Johannesburg-based designer Thebe Magugu uses fashion both to celebrate and interrogate his homeland.
By Hans Ulrich Obrist
Portrait by Kristin-Lee Moolman
Photographs by Tim Elkaïm
Styling by Agata Belcen
Johannesburg-based designer Thebe Magugu uses fashion both to celebrate and interrogate his homeland.
Duality, identity, power, performance: Thebe Magugu packs big themes around his luxury ready-to-wear. His Spring/Summer 2021 collection, Counter Intelligence, was presented as a CCTV-style film and inspired by the former spies of apartheid South Africa – those for the regime, fighting against it, or playing both sides. As stories are read about the spies over a 1960s espionage visual aesthetic, the Johannesburg-based designer’s collection reveals a wealth of rich and subversive detail. A polygraph line informs the pattern on a parka. Polka dots, on closer inspection, are the fingerprints of a female operative. Berets and holsters act as nods to militant activism. Drawn from extensive, intense investigation, Counter Intelligence brims with intelligence in its first sense, too, in the deft elegance of its ideas and the confidence of their execution. While Magugu revels in his research, the clothes wear that learning lightly.
Fashion has precious few references for South Africa, an absence the designer looks to fill a little more with each collection. Explorations of his homeland run through his work, along with an urge to educate and inform. But just as the winner of the 2019 LVMH Prize celebrates South Africa, he interrogates it, too. He wants, above all, to tell you where he’s coming from. The playful and political Magugu spoke to leading contemporary arts curator Hans Ulrich Obrist about his homeland, subterfuge, subtlety, deception, and the transformative power of a good story.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Thebe, how did you come to fashion, and how did fashion come to you? Was there an epiphany or was it a gradual process?
Thebe Magugu: It was really small things. It wasn’t a massive ‘aha!’ moment; little things steered me in that direction. It definitely started at home with my family and my mother in particular. No one was really into fashion, but they had such a deep respect and love for it. Whenever we had to go to church or any sort of event, dressing up was a really important part. I always used to laugh at how my mom would take it a step further. When she bought a new dress, she would always ask how she should act in it. Should she act rude? Should she be nice? She understood the idea that fashion assigns a character to you. When I was quite young, she bought satellite television, so we would gather and watch MTV and the fashion seasons that came and went with it.
It’s interesting how the future is often invented with fragments from the past. Which fashion designers inspired you?
From the very beginning, it was always Alexander McQueen. When I looked at fashion for the first time, when we got satellite television, his might have been one of the first shows that I saw. It just blew my mind. Obviously, fashion has a commercial side, but Alexander McQueen – all these fantasies, and the surreal world that was presented through his clothes; I saw him as a god, almost. It was McQueen for his imagination, and, as I grew older, Prada also became one of my favourite brands, because there was always something a little challenging about it. I don’t know what it was, but the clothes weren’t stereotypically beautiful. There was something really appealing about that.
Was there anything in fashion in South Africa that inspired you?
It’s funny you should ask that, because when I was growing up I only saw European or global fashion. There wasn’t much focus on South African fashion. I said to my mom, clearly there isn’t any fashion happening in South Africa, and I have to move to Paris or London or New York. And she said, yes, but look at our circumstances, you can’t possibly move; we just can’t afford it. That was a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to look locally. I’m from a small town – Kimberley, in the Northern Cape – and I moved to Johannesburg to study fashion design, fashion photography, and fashion media. There, I opened up to the incredible things that were happening culturally in South Africa and I drew so much from that into my collections. Season after season, I incorporate something about South Africa into the collections. They’re not necessarily always positive things. One of the collections, Home Economics, looked at the problem of gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa, which is growing at such a rapid rate. It’s important to look at things that need to be put under the spotlight.
‘Not being able to afford to move to Paris, London or New York was a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to look locally in South Africa.’
Of course, that incredible violence in South African society is something one can see a lot in photography.
How can I put this? As much beauty as we have in South Africa, there is still an inherent sense of anger. I feel that it’s also because we are such a new country. The old regime devastated so many people, and that anger and disappointment has moved through some of the generations. That is why you see gender-based violence happening, and this sense of disenchantment. It is something that is within the culture.
I mention photography because film and photography and art combined all seem to play a big role in your work.
