Growing up in the South African cities of Kimberley and Johannesburg, designer Thebe Magugu was exposed to a variety of African tribes and traditions from a young age. The diverse beauty of his country has always informed his design work. “I’m always focusing on stories that are quite niche, but run the risk of being forgotten,” Magugu says. For his latest project, Magugu wanted to continue this spirit by creating a dress inspired by each of South Africa’s eight prominent tribes: Zulu, Tswana, Swati, Vhavenda, Pedi, Xhosa, Tsonga, and Sotho. “I wanted to memorialize the main eight cultures that we have here in South Africa because I so deeply appreciate my own,” says Magugu, who is of the Tswana tribe. “We’re best known for our storytelling and our handwork, but all the other cultures have their own traditions and quirks that I really wanted to represent in a dress.”
The designer collaborated with the South African illustrator Phathu Nembilwi to capture each tribe as a design. “I asked her to paint her own interpretation of the eight tribes in a beautiful, abstract way,” Magugu says. Nembilwi’s illustrations were then printed onto crepe fabric and constructed into “bohemian-style dresses with open necklines,” Magugu says. “It’s a proportion that looks good on everyone. I wanted anyone who sees that dress to be able to see themselves in it.”
Although each dress in the collection—which will be available in early June on Magugu’s website and select retailers—is graphic and summery, Magugu wanted each to have its own individual flair. The Tswana-inspired dress, for instance, depicts two subjects beating on a drum that they made, a nod to the tribe’s tradition of beadwork and handiwork. For the Soto tribe, Magugu incorporated their traditional dress onto the garment. “They wear a very specific hat that’s in a triangular shape, and they’re often clothed with these really big wool blankets around them, so you can see it in the artwork,” Magugu says.
With the help of South African photographer Aart Verrips, writer Vuyolwethu Reoagile, and stylist Chloe Andrea Welgemoed, Magugu was able to communicate the message behind the collection thoroughly and with care. The models—who are all friends of Magugu and South African creatives—were photographed in the dresses and paired with special South African objects. “You’d find these objects in a typical South African home,” Magugu says of the conch shells, baskets, and more. Reoagile also wrote descriptions of each tribe that will be available on Magugu’s website. “I really wanted it to also be an education of some kind,” Magugu says. “Vuyolwethu gave a brief overview of the cultures, what region of South Africa they often occupy, and what they’re best known for.”
Creating the collection was an education for Magugu as well. “I know quite a bit about [South African] culture through friends and family, but when we were looking at each culture, it gave me even more of an appreciation.” The designer says that’s why he loves fashion—he wants to continue sharing his country’s beauty with others. “If I was just doing clothes for clothes sake, I might want to look at another discipline,” he says. “I’m not a very talkative person, but [by] making clothes and engaging with fashion’s cerebral side, I feel heard.”