Thebe Magugu on South African Spies and Having Wendy Wear His Clothes
by Evan Ross Katz
22 March 2021
Designer extraordinaire Thebetsile Magugu, owner and creative force behind South African label Thebe Magugu, couldn't have manifested a worse moment to see his dreams finally being realized. "I was worried about the future of my business in general," Magugu says reflecting on the early days of the pandemic. Unquestioningly, Magugu was having a moment before COVID-19 hit. Fresh off his 2019 LVMH Prize for emerging talent (he is the first African designer to be awarded the prize), Magugu launched his debut collection at Paris Fashion Week in February 2020.
"With a new capsule collection available to buy on 24 Sèvres, Magugu is poised to export his special made-in-Africa vision across the globe," wroteVogue in their review of the collection. "My brand's journey has been one of a series of sacrifices over the years, and just when things began to unfold — off the back of my first presentation in Paris, a childhood dream — this pandemic threatened to eclipse that."
But it wasn't just his own livelihood he was worried about. He began to question the industry altogether. "I went into a dark place about what role fashion played in a pandemic — if designers used clothing to communicate their stories, opinions and perspectives, the pandemic put us all on a suspended mute." Thankfully, as some parts of the world begin to cautiously turn a corner on the worst of the pandemic (emphasis on cautiously), Magugu is now pressing play and re-entering the fashion arena with a renewed perspective on the role he wishes to play, and a sense of excitement at the possibilities that lie ahead. Below, we get into that and so much more.
What has the pandemic taught you about your design, whether that be your approach or your execution, that you'll take with you moving forward in your work?
As tumultuous as the pandemic was mentally, there were a few paradigm shifts that happened that wouldn't have happened otherwise. I think the world coming to a complete halt gave us all an aerial view of the speed we were running at and the carnage our industry was leaving in its tracks. It certainly made me think about business in another way. My first decision was to scale down output and create garments that aren't product for products sake. "Why does this exist?" is what I ask myself with each garment and collection now, and I am excited about fashion again because I get to infuse my clothes with stories I've always wanted to tell and that people interacting with these garments can learn something from them — whether it's African traditional healers, ex-spies of the apartheid government or the brave women of the Black Sash Movement. Recently, The Met bought the "Girl Seeks Girl" Dress for their permanent archive as a preservation act for what the dress communicates about present-day South Africa, and this validated my brand ambitions of being a living documentation.
Ah, that's history! Has your approach to the design itself changed at all?
I find myself softening my sensibilities as things become more sensual and feminine, maybe due to the fact the world is beginning to flourish again.
What was the biggest challenge and the biggest triumph about creating your last fab-u-lous collection in the pandemic?
I think a short-lived and fascinating phenomenon during lockdown was the resurgence of conspiracy theories and, because of idle hands, I took to some quite a bit.
I ordered Jonathan Ancer's book Betrayal: The Secret Lives of the Apartheid Spies, and although it beautifully illustrated the underbelly of South African espionage, I wanted to know more. What had happened to Olivia Foresyth? Where was Jenny Miles now? This manic obsession allowed me to trace them down, and not only did they reveal their side of the story, but they contributed assets to the development of the collection. This was a triumph. Spies by nature are meant to be extremely secretive about the business but the ex-spies who I interviewed for the collection were so willing to share and have subsequently become good friends of mine.
You interviewed ex-spies? Brilliant! And not at all surprising from what I know about your commitment to storytelling. What was it that intrigued you about these women who worked for and against South Africa's old regime and how did you go about turning that interest into a collection?
My favorite part of creating a collection is figuring out how all the theory translates into a tangible collection. If espionage is about the hidden-in-plain-sight, I think the idea of Trompe-l'œil became an immediate go-to. I wanted to explore details that read as one thing from afar and read as another up-close. An example of this would be look four from the collection. From far, it looks like black polka dots but upon closer inspection, it's actually the scanned fingerprints of Olivia Foresyth, who agreed to have her police-scanned prints as an asset to the collection. There are other hidden details that pepper the collection: a polygraph test, an actual computer virus as a textural finish, the confession of a known South African spy. I wanted these to be as authentic as possible.
Incredible, really. What were the challenges that this collection presented?