I am obsessed with how mediums run into one another. You know, culturally, I am both Sotho and Tswana, and those tribes are very well known for their storytelling. I would like to think that I tell a story, season after season, not only through the clothes, but through imagery as well. In the Ipopeng Ext. exhibition I did for the [Autumn/Winter 2020] Anthro 1 collection, I wanted to showcase the clothes on the people I grew up with. The suburb I am from is called Ipopeng, which means ‘beautify yourself’ in Setswana, but it is not the most beautiful of places, visually. There is still a lot of violence there, but it was my home. In the exhibition, you see the pastor, the altar boys and girls who I grew up with, my cousins, and the landscapes that I would take walks in. I really love the idea that those people, who don’t necessarily have any fashion references, ended up in Paris, exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo. That collection had the idea of taking a basic staple and turning it on its head. Growing up, everyone would be in denim, so I took denim, shredded it into strips, photocopied it and printed it onto cotton. I had ostrich feathers, too, jutting out so that they looked like shredded denim. I remember my grandmother used to cover all the surfaces at home with this PVC print, so I took a photograph of that, changed the colour and used it for my Kitchen Table Parka. Functionality is very important. The women I dress want to feel beautiful in the clothes, but they have really demanding lives. In Sotho culture, people wear blankets and massive straw hats, which I find so beautiful, but aren’t realistic for anyone’s day-to-day. So I might take a print that is sacred to our people and have it woven into a cotton. Recontextualized as a poncho, it gives you a sense of the culture, but you are not inconvenienced by it. I always try to strike that balance.
In one of your earliest shows in 2016, the collection was accompanied by a rocking chair. Was that your first show?
My first official show was Pattern Making, my graduate collection; the show with the rocking chair was called Social Sciences [Spring/Summer 2016]. All my early collections were named after university subjects; I want my brand to be almost an institution that teaches people about various parts of African and South African culture. In hindsight, Pattern Making was quite literal: it was really about taking images – paper pattern-making – and integrating them into garments. There was this idea of tracking marks within garments, hidden details, notches turned into prints. Right after college, Social Sciences was basically an observation of the people on the streets in Johannesburg. There are so many hawkers here; women who sit all day in the boiling sun and cook corn on the streets. I met up with Emile [Millward, industrial designer] to create an object that was almost a complementary piece. We named it Hawker’s Rocking Chair #1 because it was inspired by these women.
That cross-disciplinary spirit also comes to fruition in your zine, Faculty Press.
That was born from a place of frustration, really. I am friends with so many people across disciplines – writers, photographers, other designers and makers – but they weren’t getting the recognition they deserved. I had an exhibition with the British Fashion Council, and six months before the exhibition I gathered all my friends and made a skeleton of what I wanted Faculty Press to look like. I commissioned writers to write about things in South Africa across all disciplines. It wasn’t an aesthetic thing; we had really critical conversations. People have a very lazy idea about what South Africa is, so this was my way to shift perceptions. Faculty Press launched at Somerset House in London, and gave me the opportunity to introduce my friends to various people within the fashion industry who could give them some visibility. I got a lot of good feedback; people said that they didn’t know all this was happening in South Africa.
‘My early collections were named after university subjects; I want my brand to be like an institution, teaching people about South African culture.’
That kind of consciousness really runs through your collections. It’s almost like a signature.
One of the most important collections to me personally, for that reason, is Home Economics [Autumn-Winter 2018], which is about gender-based violence. I worked with the artist Phathu Nembwili and asked her to paint an image of one woman leaning into the arms of another, to express the idea that there is a war raging against women in South Africa right now, and they need one another. And I dressed scarecrows for the collection, because I see scarecrows as having a sort of duality. Although they are very fragile and vulnerable, they have this intimidating strength about them.
Your Spring-Summer 2020 Prosopography collection is another one of my favourites. It is inspired by the women of the Black Sash, a 64-year-old organization for social justice in South Africa. It is not well-documented, so you did your own extensive interviews. What does that research aspect add to the collection?
Creating documentation is just as important as the end product; otherwise, things like the Black Sash would be completely forgotten. Even Nelson Mandela used to say that we don’t speak about them enough. My grandmother always told me about the women of the Black Sash, so when I started really going into the research for it, I asked older people around me if they knew anyone who used to be in the organization, and I had the honour of speaking to one of them. It was the craziest
thing: in the morning, she would cook for her husband and child wearing this conservative day dress, but once they left she would change into hiking boots and an anorak and go out and protest. That was my starting point: the idea of women living these dual lives, that juxtaposition. I then met the two founders of tech company Verisium in Cape Town and told them how frustrating it is that my interviews with these people and their incredible insights were kept only in my personal notes or just in my mind. They explained that they have a chip normally used for verification purposes, which we then modified so that you can tap your phone on the label and access the stories of these women, as well as really technical information: an overview of the garment, fabrication details, where it was made, and images of the hands that worked on it. There is even a physical piece of land on one of the garments, a white two-piece with a red sash painted all over. Visually, there is the connotation of blood, which was shed during that time, but the red is actually mud from a traditional healer; we mixed it with chemicals so that it wouldn’t come off, and then we applied it to the garment. So much went into that collection; so many voices informed it.
