Designer Thebe Magugu is fascinated by South African culture. Born and raised in a rural outskirt in Northern Cape and now residing in the bustling city of Johannesburg, Thebe's entire life has been heavily informed by the local people and places around him. As a designer he has delved deep into the meaning of his home’s cultural traditions and experimented with how they function in and outside of their original spaces. These moments of independent study and engaging with his community have greatly enriched Magugu’s womenswear. In April, this was recognised as he was announced as a finalist for the prestigious 2019 LVMH Prize.
At 26 years old, Thebe joins a very short list of African-born designers to be nominated for the LVMH Prize. The historic lack of African representation within the competition and inside other Western design institutions has less to do with an absence of talent on the continent, and more to do with the tendency for people living outside of Africa to not appreciate or consider African fashion, beyond the scope of traditional African printed designs that have come to define the industry. This oversight of the diversity of African fashion has made Thebe's nomination even more special. His autumn/winter 19 collection, the collection he's nominated for, tackles the idea of what it means to be African, and in his case an African designer, today.
Entitled African Studies, Thebe considers autumn/winter 19 as much a multi-disciplinary project as an actual collection. This concept of African studies has inspired him to reflect closely on the traditional images of Africa and insert them into a contemporary vision that, like the rest of the world, is impacted by global modernisation. Red two-piece suits are cut in the shape of safari wear, and illustrations from local South African illustrator Phathu Nembilwi are set against the structured contemporary dresses and tops Thebe has become known for.
More than a typical nomination, Thebe's presence among the other LVMH Prize finalist is a testimony to the emerging design scene bustling in South Africa, and other countries around the continent. For years, Thebe has designed tailored separates that challenge the boundaries of femininity and exude power. Now, with the fashion industry paying attention he, along with fellow African designer and LVMH nominee, Nigerian Kenneth Ize, have the potential to shift the narrative of African design and share the continent’s beauty while doing it.
This year, Magugu was described as "the leader of his generation" by the judging panel of London's International Fashion Showcase, where he was crowned winning designer. In an interview with CNN at Somerset House, in London, Magugu talked about South Africa's creative scene.
CNN: How did you get started in fashion?
Thebe Magugu: I'm from Kimberley, in South Africa. As a kid, I used to make little sketches that my mother would find under my bed. One day she bought me a stack of fashion magazines and a sketchbook, and told me that if I was really going to do this I had to practice every day. Eventually I moved to Johannesburg to study fashion design and photography (at the LISOF Fashion School). Three years ago, I opened my namesake label, which I've been working on ever since.
What do you look to communicate as a designer?
My goal is to create clothes that merge my South African heritage with contemporary shapes and proportions. I come from a very rich culture: there's a lot of beadwork, a lot of craft. I want to merge these references with my global outlook. It's a project that reflects a more authentic Africa, one that recognizes that we are forward-looking, open to the world.
What kinds of cuts or fabrics do you favor?
I do a lot of pleating and printing, so I use fabrics that are receptive to that. But I also love juxtapositions: merging fabrics that don't necessarily go together, or in an unexpected way.
I think people tend to have set ideas about African design. But we are so much more experimental in our proportions and cuts than people realize, and I want my work to reflect that.
What's the most challenging thing about South African fashion, and the most exciting?
It's still an emerging market, which certainly brings its own challenges. There's a lack of proper manufacturing, and fewer boutiques and customer touch points. That said, we have a real culture of making do. The most exciting thing is definitely the young people. They're the ones having the critical conversations about what it means to be South African. That's why for the past five months I've been working on a zine, called Faculty Press, highlighting work by friends and other collaborators who are doing such innovative work in their respective fields. I wanted to pull all of it together in order to really show the face of contemporary South Africa.
Ever since LVMH announced the finalists for its 2019 prize, the fashion industry has been doing its best to get to know these eight emerging designers. Of all the contenders, Kenneth Ize -- a young Nigerian designer born in Vienna -- has been one of the most mysterious, intriguing candidates, whose designs have, so far, done most of the talking. Before the nomination, it might have been difficult for even the brand’s biggest fans to put a face to the name, however, it was never difficult to spot one of the designers printed blazers and colourful plaid fringe trousers, especially since they’ve been spotted on celebrity fans like Donald Glover and Burna Boy.
The 29-year-old moved back to his parents’ home state, Lagos, Nigeria from Vienna in 2016 to launch his namesake label. With two fashion degrees under his belt, he was confident that he could take all of the skills he obtained growing up in Austria and travelling around North America and Europe, and combine them with the new artistic energy and renewed interest in traditional Nigerian fabrics and design methods. “For me, it's very exciting to see how everything has changed based on the young generation in Nigeria now actually believing in themselves and that they can actually design something really nice with what they have,” Kenneth explains over the phone from Morocco.
Kenneth Ize’s time living in Nigeria has truly solidified his vision as a designer. He meet a woman he lovingly refers to as Queen B, who connected him with local artisans and he immediately began collaborating with them to design his own vibrantly coloured and thoughtfully-printed fabrics. He also committed himself to learning as much about Nigerian history as he could, feeling a European upbringing deprived him of learning about certain key elements of his culture.
The research inspired the autumn/winter 19 collection he submitted to LVMH, which is composed of menswear separates that honour month-long traditional Nigerian Christmas celebrations referred to in Yoruba as Aso Odun. His childhood anticipation of seeing what flashy Aso Odun outfits his mother had picked out for him and his siblings months ahead of the festivities informed the way the conceptualised his design clothes. Calf-length plaid blazers and suit trousers with fringing at the bottom appeared subtle enough to wear for Christmas dinner but extravagant enough to get the dinner table talking.
Kenneth recently sat down for a phone interview with CNN to discuss the richness of his culture & how his recent busyness has turned extreme multi-tasking into a way of life.
"As a younger brand and as a millennial, I am in the space to do more things ... and not have anybody (telling me) how to do it," he said. "The actual beauty people can see in the work is (because) we have freedom to create what we want to create. And the whole point for me is about being really real."
Authenticity and conviction come through in his work, which has seen him modernize the ancient craft of aso oke hand-weaving, a technique developed by the Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria.
Within Yoruba communities, Ize explained, the work of master weavers is highly regarded, and families often pass down fine fabrics as heirlooms or use them to create traditional Nigerian formalwear.
However, Ize's aso oke fabrics, woven by his team in the western Nigerian town of Illorin, are fashioned into clean, contemporary silhouettes, expanding their appeal while celebrating the culture behind them. "The goal now is to actually bring weaving into the Nigerian school curriculum," he said. "But we also want to train adults, so we are building a site in Ilorin, as I want people to be able to come to my home country and learn something."
As a graduate from Vienna's Institute of Design, Ize knows first-hand the benefits of educational and cultural exchange, especially as fashion continues to grapple with questions about diversity: "At the same time we are teaching people ... we are shifting the narrative," he said.
To Ize, shifting the narrative also means using his line to tell "the stories that we as Nigerians have to tell."
"For this season's menswear, it's a story about what happens after Christmas, a time when our parents -- I mean the privileged ones -- gave us pocket money, so there are new coats in the wardrobe," he said.
The addition of his personal history, tastes and fantasies add honesty and piquancy to Ize's work. But his clothes also resonate with customers because, as Ize explained, he's making "pieces for today."
For many of his customers, Ize's clothes might be their first engagement with high-fashion made in Africa, which, as a continent, has long been excluded from conversations about luxury.
"I believe I am a professional in this industry and I force myself to do more each season," he said. "I am telling the international audience it's possible here."
Article Credits: CNN & i-D