Gathering resources to actually create it. The country was in the highest level of lockdown so it involved so much trust among the artisans, tailors and suppliers. Asking a supplier to Uber Package to me a mustard denim fabric they trust, then for me to draw a sketch and Uber Package both the sketch and the fabric to Estelle, my pattern maker, to figure it out, and for her in turn to trust Gideon, the tailor, will receive the fabric, sketch and patterns and understand what to do. It was truly a collaborative effort in that sense.
That sounds daunting. These mini films have become something of a signature of yours. "The story is an added plus" you told Vogue with regard to the backstory that comes with many of your collections. In what ways do these films help you in fleshing out your collections as more than just items of clothing, but pieces of a story to tell?
I have always had a deep respect for film because it's a synthesis of photography, literature, fashion, music and art. I find that film allows me to communicate quite strongly the inspiration and bring up the emotions I want these cinematic outputs to bring up in people. In general, I want my brand to feel like a documentation of the country and region's rich cultural and historic heritage and using fashion as a medium in which to communicate this.
Who is getting you excited about fashion right now and about where fashion will go?
I am looking to the local creative community even more and trying to use my platforms to amplify their voices because they all have such incredible visions. My collaborators Chloe Andrea Welgemoet (styling), Kristin-Lee Moolman (filmmaking), Francesco Mbele (filmmaking), Khomotso Moloto (hair) and Annice Le Roux (makeup), who all contributed to our most recent film, Banyoloyi A Bosigo, are keeping me excited about what I do and they collectively speak to the idea that working collaboratively yields spectacular results due to the intersecting of our universes. That cross-pollination makes something that feels new.
Zendaya in Thebe Magugu shook me to my core. What was it like seeing her in one of your designs?
I've always loved Zendaya, and after I watched Euphoria, I became a mega-stan. Nevermind her talent, she is such a cross-generational role model and a picture of excellence. I was gagged to see her in the Shredded Denim Set from Winter 2020's Anthro 1 collection, styled by Law [Roach]. The collection was inspired by the township I am from, so seeing it on her made me beam with much pride.
Talk to me about your personal Instagram page. What makes you want to operate a second account, one that's more personal, and what are you able to convey there that you perhaps can't or choose not to with your wider brand account?
I actually have six accounts in total, each representing an iteration of my identity. My personal Instagram (@thebetsilem), though, is special in many ways. Firstly, Thebe is short for Thebetsile, which essentially translates into "he who shields." Secondly, I am quite self-aware, which makes it difficult to have actual photos of myself, so I always doodle myself and the people I am with. If you scroll through, you can see interesting cameos by Anna Wintour, Adrian Joffe, Naomi, Jonathan Anderson, Simon Jacquemus and Clare Waight-Keller; people I absolutely adore, some of who are my mentors, alongside my friends who fulfil my life. I think having a personal account is beneficial to my mental health because it's important to feel like I am not operating as a brand, but as a human being, with my individual thoughts, opinions and expressions. It worries me that our era has made way for walking brands, that's why certain people feel so divorced from reality and relatability because they have leaned too far into the idea of brand as person. I have had the displeasure of interacting with very hollow people, and it's something I don't want for myself. I also think tying up my success as a person with my success as a brand is dangerous ground.
I've never heard it articulated so succinctly. Yes! Every word. Riddle me this: What's your pop culture guilty pleasure?
Wendy Williams, who last week wore a dress from my Winter 2020 collection on the show and made a dirty joke about it. I strangely stanned harder.
Of course we both love Wendy! Favorite Wendy moment of all time? I think mine might be "Oh she passed away? Ohhh. Mmm."
"Shout out to everyone with social anxiety. I kinda feel sorry for you," followed by agreeable applause.
Ah yes, the gold standard.
Her call to actions ("clap-if…") — especially when read out of context — are literary gold.
Tell me a joke, will you?
I can't tell one on the spot like this!
Fiiiiiiiiiine. Jokes aside, you are the best. Thank you for your time.
Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Fall 2021 Lookbook
Photography: Tatenda Chidora
Styling: Chloe Andrea Welgemoed
Spring 2021 Lookbook
Photography: Kristin Lee Moolman
Styling: Chloe Andrea Welgemoed