Last month, 26-year-old designer Thebe Magugu was showered with emotive applause following the presentation of his latest collection at South African Fashion Week. He took a humble bow as the models made their final lap to Shana and Lebo Mathosa’s “Benga”, with their sky blue feathered headpieces dancing in the wind. While the bright, bold and technically complex garments he presented—from cherry red, safari-inspired tailoring to a belted, single-sleeve tartan dress—were impressively accomplished, there was a greater significance to this enthusiasm.
The audience wasn’t just celebrating the work of one of the industry’s most promising minds, but also the greater mission that drives him. The Johannesburg-based designer, just three years after launching his brand, is creating clothes that have the power to shift global perceptions of South African identity. Magugu’s designs, along with the recent launch of his annual publication, Faculty Press, are presenting a fresh image of his home country: one that is joyful, progressive, and complex.
“I think in art, certain movements stem from times of suffering, because art allows people to deal with traumas in a proactive and beautiful way. That’s what I do with my clothes. I tend to look at South Africa through this lens and ask how I can turn all of this pain on its head,” Magugu explains. The designer was born in the small town of Kimberley in 1993, one year prior to the abolishment of the oppressive apartheid regime. For nearly five decades prior, South Africa was run by a white supremacist minority which created a system of governance based entirely on racial segregation. The shadows of this authoritarian agenda, designed to exploit, disenfranchise, and repress non-white lives, still loom heavily over the country and global perceptions of it. To many outsiders, South Africa is still a place associated with pain, violence, and inequality.
While it’s necessary to acknowledge the traumas that have shaped its population, honing in on a singular narrative is damaging—Magugu’s work actively seeks to expand this perception. His winning installation at the International Fashion Showcase in London this February did exactly that. The presentation “Dawning” positioned garments from his latest collection above a long scroll with the text of the South African constitution. Describing his intentions, Magugu mentions that “a lot of people don’t know that we have the most progressive constitution in the world, because it was designed to rewrite the wrongs of the past.” This celebratory attitude, which sheds light on the country’s social, political, and economic progress, has become one of his hallmarks.