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Thebe Magugu: Designing his dreams, despite the odds

Magugu and adidas collaborate to bring impossible dreams in his Northern Cape community within reach

‘All my collabs must have a purpose and communicate key values,’ says Thebe Magugu.
‘All my collabs must have a purpose and communicate key values,’ says Thebe Magugu.
Image: Supplied/adidas

Born in Galeshewe Township in Kimberley, Northern Cape, fashion designer Thebe Magugu has brought global fashion to SA and infused it with local consciousness to tell previously untold stories.

His artistry lies in his ability to transcend the aesthetic aspects of his craft and create a narrative for the perseverance and resilience of SA’s “ordinary” heroes — like his township community and family, traditional healers, and the women of the Black Sash.

Just 27 years old, and only having graduated from Joburg’s Lisof School of Fashion and Design in 2016, Magugu’s list of accolades is already stellar. In 2019, he was the first African to be awarded the prestigious LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers.

In 2020, he staged his debut presentation at Paris Fashion Week. One of his creations resides in the permanent collection of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Closer to home, his collaboration with adidas is pushing him even further in the direction of purpose and responsibility.

“When you’re young, you think about the surface. It’s all about the flash and the glamour. Having matured a bit, I see that fashion has a bigger responsibility. All my collabs must have a purpose and communicate key values.” 

Maguagu says that as fashion took a hit during Covid-19, it gave him an opportunity to rethink his messaging: “My purpose became about empowering communities, and adidas has the same brand ideals. This collaboration is enabling me to harness the power of fashion — its immediacy and reach — to talk about a global catastrophe on a very localised level. Some people have different masks for each outfit, while others in hard-hit low-income areas don’t have access to masks at all. Our mask project has changed that in some communities. We’ve also been able to change schooling for the children in some communities, by bringing online teaching resources and skills within reach.”

Education and family lie very close to Magugu’s heart. Without either, his aspirations would have been impossible to attain. He learnt at an early age, from the women in his family, that fashion has power; that people can use their style both to communicate and to protect themselves. At school, he started a magazine called Little Black Book, in which he repackaged international stories and trends for the community. Back then, this book went on to replace the school magazine. Now, he names each season’s collection for a university subject and publishes a magazine called Faculty Press.

Magugu reflects for a few moments before articulating the legacy he’d like to leave — a difficult question for someone so young. “I like the idea of giving people more knowledge and piquing their curiosity, of telling SA’s stories so that we don’t lose our history. 

“My intention is to use fashion to expand people’s reference and knowledge about our culture and heritage. I want to be remembered for having been an example of perseverance and resilience; for being an inspiration to people who find themselves in tough spaces.”

If Magugu has his way, he’d also like to be remembered for one day dressing Michelle Obama: “Her history encapsulates so many of my beliefs. She has immense strength of character, and she remains so driven. Her wardrobe is always so beautifully political. While she was the First Lady, showcasing young, upcoming designers from all over the world was an incredible and powerful statement, and she continues to change the world in style and grace.” 

An impossible dream? Most likely not, given Magugu’s tenacity and sheer commitment to changing the world through fashion. 

This article was paid for by adidas.