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Thebe Magugu LVMH Prize winner
Thebe MaguguPhotography Marie Dehe, styling Isabelle Sayer

Thebe Magugu and Hed Mayner on their LVMH Prize wins

The designers discuss what scoring the top honours at this year’s prestigious award will mean for them

Thebe Magugu did not expect to win the 2019 LVMH Prize, the prestigious award of €300,000 and a year of mentorship bestowed annually to the world’s most promising young designer. “I’m in complete disbelief,” he said last week at the Foundation Louis Vuitton, still holding the golden trophy presented to him an hour earlier by actor Alicia Vikander and a group of the most famous fashion designers in the world. “It’s crazy – just being in that jury room, standing in front of these people I’ve looked up to since high school. It’s like, oh, you’re not just like these holograms!”

Magugu, who hails from and makes his clothes in South Africa, is only one of two African designers ever nominated (Kenneth Ize, who was born in Nigeria, is the other – he too was in this year’s line up). But Magugu doesn’t want to be his country’s – let alone his continent’s – golden boy. He wants to lift up those around him, the talents who might not otherwise get attention from Western press and media – hence the creation of a magazine, Faculty Press, designed to showcase the creatives making work alongside him.

Having studied at LISOF in Johannesburg, his clothes are rich with meaning that’s both personal and tied to his identity as a South African, and include tags which contain chips that can be scanned and synced to an app so the wearer can learn more about their piece. Take his SS20 collection, inspired by a fearless group of South African female revolutionaries who fought against the country’s apartheid – while dressed in black sashes. “I really respond to fashion like that,” Magugu says. “It goes over and above being a product to push an agenda or push politics or incite change in so many ways.”

How does it feel to have won? Did you think you had a shot?

Thebe Magugu: I don't even know what to think right now. No, I think because everyone is so incredible at what they do, just being in the presence of the other designers really is so so amazing and so winning the prize is just the cherry on top.

How does it feel to be the first African designer to win the LVMH Prize?

Thebe Magugu: Well, there’s so many incredible people from the continent and from South Africa who are doing such incredible work in their respective fields. People’s visions of the continent and the countries (within it) are often very closed off – if they just took the time to research and look at what’s happening they’d see that there are so many incredible things coming out of there, people doing the most incredible work across a variety of fields and disciplines.

What’s it like being a young creative in South Africa right now?

Thebe Magugu: In the past people have always wanted to impress people on the outside but now people aren’t doing it for global recognition. I think people are just focusing on their own heritage and seeing how they can showcase that in a modern way, but for themselves. 

Your zine Faculty Press has really showcased that…

Thebe Magugu: That’s how I wanted to show the other most groundbreaking work in the country who don't get the visibility I know that they deserve. Because I was doing all these projects in London that were going to attract quite a bit of press, I thought it would be amazing to just throw that in there as well – so much good has come from that. People in London and Paris who saw it contacted some of the people in the magazine, the writers and some of the photographers, and they’re getting work and getting recognised. So yeah, it really did what I wanted it to do, just getting people to know more about the creatives in the country.

What does winning the money and year of mentorship mean for you, in a practical sense?

Thebe Magugu: I feel like I’m gonna be able to breathe for the first time in a long time. When you're an emerging designer, especially from an emerging market, you have to be very resourceful and obviously as a creative that’s what we do. Problem solving, creating everything out of nothing – it takes a lot from you. So this will really allow me to breathe and get a studio that I can work comfortably from and hire staff and put them in key positions to help me run the day-to-day because until now, it's just me and my machinist, so it would be really great to get a team occupy key positions.

What will you use the €300,000 prize money for?

Thebe Magugu: I think instead of putting on something grand, like a show, I’d rather put that money toward getting a showroom like in Paris and meeting buyers and starting small and growing organically instead of doing this ambitious thing without the proper systems and support in place.

Tell me about your upcoming collection...

Thebe Magugu: All my collections are named after university subjects, so there’s Art History, this is from Home Economics and this is Prosopography. Prosopography is the study of a group of people whose biography isn’t that well known and that got me thinking about these incredible women called ‘The Black Sash’. When people think about South Africa’s history they think of big names, particularly the men, forgetting about all the other people whose work led to our democracy.

