When popular designer Alber Elbaz unexpectedly died of Covid last spring shortly after launching a label called AZ Factory, the fashion world first mourned and then wondered what would happen to his new venture, backed by luxury conglomerate Richemont. How could it go on without him?
One answer came earlier this year: commission a series of “Amigo” designers to carry on the spirit of experimentation and self-care that defined AZ Factory, and to express that spirit however they saw fit: in clothes, but also in objects, in installations, whatever. And first would be Thebe Magugu, the 28-year-old South African designer, founder of a label of the same name and winner of the 2019 LVMH Prize for Emerging Talent.
This month Mr. Magugu introduced his collection for AZ Factory, which will be sold in two drops in June and September. Here he reveals how it came about and what it meant to accept the mantle of Lord Elbaz.
How did your collaboration with AZ Factory come about? Do you know Albert?
I never met him, but when we first got satellite TV I watched his fashion shows. Then last year I received an email from Alex Koo, Alber’s partner, telling me that he and the AZ Factory team were planning this tribute show “Love Brings Love” and had invited about 44 brands to come and see Alber pay homage He asked me to join and I said of course.
It was such a beautiful show to see all the interpretations of Alber looks over the years. Two or three months passed and I received another email from AZ telling me about their strategy going forward that the company would invite creatives from fashion, photography and whatever to collaborate with the brand work and I really wanted to do it. I wanted to highlight the connection between me and Alber, especially the fact that we are both from the continent: he from Morocco and I from South Africa.
That was the starting point of the collection. And then I asked myself: What if Africa was the birthplace of fashion?
Well, the values of fashion in the northern hemisphere are first and foremost about storytelling – that idea of many hands at work and knowledge that can be passed from generation to generation. And these are really the same values that we in Africa have for African handicrafts.
How did you connect these two?
I started researching many silhouettes and blending them with my own. Before his death, Alber had been working on some prints with an Algerian graphic artist named Chafik Cheriet. A lot of them were animal prints but quite abstract and I was immediately drawn to them. It’s almost as if this collection completes a collection that never existed. One of my favorites is this exploded meerkat in red.
Alber also worked with body-conscious and solution-oriented knitwear, so I took that and made an all-white dress with those bell sleeves that reminded me of a bride we call Makoti in my Zulu language. It pays homage to it but there is a cut out on the chest with our stainless steel Sisterhood emblem thereon. And then this little bag is related to the African gels, the hats I was researching.
You also captured the look you did for the Love Brings Love show, right, which is now part of the Palais Galliera exhibition?
Yes, we felt it was important that we reintroduce this look and make it accessible to people because it was originally a one-off and it’s now in a museum. It was a nod to Alber’s Guy Laroche period, a two-piece skirt and shirt, but dip-dyed. We had a running joke in the studio that it looked like it had walked into a giant squid.
We also did a lot of trompe-l’oeil, like the skirt, which looks pleated but is just a flat piece of fabric printed with the ridges and indentations of a crease. Even the belt is fake.
But that sounds like a collaboration to me. What makes it different?
The word collaboration, especially now, implies a power dynamic. But no order was imposed here. And what makes it very special is that I was allowed to leave the project with quite a lot of resources, mostly technical resources. The AZ design studio has often done things that I didn’t technically know how to do. And they put me in touch with certain suppliers and manufacturers. That makes it more of 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. That’s not so common in fashion. At some point in our history, the idea of kindness began to be associated with weakness or indecisiveness. But people like Alber and Virgil Abloh and a few others I’ve interacted with are about that inherent sense of kindness, even at the heights they reach. They still retain that soul and humanity. Kindness I think will get you pretty far. I really believe in karma. What you send out will find its way back.
Does that make you want a bigger brand?
I think what I’m building with my brand is very special and has an impact that goes beyond me as an individual. I really enjoy what I do and what I create. But I’ll say I’m an insomniac. I do not sleep. So I could make one mark during the day and one at night. I could do anything.
This originally aired on Instagram Live as part of The New York Times’ On the Runway series. It has been edited and shortened.