The white garment and the red sash is really an extraordinary piece; it’s incredibly charged. How do you connect to spirituality and rituals?
I grew up Christian, so I am quite spiritual in that sense, but I am also from a very superstitious family. The idea of tokoloshes is something I strongly believe in. But in terms of classic spirituality, I am Christian because I was raised in a Christian household.
You mentioned your mother earlier, and how she understands this idea of role playing, of the ability of fashion to reveal and conceal. I love that.
My mom really does play certain roles, depending on how she is dressed. When she wants to impress, she will walk into a room with a really beautiful, well-cut suit and be quite serious. You might see her as standoffish, but she is quite a shy person, and the only way she can get through it is by having that sort of allure. My mum and I are essentially the same: we don’t have a lot of words when we are speaking to people. She can both conceal and reveal herself all at once.
You can see that concealment so much in Counter Intelligence, your latest collection, where you chose the theme of espionage during apartheid.
It is almost a second part to Prosopography. The women of the Black Sash were an open secret; they weren’t hiding out all that much. Then there were women who had to be secret no matter what. It’s always been a fascination for me, this idea of espionage. During the lockdown, I read this book by Jonathan Ancer called Betrayal about the secret lives of apartheid spies. It was fascinating to hear these women’s tales of what they had to do to pass information for or against the government. But I felt like it wasn’t enough just to read the book; I really wanted to interview some of these women, to get a first-hand account of what they were feeling at the time and what led them to spy on their country. One of the spies that I spoke to – I can only call her Miles for now, she doesn’t want to be publicly named – is from Kimberley, the small mining town where I’m from. She sent me a photo of herself that I printed on a white cotton twill fabric; her face is on one of the shirt dresses.
‘Image-making is such a powerful tool. I’m always trying to showcase a new type of beauty, because, for too long, it’s been white, skinny, all of those things.’
I wanted to ask you about Olivia Forsyth. How did you interact with her?
Unlike the other spies who went into hiding, Olivia just came out completely. I interacted with her through e-mail. She initially spied for the government, but then defected to the ANC, becoming a double agent. It was not something she fell into or was led into; she called the head of intelligence in South Africa, Craig Williamson, and said: ‘I want to become a spy.’ She was placed as a student at Rhodes University to befriend people and start sending back information to the government about underground ANC groups, but she actually defected to the ANC. A lot of people say maybe that’s the excuse she gave after everything came out, and that this was her story to redeem herself. I asked if she could please scan some of her fingerprints and send them to me so I could print them on a white dress. That’s how I implemented them into the physical collection. Quite a few of the spies feel guilty about what they did. Their spying was responsible for people going to prison and for being seriously hurt. It was heartbreaking to hear the account of someone who had been on the receiving end. She had befriended one of the spies at Rhodes University, and she described this raid that came out of nowhere. Everyone was rounded up and put in prison. At the trial, a spy who the day before had worn tie-dye shirts and loose, baggy jeans, walked into the courtroom in a suit, looking like a completely different person. I was interested in that level of deception, and how they had to completely change who they were to assimilate into the group.
In the collection, you subvert conventional design features, like replacing polka dots with Forsyth’s fingerprints. It’s very much connected to camouflage – it’s implicit in the design – and it also combines your roles as a historian and as a fashion designer.
More and more with the collections I find myself documenting major parts of our culture that are overlooked. When I was in Milan, a lady walked up to me and expressed her disappointment that my clothes weren’t African enough. I told her that the clothes I do are more authentic to Africans in South Africa, as they document real people’s stories and real histories, not stereotypical prints. People really gravitate to this as it’s such a new history: a reality that people had no idea even existed. I love using trompe-l’oeil because you have to come closer and interact with the product quite intimately to pick up on it. The parka has a polygraph test design, and on top of it is written the code for a virus that would track all your movements if it was to infect your computer. I wanted smart references to surveillance and espionage to be put into the collection in a way that’s still wearable. At the end of the day, you have to feel incredible about what you’re wearing; that’s why subtlety is really important.
Do you want to bring in history from different contexts or will South Africa remain the basis of your work?
That’s a very interesting question. I don’t think it will just be limited to South Africa. I am still growing, and I want to experience new things and interrogate new things as I grow. That being said, I feel there is a relatability to all the collections I do across the board. Even if Counter Intelligence, this most recent collection, was about South African female spies, I think people are fascinated by the idea of spies in general.
Do you have any unrealized projects or dreams?
This might be years from now, but having some sort of a school would be one of my ultimate dreams. It would probably start really small and possibly grow into an institution of some kind. I have such a deep respect for education because of how it can change societies. I am already sort of involved with schools in terms of donations, because I had the privilege of meeting so many brands.
