Thebe Magugu

“As a person, I’m not very talkative, but I think I’m quite opinionated.”

Indeed. Soft-spoken and well-mannered, South African designer Thebe Magugu has certainly demonstrated he has a clear point of view.

The winner of the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2019 — the first African to be awarded the honor — is actually building a name for himself with meaningful collections that put the focus on his own country and continent, which are so frequently forgotten, enabling them to enjoy a new level of visibility.

“I think that my collections are observational in a lot of ways,” Magugu said during a Zoom call from Johannesburg, a few days before taking a flight to Florence. In that Italian city, he will present his first full men’s collection on July 1 at Pitti Uomo, which chose him as the guest designer of its 100th edition. “I like to express my opinions through my clothes and reflect what happens in my own country and continent.”

Describing the brand as “a sort of encyclopedia of my country,” Magugu targets a specific consumer, someone who has a certain state of mind. “My collections are for those who are curious…it’s not about a matter of age or race. As long as you are curious, you might find something interesting in them.”

Born and raised in South Africa, the designer has never left his country of origin, even when he was younger and Europe was top of his mind. “When I was in my early 20s, I had the dream of moving to London and maybe attending Central Saint Martins or one of those prestigious schools, but I had to stay here,” he said. “But at the end, that probably enabled me to grow a deeper appreciation of my country and its rich culture.”

Thebe Magugu men's spring 2022

Thebe Magugu men’s spring 2022  Aart Verrips/WWD

Magugu is part of a growing group of creative minds that are shaping the new cultural face of Johannesburg.

“I feel a new sense of creativity here, not only in the fashion industry, but also in photography and in other areas,” the designer commented. “There is a lot of mutual support among young creatives and we can definitely bond together. You can’t grow in isolation — actually nobody is an island.”

In keeping with his unique approach, for his men’s wear debut at Pitti Uomo, Magugu will put in the spotlight a theme that afflicts not only South Africa, but the rest of the world as well: corruption.

“I’m very excited about the collection, even if the subject is somber,” Magugu said. “It’s about corruption and it’s also a story about the brave men and women who have come forward as whistleblowers, who have exposed the level of rot from companies and institutions both private and state.”

Inspired by George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984,” Magugu titled the collection “Doublethink,” to refer to those corrupt politicians who are conscious of the truth, while telling carefully constructed lies — the art of knowing and not knowing.

According to Magugu, the pandemic has worsened the corruption level in South Africa, with millions of dollars that were meant to support people in need disappearing and very few families increasing their power at multiple levels and now in control of the whole economy of the country.

However, inspired by Mandy Wiener’s book “The Whistleblowers,” Magugu said, “Whistleblowers are not celebrated or cast as heroic characters. Instead, they are largely treated as insubordinate, pariahs or troublemakers, wearing the scarlet letter W and unable to find employment. I have chosen to shine a light on the plight of whistleblowers in South Africa, in the hope to advocating for a change in legislation, organizational support and a change in social attitude.”   

Thebe Magugu men's spring 2022

Thebe Magugu men’s spring 2022  Aart Verrips/WWD

Through the designer’s imagination and creativity, whistleblowers are portrayed as white-hat heroes fighting against black-hat bandits in a tribute to the most classic Western iconography. In keeping with the overall vibe, revisited traditional men’s tailoring is combined with references to the look of the Great Basi buckaroos, predominantly influenced by Californian vaqueros.

As Magugu revealed, the collection features linen, denim and cotton garments printed with archival illustrations by political cartoonist Jonathan Zapiro. In particular, Magugu used two specific artworks describing South Africa’s lack of democracy through hyenas, symbolizing manipulative political crooks.   

For this collection, the designer also created his first men’s shoe, a black knee-length equestrian boot that features a toe decorated with the new “TM” crest and the calf embellished with the brand’s red cutout “Sisterhood Emblem.” In addition, the boot has a customized stainless steel spur with a rotating logo.

“This is a men’s collection, but it’s very gender fluid in proportions and fits,” said Magugu, whose main goal for the future is to establish his namesake label as a South African heritage brand available across the world.

“I like to think that when someone buys a piece of my collections, it’s buying a piece of my own country,” added the designer, who produces everything in South Africa. “I get so much from my country in term of inspirations, that the fact that I try to involve local artisans, creating jobs here, is my way of giving back to South Africa.”

The designer will present the collection through an installation at Pitti Uomo, but for the launch of the lineup Magugu has also created a 32-page newspaper developed in collaboration with leading South African title The Daily Maverick.

“We asked a range of South African journalists who write about the corruption in my country to contribute,” said Magugu, highlighting the collaborative spirit of the overall project.