The Black Sash was an incredible group of women who really fought for the rights and dignity of black people. When I was doing research, I happened to speak to some original members – one said in the mornings she’d cook breakfast for her husband and for her kids in this day dress and once they left she’d put on boots and jeans and an anorak and she’d go and protest. It was so incredible to hear her story – she lived in these two worlds, domesticity and disobedience. They used haunting as a tactic. So they'd stand outside cabinet ministers (offices) hundreds of women in the black sash looking down, using shame as a tactic. Once their sashes were confiscated, they wore long gloves and just waltzed around. Their work really shows the power of fashion.

For menswear designer Hed Mayner, who won the Karl Lagerfeld prize of €150,000, the decision to pursue a career in fashion was based on an intuition. Although born in a small village in North Israel, he grew up in a creative household: “Both my parents were artists – my mother is a painter, my father is a metalworker – so I think it made sense to go into a creative field,” he says. 

Mayner got his fashion education in France at the Parisian Institut Français de la Mode. One of the more conceptual designers in this year’s shortlist, his work is inspired by the silhouettes that surrounded him in his youth, but also bringing them together with other ways of dressing to “create some kind of body language in the clothes”. 

“I thought I had a good chance but I couldn’t connect it with winning,” he said after being announced. “These things are you cannot predict – I just did my thing and tried to concentrate on that.” 

How does it feel to win the Karl Lagerfeld Prize?

Hed Mayner: It feels wonderful. I feel like a proud relief, happy and yeah. All these things together.

How would you sum up what your outlook is as a designer?

Hed Mayner: This collection started with the idea of creating clothes that don’t fit your body, working with the idea of disproportion, or the exaggeration of proportions to create this blurred identity mixed with many different elements coming from different cultures. Working with recognisable elements from the mens wardrobe, and transforming them.

Why this idea of things that don't quite fit the body? Is that about discomfort or exploring new possibilities?

Hed Mayner: No, it’s not about discomfort, actually it’s the opposite. It’s done in kind of a dignified way and with this idea of using very common materials to elevate them. Creating something out of nothing.

And you mention bringing together different elements from different cultures. Which cultures were you inspired by?

Hed Mayner: It’s kind of everything. Taking the square shape coming from our country and mixing it with the tailoring which is kind of cut and has more like an eyework in the pieces and in a way kind of blur the status. But it's a lot of clothes I saw like coming from our culture or from the orthodox in Jerusalem or from more Western clothes like tailoring piece like whatever. There is something common in a lot of cultures, it’s just finding that.

What will winning mean for you, both the money and the year of mentorship?

Hed Mayner: I still need to sit and think about it and what I'm gonna do. To have advisors connected to the more financial and logistic aspect – that's really the support I think a brand at my stage needs. I started without a clear business plan, it was more like an intuition. So at some point you need professionals that understand that stuff.

Would you say that you're an Israeli designer or an Israeli French-trained designer or…?

Hed Mayner: I would prefer to use just ‘designer’. Of course my roots are in Israel but I also feel very comfortable here or somewhere else. Jewish people have always been nomadic – not that I feel that way, but I could live here, I could live there. I like Tel Aviv because it’s very dynamic, you know, and it’s a lot of young people, many new ideas.

Is a fashion scene emerging there? What's the energy of the city like?

Hed Mayner: There’s not a fashion scene, that you don't really have, that’s a problem, it’s more contemporary dance, art. Clothes are not that important for them, which is also great. There is this idea of creating something with the very minimum and without the structure around it. 

What’s it like to be a young person in Israel? It’s a place that obviously has a lot of conflict.

Hed Mayner: There is this bubble of Tel Aviv (where people) try to escape all these things that happen, all the violence around. There is not a lot of fear – there could be a bomb in a bus half an hour from you but you're gonna still go out on the same night… There is a mix of Israelis and Arabs in some areas. So there are horrible things that happen and also there is sometimes pure integration at the same time. People get married, have kids, they live one next to the other and also there is an understanding of the Arab culture at the same time.

Do you think that through your work you are incorporating the two cultures? 

Hed Mayner: I’m a bit familiar with the Arab culture and I admire many things about it. You have this curiosity (as an Israeli) – you are surrounded by Arab countries but you can’t get there. So there is a lot of curiosity between us.

Photographer Marie Dehe, styling Isabelle Sayer, hair Louis Ghewy at M+A using Bumble and bumble, make-up Sandrine Cano at Artlist, models Isaac and Nina, casting Audrey Cotton, photo assistant Florent Vindimian, styling assistant Thomas Santos. Nina wear shoes by Manolo Blahnik.