The LVMH prize affords the winner mentorship and a €300,000 grant, while the newly titled Karl Lagerfeld Prize will award a second designer from the shortlist with a year’s mentorship and €150,000. Ahead of the announcement of this year’s winners on 4 September, Vogue meets both designers to hear about their entryway into fashion, their very distinct approaches to design and what being included in the shortlist means to them.
The Lagos-based menswear designer is upholding centuries-old weaving traditions, and has bold ambitions to galvanise his name as a lifestyle brand by the end of 2019 – creating education opportunities and jobs for local people along the way.
The tradition of weaving cloth among the Yoruba ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria is thought to date back to the 15th century. Of these textiles, the aso-oke (top cloth) – identifiable by its intricate pattern, the colour and design often imbued with special meaning – is regarded as the most prestigious and therefore reserved for special occasions.
29-year-old Kenneth Ize’s first interaction with the fabric was through his mother, who he remembers wearing a silk headwrap, known as a gele, to parties. “The clothes women wear tell stories, something strong and magical you can pull inspiration from,” he says. Now the textile is the cornerstone of his eponymous brand, established three years ago with his former classmate Axel Berner-Eyde, which places the artisan at the centre of its design practice.
In April, Ize presented his first womenswear collection alongside men’s at Arise Fashion Week in Lagos. The likes of Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede and Alton Mason took to the runway in deftly tailored blazers cut from aso-oke, and the woven striped patterns continued through knitted dresses and pleated shirts, which were interspersed with bold lacework, embroidered cotton and floor length adire. The collection, which drew on his Nigerian heritage and upbringing in Austria (a country renowned for its lacework) earned Ize the joint Designer of the Year award at the annual event.
Ize grew up in Linz to Nigerian parents, and it was while studying fashion design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, in 2010, that he gained an interest in African textiles. “It was a really technical school, we had to do everything ourselves,” he says, crediting the institution, and the tutelage under Bernhard Willhelm (BA) and Hussein Chalayan (MA), for showing him what the fashion industry was in need of: authentic products.
After a stint in New York interning at Edun – the brand established by Ali Hewson and Bono in 2005, which sources production throughout Africa – he spent part of his second year of studies in Nigeria researching traditional weaving methods. “It wasn’t easy, I realised I didn’t know much about these things and I couldn’t just walk into any factory and start asking questions,” he remembers. Relying largely on word of mouth, Ize eventually found a weaver by the name of Rakia Momoh, whom he affectionately calls “Queen Bee”.
This month, as part of Ize’s installation at the Copenhagen International Fashion Fair showroom during Paris Fashion Week Men’s, Momoh will travel overseas for the first time to demonstrate the weaving traditions that have been passed down to her through the centuries. Next year, Ize intends to start showing in the French capital, in addition to Arise, and before the end of 2019 there are plans to launch a furniture and interiors line, expanding as a lifestyle brand.
Ize’s ambitions may be bold, but they are underpinned by a solid strategy. He recognises his greatest gain from being shortlisted for the LVMH Prize is the international exposure. “Doors are opening now, conversations are happening,” he says. “As a business person, I don’t think I would change my approach if there is any financial gain. Money comes, money goes.” The brand is already stocked internationally at the likes of Browns, Ssense, Machine-A and Alara (the David Adjaye-designed concept store in Lagos). But upscaling artisanal weaving, even to this scale, is a challenge. It takes around 38 hours to make two yards of fabric for a single jacket; and there is also a dearth of skilled crafts people. So, as a long term solution, Ize is working with the Nigerian government with the aim of introducing weaving into the school curriculum.
In the more immediate future he hopes to move all sample making – much of which is still done in Austria – to Nigeria. “I want to bring professionals here to train people and expand on these [garment making] skills,” he says. “This form of [vocational] education is very much needed in Africa. We’re all about creating job opportunities for people.”
Out of his Johannesburg studio, the womenswear designer is crafting beautiful clothes and publishing zines, subtly charged with a powerful social commentary that’s set to drive contemporary South African design into its next chapter.
When Thebe Magugu was a young boy growing up in Kimberley, the capital city of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, his mother happened across a stash of fashion sketches under his bed. “My interest in clothes came from her, I’m from a family of very strong independent women,” says the 25-year-old designer. “When they bought a new dress, they would say ‘OK, how am I going to walk in this dress, how should I greet people?’ They like to play with how fashion can make you a different character.”
Observing how “magnetic” his female relatives would feel in certain clothes, with encouragement from his family, Magugu decided to pursue his dream – giving other people that same experience, a sense of allure, through his designs.
In 2012, Magugu relocated to Johannesburg to attend LISOF Fashion Design School, where he studied fashion design, photography and media. “It was very intense, because it was essentially three majors worked into one course,” he says.
Nevertheless all these disciplines are clearly present in his creative process today. Earlier this year, he joined forces with editors Lelo Meslani and Amy Zama and art directors Abi and Claire Meekel to launch Faculty Press – an annual zine which, in Magugu’s words, is dedicated to “highlighting the work of innovative friends and collaborators from different fields, who represent a contemporary South Africa”. The 150-page publication explores themes such as LGBTQ+ rights and feminism, with contributions from musicians (Fela Gucci and Desire Marea, aka Faka, and jazz singer-songwriter Zoë Modiga), activists (Lady Skollie) and photographers (Travys Owen and Maxime Michelet).
Magugu created the inaugural issue of Faculty Press in tandem with his AW19 collection entitled African Studies – a reworking of the “visual cues” he picked up during his childhood. The collection features dresses cut from check fabric, by now something of a Magugu hallmark; floral puffer jackets with flounce sleeves; and wide leg trousers slashed at the side to reveal lace pants (“reminiscent of the slips my grandmother swore by”). It’s also a collaborative project, with some designs bearing prints by South African illustrator and graphic designer Phathu Nembilwi. Both collection and zine were presented at London's International Fashion Showcase (IFS), where Magugu was crowned winning designer.
There is no denying Magugu’s artistic prowess, but he manages that difficult task of melding creativity with enterprise. On graduating, he was awarded best commercial collection by LISOF, and shortly after he was offered an internship in Cape Town with Woolworths, one of South Africa’s largest retailers. “It was really useful to learn about the business and production side of the industry, because this isn’t what you learn at school,” he says. “But I really didn’t want to work for anyone else – there were too many ideas I wanted to explore. So I went back to Johannesburg and set up my own brand three years ago and I’ve been running it ever since.” Before long, word spread about the young designer making beautifully crafted two piece suits, and once again Woolworths came knocking at Magugu’s door, this time to offer him a retail partnership which is now in its third year. If he were to receive an injection of funding – from the LVMH Prize for instance – he would use it pragmatically he says, “to upscale production to meet current demand”.
Magugu’s work, though, is about more than making beautiful clothes – it starts conversations about deeper social issues. Nembilwi’s illustration on his "Girl Seeks Girl" dress (2018) depicts two women embracing and was designed to encourage a sense of unity following Karabo Mokoena’s murder at the hands of her boyfriend in 2017 – a case that underscored South Africa’s critically rising levels of violence against women. His IFS presentation, Dawning, was arranged on a scroll with South Africa’s highly progressive fifth constitution drawn up in 1994, a year after Magugu was born, when apartheid finally came to an end. “There is so much more to our continent than a generic print that many people would consider to be African,” he says. “As a designer I want to merge my heritage and culture, which is a modern globalised view of the world, because that’s authentic to South Africa and who I am.”