Thebe Magugu set out to transform a fuchsia-pink ball gown from Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino—and Piccioli followed suit on a jaunty green Magugu pantsuit—each designer channelled their creativity into something fantastically new
When South Africa’s fashion wunderkind Thebe Magugu first opened the mystery crate from Rome containing Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino haute couture garment, he recognised it at once as the dress that Tracee Ellis Ross wore to grace the 2018 Emmy Awards. This was the garment chosen by Piccioli that Magugu would be tasked with reimagining as the second chapter of US Vogue’s dress-swap initiative (see last September’s issue for what Tomo Koizumi and Maison Margiela’s John Galliano came up with): two designers working their individual alchemy to transform a fellow creator’s work. For Piccioli, the project has special resonance. “I love the idea of reinterpreting,” he explains, “but I love even more the idea of creating a moment between two identities, two cultures—this conversation creates a new energy.
In Magugu’s Johannesburg studio, conversation began with the miracle of Piccioli’s full-bloom fuchsia-pink ball gown, which soon revealed itself to be buoyed by underskirts of filmy net and stiff crin, erupting in puff -ball ruffles at the bodice and elaborately pinch-pleated into a tiny waist. Small wonder that Ross later declared that her appearance in it was “what you call a fashion moment… I have never felt prettier in my life.”
Magugu’s first instinct was to try the dress on, “which I immediately regretted—it was a very harsh reminder that I’m no longer sample-sized,” he says, playfully. Laying it on a cutting table but then dressing it on a mannequin instead, Magugu was “really arrested by its beauty. There are a few lessons that I can take from Pierpaolo’s career and work: his dedication to women, and celebrating them; and the idea of family—that’s the same thing with me. I always feel revitalised and reinvigorated when I get to go back home to Kimberley [his hometown in South Africa] and interact with my mum, my uncles, my aunts, because it powers my work in a lot of ways. There’s something so joyful and freeing about Pierpaolo’s work, and it’s something we need now more than ever.
”This opportunity to examine an haute couture garment up close also helped him to understand and appreciate for the first time “the level of work and craftsmanship that has gone into this—it really is a work of art.”
Still, he wanted to move this masterwork “into my context, and my way of working—to translate this really special piece into something that a lot of people could wear and see themselves in.” This would involve, as Magugu notes, “essentially deconstructing the dress and restitching it, almost Frankenstein-like, into a very elevated trench coat from my universe.”
He added industrial topstitching but baulked at unpicking the pleats (“I was going to just get struck down by lightning!”), instead using their volume to create leg-of-mutton sleeves “poofed up, almost like a Victorian shirt.” Magugu also decided to use every element of the original garment, from the zipper to the underskirts, which he transformed into wide-leg pants and a blouse. Researching the 17th- and 18th-century paintings that were Piccioli’s original inspirations for the collection, Magugu pondered “what this meant to us in an African context” and thought of Queen Nandi Bhebhe, mother of Shaka Zulu, who founded the Zulu Kingdom in 1816. Using more of the petticoat’s crin to create a hieratic hat, Magugu likens the piece to a Nefertiti headdress.
Meanwhile, in Rome, Piccioli and his team unpacked Magugu’s almond-green pantsuit. “I saw the color and the pattern of the fabric,” Piccioli recalls, “but the thing that impacted me the most was this letter that Thebe sent me. He said something that was very moving: that he is from the Sotho [ethnic group] and that ‘blankets are a very big part of our culture.’ ” Those boldly patterned blankets, mimicked as a jacquard in Magugu’s ensemble, are worn as capes for important ceremonies and rites of passage, from birth and marriage to the coronation of kings. “I thought, Th ebe has something to say,” says Piccioli. “He’s trying to get his heritage into the world of today.”
“When I was growing up, I was quite frustrated that, being in South Africa, I was on the outside of the fashion world,” says Magugu, “but as I grew older, I started really appreciating everything around me.” Today, he explains, “cultural and geographic context is almost the pillar that supports my brand. I’m a storyteller—I use clothes as a way to share my own thoughts, my own histories, and my Sotho heritage—to preserve certain stories that run the risk of being forgotten. If it wasn’t for the opportunity to tell who I am and teach people about where I’m from, I really wouldn’t be enjoying what I’m doing.”
Piccioli’s experience was not dissimilar. “I grew up in a small place near Rome— not the centre of the world,” he says. “That’s probably why I’m still dreaming about fashion—because as a kid, I felt far from everything. Today, I want to be the kid that was dreaming; I want to maintain that idea of enchanted eyes.”Piccioli wanted to layer Magugu’s ensemble with his own Roman world, “to give value to this fabric by incorporating it into a cape—a symbol of the Italian Madonna, of Renaissance culture. The beauty of Rome,” he adds, “is about its layered feeling—Pasolini and Baroque angels together.” Twelve craftspeople from Valentino’s fabled couture atelier were tasked with transforming the blanket motif into a form of intarsia embroidery set into cashmere, a subtle but highly labour-intensive process.
“When I think of my culture, I think of it as quite regal,” Magugu told Piccioli at the final unveiling, “and you’ve managed to completely capture that.” Ultimately, Piccioli says, “this is a demonstration that fashion can connect the world. Thebe’s talking about his culture, I’m talking of my own—but actually, we share the same values, the same idea of fashion as self-expression.”