The idea of family is central to designer Thebe Magugu’s work and to celebrate the relaunch of its international website the brand has released a special Heritage Dress capsule, which explores the idea of motherhood throughout South African cultures. The nine dresses each feature an illustration of a mother and a child by the artist Phathu Nembilwi and represent the traditions of nine official cultures in South Africa: Basotho, Zulu, Swazi, Vhavenda, Vatsonga, Bapedi, Tswana, Xhosa and Ndebele.
In the imagery for the collection, Magugu explores how women physically carrying a lot on their heads is symbolic of the many responsibilities women in the family have to take on. Directed and built together with his long time art director Chloe Andrea Welgemoed, objects are artfully balanced on the heads of South African women he admires and the designer shows his sense of humour by adding modern every-day items, including grapes, onions, a telephone, biscuit tin and an iron.
“Conceptually, the imagery is modelled around this idea of women in Africa as totem poles,” Magugu tells British Vogue about the powerful imagery created for the second instalment of his Heritage Dress project, which puts African women at the forefront. “I think of my own family – like many women on the continent – who have to carry and balance so many things, physically and metaphorically while looking incredibly regal and chic.”
The designer cast a number of women whom he admires across many fields, including politician Lindiwe Mazibuko, lawyer Lita Miti-Qamata (who is also Magugu’s lawyer), rapper Nadia Nakai, actor Pearl Thusi, stylist Bee Diamondhead and fine artist Zandile Tshabalala. “All these people are incredibly special to me and very inspiring, and I wanted to bring them together to represent the heritage dress for what it is,” says Magugu.
Magugu uses the word “encyclopedic” to describe his brand’s ethos and he explains that he aims to capture moments and people that run the risk of being forgotten. He also commissioned three leading professors from the University of South Africa to deep dive into the customs and traditions of each culture’s mother and child relationships, and these essays will sit on the website alongside each dress. “Yes you can buy a beautiful dress, but you can also learn about traditions that run the risk of being forgotten,” he explains.
This capsule might explicitly depict the relationship between mother and child, but motherhood is always a central theme to his work. “The idea of matriarchal figures keeps on coming up and I think it’s in part because of how I was raised,” says the designer on a Zoom call from his studio. “I always say the women in my family are the blueprint to my brand. Even my logo is two women on the floor holding hands, which is the sign of sisterhood and unity.” He jokes that this puts his mum is a powerful position – “she uses that as a pass to go into the studio and look for samples and say I raised you!”