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Thebe Magugu

on creating from honesty and being seen.

6

Ten years ago, Brené started the Daring Interview series on her blog. It quickly became one of our favorite features. Now, we are relaunching the series and adding in a few new questions, including some from the late James Lipton, host of Inside the Actors Studio, and Smith Magazine’s Six-Word Memoir.

Thebe Magugu is a designer based in Johannesburg and the founder of a luxury fashion brand that bears his name. Born in Kimberley, a small mining town in the middle of South Africa, Thebe is deeply influenced by the matriarchs who have shaped his life across three generations. Founded in 2016, the brand revolves around the premise of education, with every collection paying homage to a university subject. From geology to gender studies, African studies to alchemy, each collection both informs and inspires as it champions the various cultures, stories, and people who have touched the vision. Thebe won the International Fashion Showcase with the British Fashion Council and the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Prize in 2019; has collaborated with brands like Dior, Valentino, and Adidas; and works to not listen to the critics in the cheap seats

 

Thebe puts the finishing touches on a model wearing a look from his collaboration with Valentino Haute Couture and Vogue; photography by Delali Ayivi.
Thebe puts the finishing touches on a model wearing a look from his collaboration with Valentino Haute Couture and Vogue; photography by Delali Ayivi.

Vulnerability is . . .

Vulnerability is laying yourself bare through fear and shame in order to participate and create from a place of transparency and honesty, and this also allows others to connect and let down their own guards in the process to receive.

What role does vulnerability play in your work?

My work in fashion needs to connect with people from various backgrounds and walks of life. As fragmented as my customer is — across gender, beliefs, creeds, geography — the one thing that consolidates all of them together is work that feels soulful and truthful, which takes an immense sense of vulnerability. 

Through my work, I present all my dreams, my fears, my ego, my insecurity, and it takes a level of being OK with being “seen” like that to really create work that speaks to the human condition. I laugh thinking back on an example I can give — I have a dress from one of my first collections that has my nightmares printed on it from when I was a child. Anna Wintour saw it and commented, “I love it. Let’s just hope no one psychoanalyzes you,” which was so funny, but it’s how I want to treat my work — as a place I can share and not feel shamed or judged. Through this, ironically, it gives space for other people to be comfortable with sharing their own experiences.

Vulnerability is laying yourself bare through fear and shame in order to participate and create from a place of transparency and honesty.

 

What’s something that gets in the way of your creativity, and how do you move through it?

I think creatives at the beginning of their careers go through the unexpected transition of going from “creative” to “business.” I always say, a few years ago, I was in my room sketching, but when I suddenly looked up, I was steering this ship — full of responsibility and a team to lead. Creativity in instances like this, I feel, gets quite stifled because one is also worrying about production, finances, HR, legal. 

I have always prided myself on being a jack-of-all-trades, which in hindsight was such an ego trip because true power comes in being able to delegate and focus on what makes you happy. I am continually unbundling myself from the idea of being an “enterprise” by making sure that there are buffers around me that deal with the noncreative obligations so that I can focus. This is critical because successful fashion businesses are moved forward by the imagination, and if this takes a back burner, it’s hard to inspire others.

From left: For Thebe’s SS22 Collection, he explores family photos and reinterprets the fashion featured in it for today; photography by Paul Samuels; The Spring 2021 Collection looks at the changing face of African spirituality; photography by Kristin-Lee Moolman; A dress from Thebe’s Spring 2022 Collection featuring images of his mom and her siblings when they were younger; photography by Paul Samuels.
From left: For Thebe’s SS22 Collection, he explores family photos and reinterprets the fashion featured in it for today; photography by Paul Samuels; The Spring 2021 Collection looks at the changing face of African spirituality; photography by Kristin-Lee Moolman; A dress from Thebe’s Spring 2022 Collection featuring images of his mom and her siblings when they were younger; photography by Paul Samuels.

It’s often difficult to share ourselves and our work with the world, given the reflexive criticism and mean-spiritedness that we see in our culture — especially online. What strategies do you use to show up, let yourself be seen, share your work with the world, and deal with criticism? 

I always joke that I don’t have the emotional intelligence to deal with regret one day, so I might as well go guns-blazing on the daily. If I am creating from a place that is honest and informed and the only person I am inherently trying to impress is myself, then I always feel safe releasing work because I know it wasn’t incepted from a place of malice or to cause controversy.

An example I can give that answers this question is that I recently designed the official football kit with my technical partner, Adidas, for the Orlando Pirates, South Africa’s biggest football club. I poured months of research and work into the project and created a set of imagery that stuck so true to my own creative and aesthetic direction. When the announcement was made, I received thousands of attacks from Orlando Pirates fans who told me how ugly the kit was and how I had cursed the club. It hurt, but I know that I couldn’t have been prouder of that jersey design, and ironically, the same fans are beginning to send me apology messages now that they have seen the kit in person, with most saying they had not expected it. People had simply experienced the shock of the new, which was valuable insight for me.

Describe a snapshot of a joyful moment in your life.

