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Thebe Magugu is trying to school the world on South Africa

4th October 2020 Print

It's been a whirlwind four years for Thebe Magugu. Given his global profile, it's hard to believe that he didn't even launch his own label until 2016, but Magugu is still within the first five years of his glittering headline career in fashion when it comes to managing his own brand. We've seen some visionary looks in that time, and some trail-blazing designs that have put him at the forefront of the world fashion scene. Magugu is more than just a fashion designer, though. He's a man on a mission, and right now, his mission is educating the rest of the world when it comes to South African culture. 

It doesn't take a genius to work out that the western world's view of African culture is dated and misplaced. You only have to look at an online slots website to get confirmation of that. Log in to any online slots website of your choosing, search for the word 'Africa,' and you'll be confronted by page after page of UK slots featuring lions, tigers, and jungles. When people abroad think of the continent of Africa, their first thought isn't the vibrant countries and cities, the emerging tech companies, or the cutting-edge fashion - it's still the same old safari tours and wild animals their grandparents visited the continent to look at fifty years ago or more. We don't necessarily blame the people who make these online slots for perpetuating the stereotype - they're only following the money - but it's clear that the wider world could do with an education. Thebe might just be the man to do it, and he's doing it through the launch of a new website.

The ace designer’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic - his website contains a shop, and it exists primarily as a place where people can place orders and buy his clothes, but there’s more content on the site than just his fine designs. This new website, which launched earlier this month, doesn’t only tell you what he’s made, and what fabrics he used to do it. It also explains how he came up with the ideas, and the inspirations he drew upon during the design stage. To be more specific, Thebe tells his audience about his personal experience of South African culture, his personal heritage, and how those factors combine to influence his highly distinctive sense of style. 

This connection between fashion and education is a recurring theme when it comes to Magugu’s eye-catching career. The collections he’s launched so far have all been named after the subjects that he studied in college. His Spring 2019 collection, for example, was called “Art History.” In Fall of the same year, his collection was called “African Studies.” His first-ever headline collection, way back in Spring 2017, was called “Geology.” Curiously he doesn’t appear to have taken the same approach with his recently-launched Fall 2020 collection, although that particular collection has caught the attention of Vogue and looks set to take his career to new heights. When he launched his Spring collection for this year, he deliberately made the landing page of its dedicated website look like the spine of a book. Magugu is clearly a man of reading and learning, and he’s keen to impress that knowledge upon anybody who happens upon his website. In the process, he hopes to contribute to the rehabilitation of South Africa’s image in international eyes. 

All of the images on Magugu's new site were shot by Travys Owen, and feature objects and traditions from the designer's upbringing along with his clothes. One of them, featuring women dancing around a pot, is an interpretation of the "Gift of the Gods" ancestral ritual known as "Mpho Ya Badimo." A whole section of the website entitled 'Faculty Press' offers nothing for sale at all, but instead offers a collection of essays from prominent South African writers and voices that Magugu considers to be significant. The biography page on the website speaks more about South African culture and bold visions of the future than it does about Magugu's personal history - in fact, virtually nothing of that is said at all. The longer you spend on a page, the more South African coins appear on it, obscuring your field of view. It's bold, immediate, and challenging. In a lot of ways, the website is a highbrow work of fashion-meets-art in its own right. 

As laudable as Magubu's intentions are, highbrow fashion isn't known for being a great means of communication. It's likely that the majority of visitors who reach the website will find it complex to navigate through and difficult to understand. Education is never supposed to be easy, though, and perhaps challenging people who have an overly simplistic understanding of South African traditions and beliefs is the whole point. If one of the continent's most promising and experimental designers can sell a few clothes in the effort, then more's the better. 

For those who are more interested in the man's clothes than his interest in promoting South Africa to the world, the Fall 2020 collection doesn't disappoint. There's a trench coat with a printed carnation design that, according to Magugu, was inspired by his grandmother's tablecloth. There's a feather-trim button-down made from distressed denim that's said to be based on the design of his aunt's old corrugated roof. An otherwise standard-looking collared shirt features a photo print of two women consoling each other, which Thebe intended as a comment on the rising rate of violence against women in his home country. Even when he's focusing on designing clothes, it would seem that Magubu can't stay away from social commentary. 

For many people, fashion and politics are two separate things, and we respect that. There's enough political angst in the world already, and fashion designers weighing in on the issue isn't necessarily helpful. For those who are open to designers with big ideas, though, there's plenty in this latest Magubu collection that should delight you. The fact that his website is also a larger-scale promotional tool for the whole South African nation doesn't change that. You should expect to pay a premium if you intend to buy anything from the collection for yourself - but when isn't that the case when we're dealing with fashion at its best?