How Thebe Magugu Holds A Mirror To Society

The South African fashion designer's collections comment on everything from Apartheid to espionage

How Thebe Magugu Holds A Mirror To Society
Trevor Stuurman

There’s a thoughtful warmth that comes from every interaction with the South African designer Thebe Magugu. An effort to speak and explain, fused with honourable intention and fierce creativity. In truth, the 2019 LVMH Prize winner has educated as much as he has invented when it comes to his six-year-old eponymous fashion brand. From his SS/21 collection Counterculture – inspired by South African women that worked as spies – to Doublethink, the SS/21 menswear collection that commented on the destabilising effect of corruption, Magugu has shifted mindset and dispelled stereotypes on South Africa through a series of cleverly thought-out collections. In this issue he is photographed for YUNG by lifelong friend, the photographer, Trevor Stuurman.

Your creations are inspired by heritage and experience, which makes us wonder – are clothes ever just clothes?

That’s what makes fashion incredibly intelligent. Clothing can be ‘just clothes’ or a manifestation of very cerebral development and thoughts, just depending on what the wearer wants to lean on. I do prefer using clothes for the latter though. It’s incredibly exciting making clothes that feel like generational relics that can be passed down from generation to generation. Clothes that possess key information about the times, the people and events that the collection was concerned about at that time. Clothing also provides a very deep insight into people’s psychology, so they are a very good visual signifier to understand those things around you

Your collections such as Doublethink and Counter Intelligence have incredibly serious themes – how do you translate something like that into clothing?

It takes quite a bit of deft but it’s probably the most exciting part of creating the collection – the translation of theory to practicality. You have to look at the symbols and if they communicate the idea and its physical manifestation. So for example, Counter Intelligence was about South African ex-spies, who used to work for the Apartheid government of the time and defected to the ANC. How does this read in a garment? Well, fingerprints are a sure way to determine someone’s identity, so I asked one of the spies to give me her police-scanned fingerprint to use as an all-over print on a dress. Fingerprints – symbolically and physically – communicate the idea of access codes and espionage. This is an example of translation from theory to practical. 

Doublethink was just as interesting. South Africa was going through an intensely difficult time with corruption. I approached the iconic artist and comic Jonathan Zapiro to create custom illustrations which speak to this issue. Jonathan went to jail in the ’90s because of his activism so it was very special to be able to create work with someone who understands the corrupt underbelly of South African politics so well. It’s very important to create a through-line between inspiration and execution, though. Otherwise you are just over-intellectualising a hoodie. What about that hoodie is communicating the story?