Thebe Magugu was back in Paris from Johannesburg again, a highly welcomed visitor to a presentation slot at the Palais de Tokyo. “I wanted to do something optimistic. All around me, there’s been a lot of ugliness in the air because of the social unrest in South Africa,” he said. “So I just wanted to turn inward, at what keeps me very optimistic – and that was my family.” Instead of a runway show, he had an installation of his clothes and was screening a film of himself chairing “a roundtable” with his mother and aunt. On one side of the screen Magugu was seen playing the intergenerational talk-show host as they opened a box of family photographs together and related all their memories and anecdotes about who wore what, where, and why. And on the other half were his images of how he’d affectionately and elegantly translated each photo into the pieces of his collection. All over again, it was true to Magugu’s extraordinary talent for telling stories that honor people through his clothes – as well as a bit of a by-the-by explanation of how he became who he is through growing up in a family that enjoys clothes and dressing up. There’s a picture of his mom in a checkerboard mini suit, which became a tailored red-black-and-white high-waist jacket and a knife-pleated skirt printed with a black-and-white family snapshot. His aunt’s minidress inspired a neat pair of shorts suits teamed with black knitted bralette sweaters beneath. His grandmother’s dedication to her profession as a nurse was celebrated with a pair of blue dresses echoing the color of her uniform. The cool personality of an uncle as a young choir member dressed in a white shirt and black tie was captured in the exaggerated gesture of the tie, extended and looped up over one shoulder of a crisp shirt with high-waist pants. With his chic, young signatures – sharp, feminine tailoring, handkerchief-point sunray pleated skirts, sculpturally flattering knitwear matching gele head ties – Magugu tells stories that resonate internationally. As fashion ambassador for young South African creative talent, he’s a pioneer in the forefront of a generation that is now rising in countries all over that continent.
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.