Last spring, when much-loved designer Alber Elbaz died suddenly of Covid just after launching a brand called AZ Factory, the fashion world first cried and then wondered what would become of his new company, backed by luxury conglomerate Richemont. How could this go on without him?
One answer came earlier this year: Hire a series of “amigo” designers to carry on the spirit of experimentation and self-care that has defined AZ Factory, expressing that spirit however they see fit: in clothes, but also in the objects, in the installations, whatever that may be. And the first would be Thebe Magugu, the 28-year-old South African designer, founder of an eponymous label and winner of the 2019 LVMH Prize for the next generation.
This month, Mr. Magugu unveiled his collection for AZ Factory, which will sell out in two drops in June and September. Here, he reveals how it happened and what it meant to take on the role of Mr. Elbaz.
How did your collaboration with AZ Factory come about? Did you know Alber?
I never met him, but when we had satellite TV, 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 crew were planning this tribute show, “Love Brings Love,” and that they had invited around 44 brands to pay tribute to Alber. He asked me to participate, and I said, of course.
It was such a beautiful sight, seeing the interpretation of each of Alber’s looks over the years. Two or three months passed, and I got another A-Z email telling me about their strategy for the future, that the company would be bringing in creatives from fashion, photography, etc. , to work with the brand, and I really wanted to do it. I wanted to tease the connection between me and Alber, especially the fact that we’re both from the continent: he from Morocco and I from South Africa.
This was the starting point of the collection. And then the question I asked was: What if Africa was the cradle of fashion?
Well, first and foremost, fashion values in the northern hemisphere have to do with storytelling – this idea of multiple hands working and knowledge that can be passed down from generation to generation. And these are really the same values that we have in Africa for African craftsmanship.
So how did you connect these two?
I started researching a lot of silhouettes and merging them with my own. Prior to his death, Alber had worked on several prints with an Algerian engraver named Chafik Cheriet. Many of them were animal prints, but quite abstract, and I was immediately drawn to them. It’s almost as if this collection is completing a collection that never existed. One of my favorites is this red burst meerkat.
Alber also worked with body-conscious, solution-focused knits, so I took that and made a pure white dress with those bell sleeves that reminded me of a bride, only in my language, Zulu , we call a makoti. It pays homage to this, but there is a cutout on the chest that has our stainless steel brotherhood emblem above. And then this little bag refers to the African geles, the hats, which I explored.
You also included the look you did for the show “Love Brings Love”, right, which is now part of the exhibition at the Palais Galliera?
Yes, we felt it was important to reintroduce this look and make it accessible to people, because it was originally unique and is now in a museum. It was a reference to Alber’s Guy Laroche period, a two-piece skirt and shirt, but in dip-dye. We had a running joke in the studio that it looked like he 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 printed with the grooves and indentations of a pleat. Even the belt is fake.
Sounds like a collaboration to me, though. What makes it different?
The word collaboration, especially now, implies power dynamics. But here, there was no imposed writ. And what makes it quite special is that I was able to leave the project with a lot of resources, especially technical ones. Often the AZ design studio would do things that I technically didn’t know how to do. And they gave me contacts with some suppliers and manufacturers. It’s more like an incubator in a way.
What else did you learn from the experience?
I was really struck by Alber’s sense of kindness and duty to others. It’s not that common in fashion. Somewhere in our history, the idea of kindness began to be associated with weakness or indecisiveness. But people like Alber, and like Virgil Abloh and a few others I’ve interacted with, operate from that inherent sense of kindness, even to the heights they reach. They still retain that soul and that humanity. Kindness, I think, will get you pretty far. I deeply believe in karma. What you emit will come back.
Does it make you want to tackle a bigger brand?
I think what I build with my brand is quite special and has ramifications beyond me as an individual. I really love what I do and what I create. But I will say that I am an insomniac. I do not sleep. So I could make a mark during the day and one at night. I could do anything.
This originally aired as part of The New York Times’ On the Runway series on Instagram Live. It has been edited and condensed.