The South African designer is in the vanguard of truly global style — one look at this shoot and you’ll get why.
Designer Thebe Magugu’s Ellis House studio is stationed in central Johannesburg, a stone’s throw from his old apartment in Yeoville. It’s been a while since I last visited his office, so I peek through a door on the first floor to confirm it’s his. There, a few steps away, sits his prestigious LVMH Prize.
In 2019, when he was 26, Magugu was the first African designer to win that award. It came with roughly $330,000 in funding and a year of mentorship from the world’s largest luxury group, and ultimately changed the direction of his life. “I can’t help but be grateful and optimistic,” Magugu says now. “If all of that could happen then, what does the future hold?”
The LVMH Prize also represented something much greater: a peak in a long-building wave of recognition for African fashion designers and the wealth of perspectives they have to offer the world. Magugu’s compelling, masterful storytelling resonates far and wide — his 2017 debut collection, “Geology,” was featured in Vogue Italia, and in 2021 the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired his “Girl Seeks Girl” dress (featuring artwork by illustrator Phathu Nembilwi) for its permanent collection. Costume designer Shiona Turini dressed Issa Rae in one of his red cutout blazers during the fourth season of Insecure, and now he sells his wares at top luxury e-tailers like Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi.
Magugu’s rich, detail-oriented collections are derived from historical lore and ephemera: the exploits of apartheid-era spies, assorted emblems of African spirituality, corruption trial testimonies from journalist Mandy Wiener’s The Whistle Blowers, and old photos documenting his family’s style and spirit. His colorful campaigns — and the culture journal he publishes, Faculty Press — make up a rich visual tapestry of South African life. They range from moody dreamscapes of towering figures to humble, warm portraits that reproduce the energy of the women who inspire his designs: stately in one, fabulous in another, proud in all. “They make regality out of nothing,” Magugu says of his chosen models. “It’s so beautiful.”
Though he admits his childhood growing up in Ipopeng, Kimberley, could often be lonely, Magugu’s desire to become a designer was born out of watching his mother, grandmother, and aunt wield fashion’s transformative power. “[My mother, Iris] acts according to what she’s wearing. If she’s looking good in a sleek item, she’s going to be rude to you,” he says with a laugh. “She understands that she’s fashioning a character through clothes.”
During Magugu’s teen years, his mother saved up for satellite television, and the first thing he saw when the screen lit up was Fashion TV (FTV) — specifically Marc Jacobs’s spring/summer 2009 collection for Louis Vuitton. The eureka moment convinced Magugu to take up sketching and photography, with Iris saving up again to purchase him a camera and some lights. Magugu credits his “ruthless curiosity” with helping him to build a creative refuge from life’s harsh edges. “My 10- to 16-year-old self really put in the work,” he says. “I’m so grateful to the person I was back then. Now I’m just appropriating him, basically.”
In Johannesburg, Magugu attended Leaders in the Science of Fashion (an institution that’s now part of STADIO), but it was not an easy road. When the financial situation at home deteriorated, Magugu struggled in the city. At different points during two particularly grueling years, he ate cornflakes for every meal, slept on a friend’s couch, and sneaked into classes as letter after letter from the school told him he could no longer attend. “It got really bad,” Magugu says of that time. “I didn’t know what was happening at home. Black families, we really protect the offspring from that kind of stuff.”
After scraping by in his final year, Magugu graduated in 2016. At first he subsisted thanks to the support of fashionable clients like fellow designer and collector Yasmin Furmie as well as the income secured from the StyleBySA initiative, a capsule collaboration with South African retailer Woolworths. Then came the International Fashion Showcase, a platform for the world’s most exciting young talent. After eight months in the program, Magugu won the top award for curation and fashion content, and a week later he was announced as an LVMH Prize semifinalist.
At this point, Magugu had also landed an agent: Annette Pringle-Kölsch. “I said to him, ‘You have to grab it. You’re going to win this thing,'” Pringle-Kölsch recalls of the LVMH Prize. “His way of storytelling, his point of view from a modern African life, people in fashion haven’t been shown this, in this way. It’s been done in art, but not in fashion.”
So convinced was Pringle-Kölsch that she partially financed the production of the LVMH collection. By the big day, Magugu was mentally exhausted, beating himself up for stumbling through his presentation and knowing there was R2000 (about $130) left in his bank account. When he tried to shuffle toward the back of the group for the announcement, he was ushered to the front. “I was like, ‘OK, so clearly you want to record my humiliation when I’m not selected for this,'” he says. “Then [actress and Vuitton ambassador] Alicia [Vikander] goes onstage and says a bunch of stuff in French. When she mentioned my name, I looked up, and everyone started clapping. It felt like a full-circle moment.”
Since then Magugu’s brand has garnered an international audience, and his success has stunned his family in the best way possible. “For them to see how those sketches on the floor have transformed into a viable business, I think it blows their mind,” Magugu says. “They’re extremely proud, not only of me, but I think of themselves as well, because it’s a risk.” His growing team includes three machinists, a pattern cutter, and an assistant, and, soon, a design intern, all of whom he considers kindred spirits.
While Magugu has become an industry favorite, he’s also keenly aware of pacing himself. He gets emotional when discussing how hurtful it can be to see someone’s life’s work reduced to a “rise and fall” article and how much he wants something different for himself. In November, when he told his aunt he wouldn’t be showing in February, he cried. “I didn’t realize how much the stress and pressure and this idea of outdoing myself had gotten to me,” he says. “Now I’m finding so much comfort in carving out my own space where I’m not trying to compete with anyone or anything. I want to truly enjoy this.”