Yesterday, the South African designer Thebe Magugu won the famous LVMH Prize, which includes a financial grant of €300,000, plus various benefits, including a year of mentorship by LVMH in multiple fields, such as brand image and communication, production and distribution, as well as sourcing, among other cross-disciplinary subjects.
Thebe Magugu at the finale of the 2019 LVMH Prize at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Photo: Courtesy of PR.
While the appointment of the South African designer by the French multinational luxury conglomerate LVMH is in tune with the current overgrowing interest for the African creative scene, it also resonates with "Africa 2020," a cultural and economic program initiated by the government of French President Emmanuel Macron. In fact, this is not the first attempt at fostering cultural and economic rapprochement between Western nations and the African continent: at the G7 summit held in Biarritz on the 25th of August, the attendance of eight non-G7 countries was the subject of much attention. Five of them were from Africa and were represented by heads of state from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Egypt – and South Africa.
With its focus on the 54 States of the African continent, the Africa2020 program will take place throughout France (metropolitan France and overseas territories) from the 1st of June to the middle of December 2020 – and if one follows the tradition of the LVMH Prize which requires the winning designer to present his or her next collection during Paris fashion week, it appears that Thebe Magugu's first show in Paris would come at a very convenient moment in this cultural schedule dedicated to African excellence. "I am delighted that a candidate from the African continent has won the LVMH prize for the first time. Especially since Thebe Magugu, now 26 years old, is the youngest candidate on the 2019 shortlist," said Delphine Arnault during the LVMH Prize ceremony.
However, it also allows LVMH to progress on its quest for potential cultural and economic development opportunities on the African continent without taking any major risks, by beginning with a reliable country. As a leading economic power on the continent – with an economic wealth of $276 billion in 2018 according to the African Development Bank – South Africa is also a country where fashion and luxury are already established, mostly through international licenses and franchises in the retail and media sectors that are dedicated to luxury and fashion. In this context, African Fashion International (AFI), chaired by entrepreneur and billionaire philanthropist Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe, has been organizing fashion weeks in Johannesburg and Cape Town since 2007 with the aim of creating a favorable media and economic environment for established and emerging designers from the African continent. And it was precisely with the support of AFI that Thebe Magugu made his first steps into the international fashion industry.
Thebe Magugu and his models at the finale of the 2019 LVMH Prize at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Photo: Courtesy of PR.
Based in Johannesburg, the designer studied fashion and photography at the Johannesburg Fashion Design School & Retail Education Institute (LISOF), before being spotted by a young talent incubator (AFI Fastracks) in 2015 and finally launching his eponymous brand in 2017. His Spring/Summer 2019 collection entitled "African Studies," which he presented in March 2019 during the exhibition of the finalists' collections for the LVMH Prize, is deeply rooted in his interest and love for South African history and culture. "Creating clothes with cultural significance, exploring social issues, sharing stories from my country, empowering those I can, and making beautiful yet functional clothes women want to wear has been a checklist I continually hold the brand to," explains the designer. "And getting to share that with the world has been the biggest driving force."
When asked about his investment projects, Thebe Magugu is of disconcerting humility: while he relies on LVMH's support to expand his brand internationally, he nevertheless intends to invest a large part of his budget in the development of his company in South Africa, in order to recruit more staff locally and invest into local craftsmanship and artisans as part of his business development. The success of his brand will, therefore, rely on his capacity to invest in the development of his local South African fashion scene.
If Thebe succeeded in impressing the jury, it was not only because of the maturity and sophistication of his collection: it was also empowered by the fact that his sourcing of fabrics and his production are mainly of South African origin. According to Dior's Maria Grazia Chiuri, a member of the LVMH Prize jury, Magugu's fabrics are "as well-made as Italian fabrics." More than just another LVMH Prize success, Thebe Magugu's win is also a unique opportunity to explore South Africa's textile and fashion industry, which is full of creative power that is yet to be acknowledged – and rightfully so – on an international level. This leads us to the following question: What if Africa is at the heart of most international economic decisions today, partly because the continent is home to the economies of tomorrow?
What if the international luxury industry, which has grown tired of the usual "big four" (Paris, Milan, London, and New York) that are in desperate need of a new beginning, can find in African countries not only precious creative allies, but also a genuine economic El Dorado? Social and industrial innovations, as well as the increase in population, have made the African continent a significant opportunity for the fashion and luxury sectors. "Fashion can be such a powerful vehicle for change, so with my own collection, I always try to have the aesthetic, yes, but also to have something a little bit more intelligent," Thebe Magugu told the South African magazine Daily Maverick. "I just want to make an impact and contribute to something bigger than myself." And that is precisely what he is doing.