Thebe Magugu in front of Magugu House, his new venture that incorporates fashion, art, culture and mindfulness
Thebe Magugu in front of Magugu House, his new venture that incorporates fashion, art, culture and mindfulness
Image: Thapelo Morebudi

In one of those delightful old-school Joburg houses — think gracious gardens, generously proportioned rooms, glorious wooden floors and the requisite glamorous staircase — Thebe Magugu has created a complete world.

It is here where his vision for a contemporary South African aesthetic can find its full expression. This is the house where fashion meets art, culture, and mindfulness.

If the open house he threw last weekend to celebrate the embodiment of his vision is a promise of things to come then Magugu House will shortly become a centre for a cultural movement that transcends the sartorial underpinnings of his brand.

I imagine it like the famous salons of Paris and New York where creative spirits collide in a hothouse of pithy conversation and generative ideas.

For this “setting the scene” moment it is a beautiful showcase for his work: in this room is the collaboration with Valentino’s ertswhile designer’s Pierpaolo Piccioli commissioned by Vogue; in an alcove under the stairs his collaboration with Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and Charlize Theron’s foundation; the Adidas work over there; in a sunlit sitting-room a gigantic Nelson Makamo referencing his work; and over here an installation of photographs featuring the third instalment of his Heritage Capsule collection exploring the subject of lobola and shot with 18 iconic South Africans, including Thuli Madonsela and John Khani.

Oh and the clothes of course — you cannot forget the clothes.

It has been an intense ride since he became the first African to win the coveted LVMH Prize in 2019, was a finalist for the Woolmark Prize in 2022, held annual shows in Paris and had a swift introduction to running a global business — so you can imagine that pinning Thebe down for lunch is a feat.

I order from Glenda’s because it is just down the road; her classic roast chicken with a tray of the world’s most outrageous roast potatoes and a healthy salad to try to counteract them, and arrive at Magugu House for a rapid-fire picnic lunch.

I almost started as a sort of small protest in a lot of ways against the very one-dimensional view of how African and South African fashion have normally been considered — I already hate that it’s prefixed like that as African fashion and not just fashion.

Thebe is sporting an ankle length red knit referencing Sunday church vibes — but his pace is anything but Sunday slow. “I feel like I’m running at like, a million miles an hour. it’s just been so, so intense. It’s been overwhelming in a very good way, because this is in a lot of ways what I’ve always wanted.

“Because now that I’ve achieved it, it comes with quite a lot of pressure — running a retail space is quite a lot as well. You know, making sure that things are stocked all the time, processes, I am taking my first stab at it? So it’s exciting and nerve-racking all at once. But I’m excited. I’m excited.”

His vision is for a space where people can pop in and be inspired.

“Everything is in the space — I didn’t want to fragment that business. I love the idea that everything is housed under one roof. So it’s the showroom, it’s the art galleries, the offices, the atelier towards the back, and just in terms of inventing — we’ll have the fashion show here in September, listening sessions with Spotify you know — it’ll be like a solidification of all the brand’s philosophies and thinking.”

For Thebe his philosophy has always been a polemic of sorts.

“I almost started as a sort of small protest in a lot of ways against the very one-dimensional view of how African and South African fashion have normally been considered — I already hate that it’s prefixed like that as African fashion and not just fashion. I think people chalk it up to a print or something that’s not as nuanced, as sophisticated as I know it to be — as everyone living in the country and on the continent knows it to be.

“So when I started the brand, I think that was really one of the big intentions; to tell our story, our nuance, our sophistication to the world and how that appears across a variety of disciplines, not only in fashion, but how it translates in film, music, photography and art, and I think that’s the overarching intention and philosophy that I’ve always held.” Even as a teen in Kimberley, where he and his bestie Trevor Stuurman allowed their creative imaginations to fly despite their small town constraints.

He has always been laser-focused on his cultural project and created a zine which now has its contemporary iteration on his website.Faculty Press is an annual zine “documenting the true face of contemporary South Africa, Africa, and their diaspora through the emerging voices advancing the cultural landscape our brand calls home. Contributors explore modern thought, ideas, and identity-defining moments through inspiring works from their respective mediums and practices.”

I wonder what was in the water in Kimberley?

“You know, I always joke, saying that I feel like my life is sort of split in two because I’ve seen the most drastic ends of what my life has been. But I think even though I have travelled quite far away from Kimberley, it will always be close — as my earliest references and inspirations, which have come to define the brand. I think of my grandmother being a nurse, so she always wore shirt dresses, and when she went to church, she always wore pleats and I find all those cues growing up have become quite integral to the brand.

“Pillars, you know what I mean? Because pleats and shirt dresses are quite utilitarian, quite functional and all that comes from my earliest references. So it’s a duality, where I’m so far away, but it’s all around me in that sense, because all the cues from back home continue to inspire and empower the work that I do today.”

This whirlwind of success is bittersweet for him.

“It”s been very interesting and it’s wrought with so many emotions both negative and positive, you know, I think for sure, on the positive side. I think of the fact that when I was younger, I had always dreamt of doing the things that I’ve gone on to to do.

“I remember with my grandmother she would sometimes not watch Generations because we would watch the Louis Vuitton show on MTV, you know what I mean? And I would always tell her, I’ll show in Paris one day, and I’ll know this person and this person will be a fan of my work and this and that — and that’s all come true. I’m only a little sad that she didn’t live to see it. But I think of course, in a lot of ways she is with me, you know, all the time.”

In a very real way Magugu House is a return home.

“What’s great about Magugu House is that it stops being intangible and cerebral and turns philosophy into something that you can actually come in and see and touch and hear. I think normally designers start local and then grow into a global space, but with me, it’s almost as if the opposite has happened.

“It almost started internationally and I was circling back home, you know, and making sure that my home base is catered for in terms of the brand and it stops feeling to local people as something that is vaguely South African but so intangible and far away. So this puts it into a context, into a physical context in a time in a place.”

This article originally appeared in Sunday Times Lifestyle

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