Magugu’s new collection challenges African fashion clichés

There are not many, if any, South African designers who can regularly turn heads at Vogue Magazine. Yet, once again the imitable Thebe Magugu has made headlines at that fashion media house this week with the launch of a new collection, he dubs The Heritage collection. 

The Johannesburg-based designer will next month release this capsule collection, dress by dress, on his online platform and in select stores in New York and London.  

Thebe Portraits: Neville Dikgomo

As can be expected with Magugu, a dress is never just a garment, but a significant carrier of meaning, history and culture. Indeed, the Kimberley-born and -raised designer cunningly employs fashion — a language consumed by many — to educate and inspire wearers. 

The Heritage collection celebrates various South African cultures and, for his followers in Europe and the US, will complicate any simplistic or monolithic notions they may have of African or South African culture. 

“I found when I travelled that in general, people are ignorant about the continent and our country and the things that happened here; they reduce it to a print or Nelson Mandela.  I love this idea of the brand, acting as a sort of encyclopedic resource or creating relics that can live on, or through clothing.  Things that capture the essence of a culture,” observes the designer. 

The unique prints that colonise the line of eight Heritage collection dresses were created by local illustrator Phatu Nembilwi. Magugu enlisted the help of the young South African illustrator for her to interpret the eight tribes featured in the collection, through her unique vantage point. 

The result is an abstract, stylized representation encapsulating the spirit of the Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Vhavenda, Tsonga, Tswana and Swati people.  As each limited-edition dress is released for sale, so too will a text be issued offering pertinent facts and historical details about each culture. 

As always Magugu contextualises his fashion — not only through considered texts that accompany each collection, but films too, that tease out the idiosyncrasies or expand on them in meaningful ways — resulting in another artistic form of expression. 

With the Heritage collection this has been achieved through a series of images styled by Chloe Andrea Welgemoed, which see the models posing with oversized objects, sometimes of cultural significance, such as a shell. “A lot of healers that I’ve spoken to use a lot of shells and crystals when they do their acts of divination,”  says Magugu. 

Magugu’s fashion, which has been shown in Paris and Milan and celebrated in major Western capitals, has always been rooted in South Africa. With collections taking inspiration from current politics — the Doublethink collection, to apartheid history; referencing the Black Sash and female spies from that era — to his personal photographic archive — his family’s style history in his recent Geneology collection, which presents contemporary interpretations of outfits worn by his aunt, mother and other family members. 

Thebe Portraits: Neville Dikgomo

Most of these collections have relied on original and unexpected prints, such as fingerprints (of a former spy) to a cheap tablecloth being reinterpreted. As such the Heritage collection sits seamlessly in his body of work with the print conveying the stylistic features of different South African cultures rather than the garments literally embodying them — such as a reworked beaded skirt for example. Magugu manages to cunningly side-step cliched interpretations of South African dress. 

He may be a fashion designer, yet interestingly he is not invested in the surface of things.

“When I was growing up it was about the glamour. But as I grew up, and I started going into spaces that intellectualised fashion, this taught me how fashion could be used; as a vehicle. I saw it as an opportunity to tell stories.” 

Though he is clearly a conceptual designer, an intellectual and an avid reader, substantial research underpins each collection, he believes that texts are not as accessible as clothing, with regards to rewiring cultural perceptions. “Even if you can’t afford a piece of clothing, you are still able to consume it as it is a visual thing. You only have to see it once to understand it or it sparks a train of thought.”

Through its billowy silhouette, designed to flatter any body type, the Heritage collection is conceived to be accessible to a wide audience. Call it high-fashion for any body size, which is a rarity in the sartorial circles Magugu moves in when he is showing in Paris or Milan. 

“It can be worn by everyone because it’s not a silhouette that dictates to the body. It’s a free-flowing, comfortable dress,” he says. 

All eight dresses are united by this easy, uniform silhouette. Magugu summarised the styling as “conservative”. The dresses are long, with bishop sleeves and a pussy bowtie detail that wraps the dress tightly around the neck. Not that the models are completely covered in fabric; some have thigh-high slits, offering a bit of leg. 

These contrasting stylistic details are not unusual for the designer as his fashion tends to move between two aesthetic poles, which he attributes to being influenced by his grandmother and other maternal figures. “I used to see [her] go to church, or to a hospital because she was a nurse. And then there was my aunt’s side, who was more punk. I have these contrasts in my head.” 

The Heritage collection will be available online from June 1. Visit: https://www.thebemagugu.com/

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Mary Corrigall
Mary Corrigall is an award-winning critic, academic and founder of Corrigall & Co. She will be discussing the findings of the inaugural art report at an event hosted by Strauss & Co this Saturday. It will be followed by a panel discussion with Tokini Peterside, director of Art X Lagos art fair, Emma Menell director of London’s Tyburn gallery, Owen Martin, curator at the Norval Foundation and Matthew Partridge, contemporary specialist at the auction house.

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