Healing Powers. Thebe Magugu AW21

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.

Focus On: Thebe Magugu

In support for the Black community, I continue celebrating and highlighting the talented individuals that shape fashion today. Take notes! Thebe Magugu staged his debut presentation at Paris fashion week after scooping the prestigious LVMH prize last autumn. The first African designer to win in the competition’s seven-year history, Magugu paid homage to his homeland with a photo exhibition entitled Ipopeng Ext, after an area in Kimberley, South Africa, the city in which he grew up. Fittingly, the name itself translates as “to beautify oneself.” Elegant and evocative portraits of Magugu’s local community lined the walls of the museum; they had been captured by two of the continent’s most celebrated young image makers: South African photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman and Sierra Leone–born stylist Ib Kamara. “These people and places were my earliest references,” said Magugu gesturing to a picture of his cousin Smangaliso posing in his neighborhood church wearing a fluffy light blue sweaterdress. Exquisite reminders of Magugu’s childhood were threaded throughout the collection, including a photoprint of his aunt’s iron roof that was abstracted to look like distressed denim on a marabou-feather-trimmed button-down with matching pants. Inspired by a retro tablecloth, the carnation-print trench coat had a characterful charm that was just as striking. Magugu’s uncle Nephtaly was pictured on a motorcycle dressed in a collared shirt that was covered in an illustration of two black women consoling each other by the Johannesburg-based artist Phathu Nembilwi. Beyond telling a very personal story, Magugu’s clothes are often a form of social commentary, particularly as it pertains to women’s rights in South Africa. As the designer explained, the print was a subtle political statement on the country’s rising femicide rate. Perhaps equally radical is Magugu’s unwavering commitment to producing in South Africa. The new logo satchel was handcrafted by artisans in Johannesburg, while his latest knitwear offerings were all made in Cape Town. Magugu is poised to export his special made-in-Africa vision across the globe.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki, photos courtesy of Thebe Magugu.