A couple of weeks before his digital presentation at Paris Fashion Week in March, Thebe Magugu’s studio in downtown Johannesburg was robbed. The 27-year-old LVMH Prize-winner had just about completed his collection. “It was quite traumatic,” he says. “We had to redo some things from scratch.”
The stress of recreating a third of his collection was compounded by the fact that all of Magugu’s fabrics are handcrafted across South Africa; some of his textiles can take weeks to produce. But working locally also presented an advantage. “One of the fabrics we lost was made by an eco printmaker in Ladysmith. I told her what happened and she was able to make just enough for a blouse,” says the designer, who established his namesake brand in 2016. “If I produced internationally, I wouldn’t have been able to redo any of it in time.”
Magugu is at the forefront of a wave of African designers committed to utilising the craftsmanship and textiles of the continent. His garments, which for spring/summer 2021 feature sheath-like shift dresses embroidered with feathery tufts and button-up shirts printed with redacted transcripts from apartheid-era confession tapes, breathe new life into age-old techniques.
Others include Nigerian-born Kenneth Ize, who turns hand-loomed technicolour textiles into high-waisted trousers and fringe-trimmed jackets — they’ve been worn by Naomi Campbell and Childish Gambino — and Faith Oluwajimi of Bloke Ng, who uses hand-dyed batik fabrics that take a week to produce.
“These brands are changing the landscape for African talent,” says Belma Gaudio, founder of London-based store Koibird, which last year staged a seasonal “Lagos” edit that sold Magugu’s ready-to-wear alongside woven Mary Janes from Brother Vellies and tie-dye jumpsuits from KikoRomeo. “We were so impressed by the way the nuances of their separate cultures are celebrated in such a palpable way through their use of colour, textiles and motifs. They are not trying to follow a trend or jump on a zeitgeist . . . a slow fashion model is employed naturally from inception.”
Producing locally is not without its challenges. “Craft is in our DNA, but you can’t get 500 metres of fabric just shipped to your studio,” says Ize, who was born in Nigeria but moved to Austria with his parents when he was four. He established his own factory in Ilorin, west Nigeria, last year and has designed a more efficient loom that can produce 60 metres of fabric a day. “The [fabric] market is very local, for weddings and festive periods,” he says. The factory gives him creative control to experiment with new textiles.
Other designers have partnered with artisanal workshops. “We’re making conscious efforts to sustain craftsmanship to make sure we don’t lose these skills,” says Bloke founder Oluwajimi, who produces his wares across Nigeria. “If you don’t practise them, they die.”
Storytelling is as integral to these brands as craft. For his latest collection, Oluwajimi turned stick-figure illustrations of men and arrows — hand-drawn in the style of Nsibidi diagrams, an early Nigerian graphic language — into embroidery on knitwear. The angular motifs were a thoughtful response to last year’s End SARS protests against police brutality and in particular Nigeria’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The imagery was also used on billowy shirts and shorts crafted from batik fabrics — the technique uses wooden blocks to apply wax in various shapes or patterns, before being hand-dyed.
Magugu, meanwhile, crafts merino wool blazers with poetically bumpy panels, inspired by African scarification — a form of ancient tribal body art in which patterns are imprinted on the skin. Each raised surface on Magugu’s blazers is in fact 3D-printed Braille, reading: “What you do for your ancestors, your children will do unto you.”
“When people think of South Africa, they think of the traumas and apartheid,” says Magugu. “It’s satisfying to explore not-often-told African stories in a way that’s wearable and modern.”
The clothes are undeniably fresh. They feel new because the aesthetic is authentic — it hasn’t been appropriated and repurposed through a western lens. “What most designers do is travel, come to Africa, take inspiration and then go back to Europe,” says Oluwajimi. “Clothes that are being made by Africans who live and create in Africa and have a strong point of view have not always been . . . It’s more interesting than what we’ve all seen the world over.”
Their compelling narratives and references have resonated on Instagram, enabling these brands to develop their own voice, independent of the wider fashion world. “There’s definitely a sense of autonomy away from the global north,” says Magugu. Designers in Africa “don’t necessarily need that validation”, he says.
The west, however, is paying attention. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the industry’s reckoning with its lack of diversity, more eyes are on this emerging talent. In 2020, Aurora James of Brother Vellies launched a pledge initiative asking international retailers to commit 15 per cent of their shelf space to black-owned brands. So far, 21 retailers and brands have signed up, including Macy’s, Kith and Bloomingdale’s.
“We want to be taken off the mood board and given a seat at the table,” says Abrima Erwiah, president of Studio 189. The fashion brand, which is based in New York and produces its clothing with communities in Ghana and Burkina Faso, has worked with Fendi on a pop-up in Montauk and recently won the $80,000 CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative 2.0, which honours brands for best sustainable practice.
Ize and Magugu are also both finalists in the 2021 Woolmark Prize next month — competing for award that have been won in the past by both Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent and are currently worth £170,000. (Each finalist is also given about £30,000 for fabric innovation — an amount that funded Magugu’s Braille blazers.) Net-a-Porter has picked up Odile Jacobs’ billowing midi dresses, which are crafted from traditional African wax cloth.
Farfetch, meanwhile, has teamed up with New York-based ecommerce site The Folklore — which sells wares from an array of African brands — as part of its diversity strategy; patchwork jackets from Orange Culture are sold on Farfetch.com alongside contrast-printed turtlenecks by Lisa Folawiyo. “There are many challenges faced by emerging designers and brands in a crowded market,” says Celenie Seidel, senior womenswear editor at Farfetch. “The industry has a responsibility to respond to this appetite and demand for conscious inclusion, whether through casting or democratising brand exposure.”
Some African designers — Ize, Magugu and Oluwajimi included — do show on the European fashion calendar. (They also continue to show in Lagos.) “It puts more attention on what we do, and that’s the goal, to ensure we can support our craftsmanship,” says Oluwajimi, who recently presented his collection in Milan. Ize agrees; he says that Africans generally still look to the west, so his presence in Paris helps to elevate the craft at home. He says that, eventually, he wants his factory to become a manufacturing and textile hub for African and non-African brands. “Nigerians aren’t taught to think our craft is luxury. The more it’s elevated and understood, the more it’s valued.” He hopes it might encourage younger generations to think of fashion as a viable career.
Magugu does too. Growing up, he says he looked longingly to the established fashion regions. “There wasn’t any industry here. It instilled in my mind this idea that fashion can only happen in Europe or the US, and I remember my mum telling me that it was not really for us,” he says. “The fact that opportunity wasn’t afforded to me opened my eyes to the opportunity that could happen in Africa.” In 2019 he was awarded the €300,000 LVMH Prize, having never been to Paris until that night. He’s using the funds to further broaden the suppliers he works with to include other countries within the continent, focusing on regions with high rates of unemployment.
The world can’t get enough of us, because what we’re doing feels so exciting and new,” he says. “I want my brand to contribute for a very long time to this conversation.”