peers have received those sorts of callings, it’s fascinating. Once they return, they are completely changed.” This movement within African spirituality served as Magugu’s starting point for his powerful autumn-winter 2021 collection. The tension between old and new is a familiar fashion theme. Still, it has rarely been approached through the millennial South African experience, and never with healers as creative collaborators. Stylist Noentla Khumalo’s background in the subject adds a layer of authenticity and the collection’s key print. It’s through the articles used within her divination – goat knuckles, bones, seashells, and dice among them – that the pattern comes together, each element photographed by Magugu against a bed of straw. Abstracted from their original purpose and transferred onto pants and blouses, the items make for a kinetic design that draws the eye closer. The tale behind the floating dice and textured stalks isn’t instantly evident, but Magugu strives to create pieces with the kind of visual impact that requires no explanation. “With my collections, I always hope you can appreciate the fabrications or the construction even if you don’t know the whole backstory,” he says. “The story is an added plus.” Despite his claims to the contrary, Magugu is a detail-oriented storyteller whose pieces could come with footnotes and citations.
A certain surreal sentiment is perceivable clothes. An ombré cape dress laden with fringe was originally intended to be a costume, but Magugu decided to include it in the mix at the last minute. “It was conceived as the film’s opening look, and originally I wasn’t going to offer it as a commercial proposition,” he says. “It has a tactile feel to it, and it’s really a garment that showcases all this handiwork.” The importance of touch became a recurring theme, with tufted fabric from famed Japanese textile maker Mr. Adachi San and textured eco-prints by Larissa Don that utilized botanical transfers of imphepho, a flowering licorice plant used in traditional medicine. The materials also served to reference scarification, the raised surfaces on blazers imprinted with a proverb in braille that read, “What you do for your ancestors, your children will do unto you.” With cozy, straightforward pieces currently in demand, Magugu’s refusal to go humdrum was admirable. Sure, the buyer-friendly essentials are present – a blue and white shirtdress feels ready for a post-lockdown street style moment – but the excitement lies with esoteric pieces.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.