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The Voice of Thebe Magugu’s Fashion: An Analysis of Representational Strategies


By Nande Sulelo, Discipline Leader (Media programmes) at the STADIO School of Fashion


KEYWORDS


  • Social Commentary

  • Representational strategies

  • Decolonised luxury fashion


Jacquiline Maingard, in her (1998) chapter on Framing the South African National Cinema and Television, identified ‘the voice of the filmmaker’ present in the cinematic documentaries of the 1980s and the 1990s. This Maingard explained to be the “authorial presence in the film’s social statement – and to the notion of the ‘speaking subject’ - how, to what extent, and to what effect the subject of the film is ascribed agency.” (p. 116). Nichols in Maingard (1998) furthers this notion stating that the voice is “that which conveys to us a sense of the text’s social point of view”. This understanding of film is useful in interrogating Thebe Magugu’s fashion as a site of social commentary. Taking Maingard’s assertions of the speaking subject, similar arguments can be made about Thebe Magugu’s fashion collections, where his ‘subjects’ carry overt social messages that narrate the designer’s ideological position.


At the heart of the young designer’s collections is a deliberate representation of luxury fashion with an impertinence that challenges the very definition and standards of luxury fashion. Throughout Thebe Magugu’s collections from Geology (S/S 2017) to the current ensemble Genealogy (S/S 2022), representational strategies are weaved into the collections to encourage the audience’s identification with the implied identities, rather than a sartorial expression of opulence. It is argued that this deliberate focus on the quotidian African experiences is a strategy to ascribe agency to the sources of inspiration, thus serving as exemplary in decolonising African luxury fashion. Further, the brand is rooted in ‘Africanness’ to give agency to the people, places and histories that inspired the luxury collections. Magugu attests to this, noting that he aims for his work to be “modern relics for the stories of South Africa” (Mohammed, 2022).


Although the collections are different, they are still part of one whole – shown through the repetition of the representational strategies across the different collections. Hence, they read as chapters of one encyclopaedia of ‘Africanness’. There are numerous techniques the designer employs to communicate not only his personal history but also his view of a shared national and social history. This brief analysis will discuss three representational strategies that permeate the sartorial anthologies and communicate a distinct African narrative; “re-imagining and re-articulating alternative identities and subjectivities that have long been denied” (de Greef, 2020: 903).


Dispelling luxury fashion’s grandeur by recognising ordinary people’s untold stories


Barring Counter Intelligence (S/S 2021), where the central figure of inspiration was Olivia Forsyth, Magugu is yet to tell stories of prominent celebrated individuals and instead focuses on his close family and experiences. Even with Counter Intelligence, Olivia Forsyth does not represent a figure usually found in fashion contexts. The fashionability of the politically ambiguous spies who inspired the collection is secondary to the historical significance and how this history situates the brand within a South African context. Home Economics (A/W 2018) could successfully be regarded as a site of activism, bemoaning the plight of women in South Africa.

Magugu’s retelling of his family’s style history in Genealogy affords agency and bestows significance to these ordinary people who are not fashion models or celebrities who usually are muses for luxury collections. Magugu uses photographic backdrops to further elucidate and propel the centrality of his family to his collection.


The Acknowledgement of References: People, Places, Events


Genealogy, a sartorial adulation of his family, is accompanied by a biopic-style fashion film where the designer discusses the new looks with his mother and aunt, who were amongst some close family members who inspired the collection. The Heritage Dress limited collection is a homage to South African culture and heritage, showcasing eight dresses each inspired by an indigenous South African tribe.


Anthro 1 (AW 2020) depicts Magugu’s upbringing and the community he grew up in. The collection emphasizes the importance of “showing…the many faces (and) places who mural (his) work and served as (his) earliest (and) most poignant references” (2020). A community church made of corrugated iron as well as the ‘big hole’ in Kimberly, are some of the visual references that accompany the lookbook to explicitly reference the designer’s birthplace. The same collection also features a jacket that “has South Africa’s constitution printed on the back lining, which is shown through an intentional tear.” (Magugu, 2021).


