The designer’s Discard Theory collection reimagines the clothing markets of downtown Johannesburg as Parisian ateliers

Meryl Streep melted the flesh off Anne Hathaway’s face. During a now-infamous scene in The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea Sachs (Hathaway) baulked at the sight of two near-identical belts being described as “so different”, at which point Miranda Priestley (Streep) locked eyes on her assistant and paraphrased Thorstein Veblen’s theory of trickle-down taste, connecting Hathaway’s “lumpy blue sweater” to the collections of Oscar de La Renta and Yves Saint Laurent. “It filtered down through the department stores, and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin,” she says. “So it’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” 

With his SS23 collection, Thebe Magugu wants to subvert that kind of thinking: something he believes has become increasingly insidious, as designers repackage streetwear as must-have luxury items. “The collection experiments with the idea of a trickle-up fashion theory,” he says. “So I’ve been rummaging through discarded clothing in Dunusa – an area where America and Europe dump piles of secondhand, soiled garments – and sending it back up to a luxury space.” There, in downtown Johannesburg, it’s not uncommon to see women wearing traditional shweshwe-fabric waxed wrap skirts with polyester Vodafone or Manchester United merchandise. “This hybridity – an unintentional conversation between ‘The West & The Rest’ – was the starting point of the collection”. That Magugu debuted those creations at the Victoria & Albert Museum only emphasised that high-low dialogue.

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“It’s a crass sophistication, which is exactly the type of contrasts that exist in Dunusa,” he says, words he’s embodied in a trompe l’oeil boho dress, inspired by scraps of discarded denim. “There’s a tension between the soft elegance of the pink silky dress and the indelicate – potentially sleazy – styling on the front motif, showing an undone belt buckle and the top part of an exposed boxer brief.” The vast majority of the collection has been hand-sourced from Dunusa’s marketplaces, with adidas tracksuits reworked into caped two pieces, checked tablecloths upcycled into marabou-trimmed shawls, and lots of frayed appliqués and gashed slits suggestive of pre-worn damage. “I went to all those stalls at the crack of dawn with a secret camera and my friends Fran, Refiloe, and Declan looked through piles and piles of clothes” – a process Magugu documented in an accompanying film. 

Sustainability is elemental, though not necessarily a deliberate statement. “I think South Africans and Africans in general tend to reuse [and sometimes decontextualise things] for their extended use. We are naturally sustainable by nature,” he says, describing how he’d grown up seeing the same pieces travel between his family members. “My grandmother would wear a conservtive blouse to church, buttoning it right up to the neck, while my aunt would unbutton everything and tie its ends around her waist, creating a cropped wrap-style blouse.” Magugu believes the proliferation of secondhand clothing on the continent has enriched African identity. “We have even more layered ways to communicate our style and sensibilities. I grew up being taught about my heritage, but I also remember the day Lady Gaga released “Paparazzi” – I was on my knees with my grandmother and we were washing the floors – so I am this mix of local and global, which informs dress.”

Magugu knows the secondhand clothing trade, where wealthy nations rely on African countries as waste disposal systems, is a knotted, political battleground. In Accra, for example, some 15 million used garments pour into the city every week, with an estimated 40 per cent deemed worthless on arrival, flooding landfill sites and decimating local textile businesses. In Uganda, 80 per cent of clothing purchases are secondhand, and despite producing high-quality raw cotton for the rest of the world, its own textile industry has failed to bounce back from the near collapse of production in the 1970s. “These imports have devastating effects on the environment and teach people that clothing’s true value is merely the amount they buy it for in these markets. This puts designers, especially emerging and young ones, at a severe disadvantage.”

However, “I find that two things can be true at once,” he says. “I believe that as Africans we have always been able to take things that hurt us, turn them on their heads, and make a living out of it. We are resourceful. I look at a lot of my friends who have started entire businesses that way – taking clothes from these sites, reworking them, and selling them back.” Ultimately, Magugu’s SS23 collection is about untangling the personal from the political. “There are entire ecosystems that exist that don’t get the same level of exploration and critical exploration as ‘established’ or ‘recognised’ ones,” he concludes. “But that’s always been us here on the continent, the rest of the world will catch up – not the other way around.”