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When it comes to articulating ideas of identity, the fashion world has traditionally drawn from external and historical sources to create evocative visions. As good as it may be, a new wave of young emerging designers are more inward looking and expressing their sense of self in ways rarely seen before.

In Johannesburg, designer Thebe Magugu used his collections to preserve and share South African culture. In London, British designer Supriya Lele is harnessing her Indian heritage to create universally flattering silhouettes, while rising label Chopova Lowena searches for Bulgarian fabrics of dead animals to create their iconic folk skirts. Drawing on their individual heritage to champion diversity, these designers are expanding the focus of fashion in a way that deserves to be applauded.

Supriya lele

Supriya Lele SS21

Jacket, £ 1,300; dress, £ 714; pants, £ 644, all from Supriya Lele

As distinct as traditional Indian dress and the minimalism of the 1990s may seem, these opposing forces come together in a memorable way in the hands of British designer Supriya Lele. Known for her layered silhouettes that flatter all female shapes, Lele began exploring her Indian heritage while studying fashion at the Royal College of Art in London (she graduated with a master’s degree in 2016), where she also realized the importance of experimentation in its creative process. She realized that “the only way to work is in 3D, on the stand, by draping,” she says. The process “really set the tone for what I wanted to do in the future”.

Lele has been selected to show off her graduate collection with pioneering design incubator Fashion East. Her London Fashion Week debut in 2017 was at Tate Modern, and she continued to show under Fashion East for the next three seasons. In 2019, Lele was sponsored by the British Fashion Council through her NewGen initiative and in 2020 she won for the first time part of the LVMH Prize Fund, which was split equally among eight finalists (also including the Chopova label Lowena, see opposite).

Industry success aside, Lele’s female-centric inclusion brand couldn’t seem more sincere. Her S / S21 collection exuded a panache inspired by the way her all-female team dressed immediately after the first round of lockdown restrictions were relaxed.

Despite the logistical challenges of its creation, the collection embodies a sexy youth. The minimalist silhouettes are amplified by vibrant shades of azure blue and fuchsia; lingerie-inspired details such as delicate ties that delicately hold draped tops and dresses; and embellishments such as sequins and lace add finesse. Several bright Madras plaid pieces were cut from a fabric from Lele’s grandmother’s favorite sari store in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh state in central India.

“The pandemic brought people together,” Lele said to herself. “ Everyone has experienced this together and there is an openness to [fashion] system change; to people showing in their own way and using different methods. I think we all really needed that break in the cycle and the pace.

Chopova Lowena

Chopova Lowena S / S 2021

High, £ 150; pants, £ 770, both by Chopova Lowena

Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena transform Bulgarian fabrics from overstock and stock into oversized Victorian-style blouses and accordion-pleated skirts adorned with carabiners and large buckles. Their work is a triumphant celebration of heritage, skillfully transposed into a contemporary context.

Chopova, who was born in Bulgaria but raised in the United States, and Lowena, who is from Somerset in the UK, share a passion for craftsmanship and sustainability. “I became very interested in Bulgarian dress when I started my degree at Central Saint Martins in London and met Laura,” says Chopova. “I collected and wore traditional clothes, but it wasn’t until we had our MA together that we started to use Bulgarian references in our work.

With an archive that covers wall hangings, needlepoint and aprons, the duo’s approach is highly individualized. “For us, it’s about having the right product in mind and the right use,” says Chopova.

The pair dissociates fabrics from their origins by juxtaposing them with utilitarian silhouettes and sporty embellishments. For S / S21, they invited artists and artisans to contribute, a collaboration that resulted in jeans printed with pictorial designs and T-shirts featuring abstract images made from cut-out Bulgarian postcards.

Thebe Magugu

Thebe Magugu SS21

Dress, £ 610; sleeves, £ 180, both by Thebe Magugu

Originally from the South African mining town of Kimberley, Thebe Magugu moved to Johannesburg to study fashion at LISOF. Winner of the 2019 LVMH Prize, he continues to fly the flag of African culture and provenance, using his eponymous label to highlight social issues, local production standards and the potential for growth.

“I think African stories have often been told by people who are not African, and thus distort the accounts of their own agenda,” says Magugu. “The collections are inspired by real people and their stories; stories that are often missing from history books. These include the human rights activists of Black Sash, who inspired Magugu’s S / S19 collection, and the spies who worked for and against the apartheid regime, whom he interviewed for his S offering. / S21. The resulting collection is full of hidden details, including designs developed from the fingerprints of a former spy, and a print featuring an official confession provided by the South African government.

“Instead of working abroad, I want to create something for us, by us. I think that feeling, more than ever, is shared by many designers working on the continent, ”says Magugu, who has launched her online store.

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