Thebe Magugu channels divine inspiration for AW21

Thebe Magugu is one of fashion’s great storytellers. The LVMH Prize-winning talent uses fashion as a vehicle to communicate his life in South Africa, uplift the people he grew up around and tell the tales he was infatuated with as a child.

Whilst he dubbed his SS21 offering an “observation” of the Apartheid spies that once scoured his home turf, his latest collection circles back to his own personal voyage. “[The collection] is about the changing face of African spirituality, and my experiences in it,” he says over Zoom. He explains that spiritual healing has become somewhat of a phenomenon amongst young African people – many of whom proudly document their journey across social media. “I really think it points to a new type of identity amongst the globalised youth, alongside this indigenous side that they’re really embracing,” says Magugu, who was able to pull himself out of a lockdown slump through embracing spirituality.

In creating his AW21 Alchemy collection, Magugu set upon exploring the duality between modernity and the indigenous, uniting the opposing factors by working with traditional spiritual healers who consulted on prints and fabrics. He turned to Larisa Don, a local eco-textile maker who infused healing plants like cannabis and imphepho into Marino wool, which was pressed between sheets of corrugated iron and left to rust – creating elegant, streaked patterns.

The designer is up for this year’s Woolmark Prize, and a selection of these pieces will go forward as part of his finale offering – including a knitted blazer, made with textile company Byborre in The Netherlands, that has a raised surface on the back, paying homage to the scarifications traditional healers leave on their bodies. He also worked with Noentla Khumalo – a part-time stylist and traditional healer that communicates with bones – who threw gold knuckles, an old police whistle and red dice cubes (all objects she deviates with) onto a mat, which Magugu photographed and superimposed onto a dress that appears to be made of hay.

Each look is worn with a severe-shaped Sunday Best boot – Magugu’s first shoe – inspired by the elongated footwear pastors tend to wear under their robes in Johannesburg. Just over a week ago, when loading the collection into his car, Magugu was caught in an armed robbery, where a number of pieces were stolen, including many of the shoe samples. It’s a testament to Magugu’s ability that he was able to bounce back with mere days to spare, reproducing samples in time for the film he created with Kristin-Lee Moolman for Paris Fashion Week; a mini blockbuster of sorts that follows a love story between two figures from rival tribes.

Magugu has been able to navigate a conceptual space without sacrificing the elegance of his pieces at a surface level. “I want the collection to be able to exist,” he says. “To just be a beautiful collection even if you don’t know the story behind it.” It’s safe to say he’s achieved his mission.

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