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‘What If Africa Was the Birthplace of Fashion?’

Last spring, when the much-loved designer Alber Elbaz unexpectedly died from Covid just after introducing a label called AZ Factory, the fashion world first mourned, then wondered what would happen to his new company, backed by the luxury conglomerate Richemont. How could it go on without him?

An answer came earlier this year: Enlist a series of “amigo” designers to carry on the spirit of experimentation and self-care that defined AZ Factory, expressing that spirit as they saw fit: in clothes, but also in objects, at installations, whatever. And the first would be Thebe Magugu, the 28-year-old South African designer, founder of a namesake label and winner of the 2019 LVMH Prize for emerging talent.

This month, Mr. Magugu unveiled his collection for AZ Factory, which will be sold in two drops in June and September. Here he reveals how it happened and what it meant to take on the mantle of Mr. Elbaz.

How did your collaboration with AZ Factory come about? Did you know Alber?

I never met him, but when we first got satellite television, I used to see his fashion shows. Then last year, I got an email from Alex Koo, Alber’s partner, saying he and the AZ Factory team were planning this tribute show, “Love Brings Love,” and they’d invited 44 or so brands to pay homage to Alber. He asked me to take part, and I said, of course.

It was such a beautiful show, seeing everyone’s interpretation of Alber looks throughout the years. Two or three months passed, and I got another email from AZ telling me about its strategy going forward, that the company would invite creatives across fashion, photography, what have you, to work with the brand, and I really wanted to do it. I wanted to tease the connection between myself and Alber, especially the fact that we’re both from the continent: him from Morocco, and me from South Africa.

That was the starting point of the collection. And then the question I posed was: What if Africa was the birthplace of fashion?

What if?

Well, first and foremost, the values of fashion in the Northern Hemisphere have to do with storytelling — this idea of many hands working and knowledge that can be passed on from generation to generation. And those are really the same values we have in Africa for African crafts.

So how did you connect these two?

I started researching a lot of silhouettes and merging them with my own. Before he passed, Alber had been working on quite a few prints with an Algerian print maker named Chafik Cheriet. A lot of them were animal prints, but quite abstracted, and I was immediately attracted to them. It’s almost as if this collection completes a collection that never was. One of my favorites is this exploded meerkat in red.

Alber was also working with body conscious and solution-driven knitwear, so I took that and made a pure white dress with these bell sleeves that reminded me of a bride, which in my language, Zulu, we call a makoti. It pays homage to that, but there’s a cutout on the chest that has our stainless steel sisterhood emblem on it. And then that little bag references the African geles, the hats, that I’ve been exploring.

You also included the look you made for the “Love Brings Love” show, right, which is now part of the exhibition at the Palais Galliera?

Yeah, we felt like it was important that we reintroduce this look and make it available to people because originally it was a one-off and is now in a museum. It was a reference to Alber’s Guy Laroche period, a two-piece skirt and shirt, but dip-dyed. We had a running joke in the studio that it looked like it ran into a giant squid.

We also did a lot of trompe l’oeil, like the skirt that looks pleated but is just a flat piece of fabric that’s printed with the grooves and the impressions of a pleat. Even the belt is fake.

This does sound like a collaboration to me, though. What makes it different?

The word collaboration, especially now, implies a power dynamic. But here there was no brief imposed. And what makes it quite special is that I got to leave the project with quite a few resources, especially technical resources. A lot of times the AZ design studio was doing things that I technically didn’t know how to do. And they gave me contacts to certain suppliers and manufacturers. That makes it more like an incubator in a way.

What else did you learn from the experience?

I was really struck by the sense of kindness and duty to others that Alber had. It’s not that common in fashion. Somewhere in our history, the idea of kindness began to be associated with weakness or indecision. But people like Alber, and like Virgil Abloh and some others I have interacted with, operate from that inherent sense of kindness, even at the heights they reach. They still retain that soul and humanity. Kindness, I think, will get you quite far. I really deeply believe in karma. What you put out will make its way back.

Does this make you want to take on a bigger brand?

I think that what I’m building with my brand is quite special and has ramifications over and above me as an individual. I really do enjoy what I do and what I’m creating. But I will say, I am an insomniac. I don’t sleep. So I could do one brand in the day and one at night. I could do it all.


This was originally broadcast as part of The New York Times’ On the Runway series on Instagram Live. It has been edited and condensed.