Magents at SA Menswear Week. All pics are by SDR Photo.
Kwaito music ruled the South African entertainment industry in the mid-1990s. Musicians such as TKzee, Mandoza and Boom Shaka dominated the air waves with their hip-hop, house music and African rhythm-infused music.
Clothing label Magents, which means “the guys”, was also born around this time, dressing some of the local music stars in Afro-vintage apparel. It was a special time, the dawn of a new and democratic South Africa.
“We were all family, very close to the likes of Mandoza, Tkzee, and Boom Shaka… they were celebrating the music side of things and we were celebrating the clothing side,” says Didier de Villiers, aka“Didi”of Magents.
Back then, Didi and his two co-founders opened several stores in Joburg. Their flamboyant T-shirts and jeans decorated with quirky messages celebrating African pride were also a hit abroad and, soon, they were supplying Parisian stores such as Le Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette, as well as stores in the US and Japan.
“You can almost say we got big so quickly by fluke. We had stores in Joburg and in 2003 we did our first international showcase in Las Vegas, and people were blown away. It was awesome,” says Didi.
“The following year, a friend from France came into our Randburg store and bought every sample. He was quite sure that his friends in Paris would want the licence to sell Magents. We didn’t ask him to do this, he just went there and he got the orders. We were doing so well overseas that we set up our head office in Paris. It worked for us, we could get a higher price point. We sold next to Dolce & Gabbana, G-Star and Diesel jeans for instance… to be there as an African was truly amazing,” Didi says.
“What also sold the brand in Europe was that we didn’t copy somebody else, we were completely different. We just did what we love.
“Overseas, the word ‘Magents’ meant nothing, but here at home we were immediately put in a box. When retailers heard the name ‘Magents’ they immediately thought that it should be cheap.
“They didn’t want us to use expensive fabrics and wanted us to cut the quality of the cotton until we could get to a certain price point. We got so fed up and sick of
Meanwhile, international demand grew to such as point that they couldn’t handle it at the time and, in 2009, decided to stop production and regroup.
Magents is now back on the scene with a head office in the city and showcasing on-fashion platforms such as SA Menswear Week.
The brand, with only Didi left as one of the original co-founders, recently opened
two concept stores – one at Canal Walk and the other at Montecasino in Joburg.
I meet Didi and graphic design graduate Mothei “Thei Thei” Letlabika, who joined the Magents team in 2013, at a cafè to talk about the comeback and future plans.
Since regrouping, the brand has evolved to include accessories, footwear, headgear, jackets and joggers, as well as T-shirts and jeans. It is now worn by celebrated South African musicians such as Mi Casa, rapper Reason, jazzman Ernie Smith and
Mandoza, who performed at their recent showcase.
“We completely stopped our distribution because we wanted an African partner, a person that understands then clothing industry, the manufacturing side of things and who is also passionate about Africa… not someone who only wanted to sell clothes and we have found that partnern (investor),” says Didi.
With some of their statement pieces adorned with images of Shaka Zulu or the Soweto Boxing Club and their infamous fashion shows which end with models named “Konscious Warriors” with raised fists associated with black empowerment, most people view the the brand as too political.
Yes, they are inspired by political activists such as Steve Bantu Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, but the brand is about Africa, the ideologies of political activists that they have learned from and who have shaped them to be conscious individuals, explains Didi.
“Since the beginning of Magents, we have always said that this place (Africa) is amazing and we have to speak about it. We tell the story with our clothes. Magents is about that warrior that celebrates Africa, who is conscious, that warrior who wants to ignite that warrior within somebody else… that is the core, the DNA of Magents,” he says.
“The Magents customer is a person that has all those three elements, but it doesn’t mean that you are political. It means that you are conscious about the environment, about what you wear and about the people around you. We can’t say that the person is 25, 35 or 55 years old as there are people from all over the world of all ages who love Magents and who understand our core DNA,” he says.
Thei Thei explains: “Part of it is that we are inspired by the township. The name itself means something to a guy that lives in a township, while someone outside of Africa won’t necessarily understand. Our clothing speaks to the heart and we don’t conform to a particular style.
“We are speaking a universal language, about having a level of consciousness and celebrating not just Africa, but the space that you are in as well, as the environment that you are in”.
The duo find inspiration from just about everywhere, from movies to music.
“You have a clothing guy with 20 years’ experience and me with a graphic design background, marrying the two aspects makes for a dynamic duo,” says Thei Thei
“Both of us do the designing and together we have the final say on the designs. We get inspiration from all over so we can keep designing. Constantly looking for inspiration is probably the most important thing for a designer.
You have to keep filling your library with inspiration, especially if you also produce
for the international market where they have no tolerance for designers that copy someone else’s work,” he explains
Following the official launch of their Montecasino store at the end the month, their next step includes a store in Tshwane and maybe in Durban, as well as in other African countries like Nigeria and Ghana.
“We are very excited about the stores. With each store we have different elements of Africa that we bring in. From the designs to the floor, every section is designed with certain unique motifs. We are very excited to get back to the Jozi scene,” says Didi.
“We are so blessed as Africans and we need to celebrate that. The people and the culture is just inspiring. Imagine, we live here…this is ours,” he adds.
This piece was first published in the Cape Argus on May 12 2016