In 2019, I became the first African in history to win the prestigious Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Prize. This broke so many preconceived notions I had about myself, and I was grateful for that moment because it felt like the culmination of lifelong work and faith.

Thebe designing with a model
Thebe works his magic on a look from a collaboration — Thebe Magugu x DIOR x Charlize Theron —  in his Johannesburg studio; photography by Travys Owen.
A look from a collaboration — Thebe Magugu x DIOR x Charlize Theron; photography by Travys Owen.
A look from a collaboration — Thebe Magugu x DIOR x Charlize Theron; photography by Travys Owen.

Do you have a mantra, manifesto, or favorite quote for living and loving with your whole heart?

Theodore Roosevelt’s speech about the man in the arena. I say it to myself every time I need to be brave.

What is your favorite word?

Universe. 

What is your least-favorite word?

“It is what it is.”

What sound or noise do you love?

I have been listening to a lot of nature sounds when I work or sleep, which I had underestimated so much but now realize that it’s a calming game changer — especially for people who have continued and extended rumination and chatter in the mind.

What sound or noise do you hate?

Anyone interacting with Styrofoam. It gives me shivers.

Thebe’s Heritage Dress collection, featuring dresses that have illustrations on them and depict the mother-and-child relationship through nine South African cultures; photography by Tatenda Chidora.
Thebe’s Heritage Dress collection, featuring dresses that have illustrations on them and depict the mother-and-child relationship through nine South African cultures; photography by Tatenda Chidora.

What is your favorite curse word?

The classic one — shit.

A song/band/type of music you’d risk wreck and injury to turn off when it comes on?

I pride myself in having varied taste when it comes to music, but country is the only genre I cannot do. At all.

Favorite show on television?

Currently? The Crowded Room, on Apple TV. What riveting psychological stuff! It shows you how powerful the mind is once it’s made itself up for you — or even against you.

Favorite movie?

Black Swan. It explores the far margins of what someone will do in order to be — or be perceived as being — perfect. It really shook me, and I think of the end of that movie whenever I feel frustrated that I am not getting or perfecting something. Perfection is a disease.

As fragmented as my customer is — across gender, beliefs, creeds, geography — the one thing that consolidates all of them together is work that feels soulful and truthful.

 

What are you grateful for today?

I am sitting in full health in a beautiful silent retreat in nature. It is magnificent. 

If you could have anything put on a T-shirt, what would it be? 

“Walking Existential Crisis.”

Favorite meal?

Classic South African farm-style breakfast, with bacon, sausage, toast, and a small steak, but I give myself that luxury once a week, because it’s a colossal amount of carbs and fat.

A talent you wish you had?

I wish I could sing. I always say I did fashion as a second choice because I can’t captivate people with my voice. I imagine my sound would be a mix of Lana Del Rey, Ladytron, and Lebo Mathosa. Not sure why I have no male influence here, but hey!

From left: A look from Thebe's Spring 2021 collection that looked at the changing face of African spirituality, photography by Kristin-Lee Moolman; Thebe grew up with his grandmother, mother, and aunt, who each had their own style and served as constant inspiration for his work, photography by Andile Buka; A model in a look from a collaboration — Vogue x Thebe Magugu x Valentino Haute Couture, photography by Delali Ayivi.
From left: A look from Thebe’s Spring 2021 collection that looked at the changing face of African spirituality, photography by Kristin-Lee Moolman; Thebe grew up with his grandmother, mother, and aunt, who each had their own style and served as constant inspiration for his work, photography by Andile Buka; A model in a look from a collaboration — Vogue x Thebe Magugu x Valentino Haute Couture, photography by Delali Ayivi.

Favorite song/band?

Lana Del Rey. I just think her talent for really immersing people into her universe is unparalleled, and her lyrics are sometimes unbearable, which reflect my own thoughts so much. She is also someone I feel was so misunderstood earlier on, but I find that through her work, she is incredibly multidimensional, which I think is something women in our society are not allowed to be. I cannot possibly choose my favorite song. My organs would fail.

What’s on your nightstand?

Currently, Another Country, by James Baldwin, and — embarrassingly — a jar of Coke (the drink)!

What’s something about you that would surprise us?

I’m a bit of an extreme speed queen (quad biking, especially) and also an avid gamer.

Your six-word memoir . . .

An analog boy in a digital world.

I have always prided myself on being a jack-of-all-trades, which in hindsight was such an ego trip because true power comes in being able to delegate and focus on what makes you happy.

Zehra Javed headshot

By Zehra Javed

Zehra Javed is the associate editor of brenebrown.com. With experience in social media management and new media, particularly TikTok, Zehra is passionate about using social media as a tool for connection. As a member of Generation Z, Zehra has grown up navigating between the physical and digital worlds. With one foot on grass and one foot online, she is constantly seeking a balance to integrate who we are in person and who we are onscreen so that we can be more connected than ever. Zehra holds a bachelor of science in industrial distribution, with minors in computer science and mathematics from Texas A&M University.

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