The LVMH Prize is unique in the fashion world. It is almost like a genius award; it’s a lot of money, but at the same time, it is also about structural support and mentorship. In that sense, it’s a school, giving young designers access to business skills. How did winning it change your life?
Apart from the obvious benefits of a large sum of money, what’s incredible about it is that they assign you a mentor and introduce you to all these people in the fashion space. You know, essentially, that is what our industry is: it really is about who you know and your access to them. So to have direct contact to people you otherwise would spend years trying to reach is really incredible. It really has changed my life. A lot of people didn’t know who I was, really, right up to the LVMH Prize. People are still just finding out who I am. The visibility it has given me has been incredible.
‘You know, in Milan towards the end of last year, I was told by a white designer that I only won the LVMH prize because I’m black.’
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a lot of projects that are quite social-facing, with a lot of social responsibility. South Africa’s not an easy place and a lot of communities have it quite hard, especially school children. Covid-19 has completely totalled education, which was already on its last legs. I’m doing projects that try to assist in any which way they can. That’s actually the reason why I’m back in my hometown. I recently asked Adidas if we could collaborate on masks that could be donated to school children, as a lot of them didn’t actually have proper masks. I have been producing them for the past month, so I’m here to give quite a few of them away. I designed them and I asked Adidas to come on board as a collaborator, in terms of distribution and the production resources they can provide. They are in this wetsuit fabric and they have these straps that hang down. The pattern is a combination of the Adidas trefoil and my sisterhood emblem. It’s the same sort of idea as the Kitchen Table Parka – that vinyl, step-and-repeat pattern that I do quite often. Right now, they are just available in South Africa as the need for it was hyper-local. I just produced them and I’m now starting to donate them.
In general, I was wondering if you see a more politically active future for fashion. Fashion is almost like a top-down dictatorship of schedule. Designers have spoken about the absurdity of this velocity of doing four shows a year and how more and more things in-between become accelerated. So, this rhythm, the slowness, a more politically activated future – do you think about breaking out of the rhythm of these fashion shows? And in terms of society, of bringing design into society?
I realize that I’m from a completely different system. Any designer who works outside the ‘global north’ will be from another fashion system. I realize that the more I produce collections, the more I’m pushed to produce. There are such extreme differences between Europe and South Africa. I’ve had to split our online store into two: South Africa and then the rest of the world. What’s affordable in Europe and in South Africa is so different, so I have this balancing act to make sure that the cultures and the people here can actually afford the clothes that they have inspired. This order season, there have been so many orders, but I had to say no to a lot of them, even to critical stores that I love, because I can’t put pressure on my production. I have to think about slow growth. I’m growing as our industry here grows, which is still sort of infantile in a lot of ways. I’m in a context where I see quite a few extremes just from being here – I’ve seen poverty up close, and what HIV can do to communities – and with my brand, I want to be able, in my own small way, to assist and address that. At the end of the day, we do fashion, but I want to solve some things as I go. When doing these masks or any other projects, there has to be some kind of a social-responsibility element attached.
That’s really important, because it’s a very, very different context for the industry. Racial injustice in South Africa is something that you have spoken about before. How do you address that in your collections?
We’ve been out of the old regime for 25 or so years but the racial inequalities are still extreme. There are so many barriers to entry for Black people, let alone Black creative people in South Africa. We are in a new democracy that’s still figuring itself out. That being said, I think that image-making is still a powerful tool. I’m always trying to showcase a new type of beauty, because, for the longest time, it’s been white, skinny, all of those things. Image-making can help recalibrate people’s minds to a more inclusive standard of beauty. Now more than ever, there’s this conversation about Black people in fashion. On the one hand, I am a Black designer and I use my experiences and my culture and heritage to inform the work that I do. But on the other hand, in instances like that, the word ‘Black’ sits next the word ‘designer’ and is used to nullify the talents being spoken about. You know, in Milan towards the end of last year, I was told by a white designer that I only won the prize because I’m Black. I’m doing my thing down here, but whenever I go to that side, there are instances like that one that show you how inherently racist fashion still is. There is an amnesia about Black people’s contributions to fashion, historically.
Like the historian Eric Hobsbawm said, we need to protest against forgetting. Are there any South African designers from previous generations who we should remember more?
So many massive contributions from South African designers were never picked up because we operate outside of ‘fashion’. Fashion is still such a tight-knit community, and a lot of people, especially from far-flung places, can be overlooked. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, especially, designers like Marianne Fassler and Black Coffee were doing such incredible, conceptual work here that was outside of the stereotypical idea of ‘African fashion’. Clive Rundle was largely considered the Margiela of Africa, but no one really knows about him. Our big challenge is inclusion, in general, into the fashion system.