Counter Intelligence is a specific reference to apartheid spies and features amongst other signifiers the Fingerprint Bohemia Dress which carries Olivia Forsyth’s fingerprint depicted as polka dots.


These and many other specific references imbued in his collections are a depiction of Magugu’s intentionality regarding decolonising fashion; true to Slade and Jansen's (2020) idea of decolonising fashion as being “about correcting modern fashion’s claim to universality and reframing it in its historical and geographical context” (p. 811).


Foregrounding of Quotidian Experiences


The Genealogy campaign is situated within the context of a South African township signified by the minibus taxi, pseudo washing lines with laundry and the interior features of the house and the red/blue/white nylon bags which, in the South African context, are a symbol of South Africa’s history of migrant labour. The collection’s fashion film narrates stories behind the outfits that inspired Genealogy with Magugu being the conduit between the everyday and high fashion. Together with his aunt and mother, the designer delves into the stories of the subjects in the photos.


Divinity and spirituality are central to the 2021 A/W collection Alchemy. The act of connecting with ancestors as a spiritual practice is celebrated through fashion and traditional healers were key sources of information for a meaningful interpretation.


Nostalgia is a thematic driver of Anthro 1, and the designer leans on this to relate to his family’s experience of community support during the time of his grandmother’s passing. Describing the necessity of this sartorial ethnography, Magugu recalls the motivated forgetting of his township Ipopeng that characterised the apartheid regime. Of this, he laments, “disavowal of everyday township lives, of powerful personal stories (and) of extraordinary achievements reflects this ongoing dismissal both in South Africa (and) the world. Ipopeng’s stories have been erased. They are understood as unimportant” (nd).


The collection is not only a memoir but is also a means to give credence to the township story that is often fetishized or blatantly ignored. Anthro 1 allows “the complex, largely disavowed social, historical, and political histories (to be) stored in the seams of…fashion object(s)” (de Greef p. 902). Narrating African motifs through ordinary experiences is a deliberate subversion of Western imagination of Africa that usually exoticises the concept of African identity for a palatable fashion expression.


Conclusion


Thebe Magugu’s collections are used as ideologically positioned agents of social commentary. The designer’s sartorial vocabulary overtly propagates an African agenda, one borne by clever representational strategies that are never divorced from their historical and social origins. Magugu’s work exemplifies Slade and Jansen’s idea that decoloniality in fashion is about “acknowledging and listening to a diversity of voices across geographies, age, race, gender, and life experiences” (p. 810).


Magugu’s insistence on acknowledging people, places, and events outside of the immediate high fashion context ensures that his fashion is never removed from the stories of those who inspired it. Thus, these people, or places, and historical events are at the centre of each collection instead of relegating them to the periphery as outsiders to luxury fashion. The fashion is used as a vehicle to chronicle not only Magugu’s personal history but also that of the marginalised, whilst also realising – to an extent - an activism agenda.


**A version of this topic was presented at the 9th edition of DUT’s Digifest and Annual Research Conference in September 2022.



References:


de Greef, E., 2020. Curating fashion as decolonial practice: Ndwalane’s mblaselo and a politics of remembering. Fashion Theory, 24(6), pp.901-920.


Maingard, J. 2003. ‘Framing South African National Cinema and Television’ in Balseiro, I. and Masilele, N. (ed). To change reels: film and culture in South Africa. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, p115 - 31.


Magugu, T. nd. Collections. Available: https://www.thebemagugu.com/collections Accessed: 10/ 7/ 2022


Magugu, T. 2021. [Twitter]. 02 Nov. Available: https://twitter.com/_ThebeMagugu_/status/1455518599238537217 Accessed: 10/7/2022


Mohammed, S. 2022. Thebe Magugu: “I Want My Clothes to Be Relics for South Africa”. [Online]. Available: https://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/13995/thebe-magugu-south-africa-genealogy Accessed: 17/ 7/ 2022


Slade, T & Jansen, M., A. 2020. ‘Letter from the Editors: Decoloniality and Fashion’ in Fashion Theory, 24:6, 809-814