From Ipopeng to Paris, SA designer Thebe Magugu is going places
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Despite winning the LVMH Prize and having his designs displayed at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thebe Magugu remains admirably humble.
I first met him at a fashion show a few years back. We didn't talk much as fashion shows are usually manic affairs and designers can barely spare time to socialise, because they have to make sure everything goes well backstage.
Fast forward to May 2021, I met the Kimberly-born designer in Durban, where we both attended the Adidas #ImpossibleIsNothing event. As one of the campaign ambassadors, Magugu was patiently waiting for us at the Skatepark at the Durban North Beach.
He looked so cool and calm in green and white. He donned green front slit pants and a Sisterhood jersey from his Counter Intelligence Spring/Summer 21 collection. His outfit was paired with green and white Adidas Stan Smith sneakers.
He introduced himself as a designer from Kimberly. However, Siv Ngesi, the MC of the event, felt he underplayed his strides in the industry and mentioned that Magugu was an award-winning designer and the one and the only African to win the LVMH Prize.
After the formalities of the event ended, we headed to California Dreamy for lunch. I was excited to find that I was seated at the same table as the unassuming designer and it gave me time to finally have that long overdue one-on-one.
As such, I asked him what led drew him to fashion designing and was interested to learn that, aside from being inspired by Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton, it was David Tlale who encouraged him to follow his dream.
“I didn’t have a big aha moment. It was a series of events that happened that shifted me to go into fashion. The most significant I can think about is my family getting DSTV for the first time and the first channel being FTV, where they broadcast the Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton show. When I saw Marc Jacobs and LV, I was like ‘what is this beautiful universe’," Magugu shared.
He added that his mother also had a huge influence on his fashion career.
“Yes, fashion is about the flash and the fabulousness, but I grew up watching designers who used fashion to their advantage by telling stories. My mother built charisma in me. She used fashion to make herself look dazzling, and she used it to her advantage in many ways. I think it’s things like that that made me interested in this industry.”
Shy as he is, Magugu also has a naughty side.
“I missed one of the exams in Grade 12, and I got a bus to Joburg to watch David Tlale’s show on the bridge. It was so glamorous seeing the industry altogether. I put my hat off to Tlale in many ways for introducing that idea of world-building. That was my first ever physical show, and it was worth it because I got to see the people who contribute to our industry. The stylists, the photographers, the models, everyone working together, and as someone from a small township of Ipopeng in Kimberly, it was so fulfilling seeing these worlds collide in that sense,” he laughed.
After being mesmerised by what he saw at Tlale’s show in 2012, Magugu moved to Joburg in 2013 to pursue his dream. It was after he got rejected at St Martins, where he wanted to study further, that things started to shape up.
And the rejection proved to be a blessing in disguise as it pushed him to work even harder to make his mark in the fashion industry.
In 2015, he launched his brand, Thebe Magugu. But for the longest time, he didn’t believe he was that much of a good designer until he won the LVMH Prize in 2019. Even entering the competition was a struggle, but his mother and a few friends managed to convince him, and when he finally entered, he still didn’t think he would win.
“For the longest time, I wasn't going to enter. I still had insecurities that I wasn’t a good designer. I thought ‘I’m from a very small town in South Africa, what would I be doing in the Paris heart of fashion’? And there was that insecurity, but my mother said: ‘you’ve been following this competition for years. You have nothing to lose’. And a few friends of mine also encouraged me, and I entered.
“I got into the top 20, and I thought this is where I end, I can’t go any further. I got into the top nine and was like ‘definitely can’t go any further,' and then I got announced as the winner. It broke a toxic self-belief that I couldn’t operate in those spaces, I couldn’t sit in those tables,” said the three-times LISOF (Stadio School of Fashion) graduate.
Magugu is living proof that “impossible is nothing”. And with that, he encourages the youth to push boundaries.
“Stick to the idea of believing in whatever you’re proposing. Preserving, even though the world doesn’t see it. I’ve been working in fashion since 2015, and I didn’t feel seen in any capacity, but that didn’t stop me from producing work season after season because I knew this was universe building, and I knew there was an end goal that I was veering towards.”
In June this year, he will be dropping more projects, but his main goal is to localise his brand.
“A lot of designers grow locally and then find international markets. But I think for me, things quickly became the opposite in a lot of ways so, I want to circle back to South Africa and do interesting events that tie the brand back into the country.”
Magugu's designs are usually inspired by his mother, grandmother, and aunts. And because he has a deep respect for education, he uses university references when naming his collection.
Other South African tribalizers who are part of the Impossible Is Nothing campaign are Springboks captain Siya Kolisi; two-time Paralympian and world champion Anrune Weyers; international sevens and fifteens rugby player for South Africa and professional firefighter Zinhle Ndawonde.