©Bertrand Rindoff Petroff

Thebe Magugu’s smile was as broad as the colours and patterns of the clothes he creates. But how could the South African designer, who walked off with this year’s LVMH Prize for upcoming fashion talent, have imagined a physical journey from Johannesburg to Paris – and a mental shift from local to global?

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“It is more than a dream,” said Magugu, 26, whose exceptional designs with their sophisticated applications were familiar to me, having invited him to the Condé Nast International Conference in South Africa in April.

But the winner of the LVMH 2019 Prize was not the only far-away contestant. After six years of growth, the LVMH Prize is stretching its tentacles across the world, with a second African contestant in Kenneth Ize from Nigeria, and the winner of the new Karl Lagerfeld Prize, Hed Mayer from Israel.

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©Virgile Guinard

“There were an exceptional number of applicants: a record 1,700 from one hundred countries,“ said Delphine Arnault, the event’s main organiser and Executive Vice-President of Louis Vuitton, while her father Bernard Arnault, Chairman and Chief Executive of LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton, praised the fresh focus on sustainability and thoughtful fashion.

Four of the eight finalists – who, for the first time, did not include a French creative – described their clothes as “gender neutral”.

Alongside the Arnault family were its stable of famous designers, including Jonathan Anderson, Artistic Director of Loewe; Kris Van Assche of Berluti; Maria Grazia Chiuri of Christian Dior; Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton; and Clare Waight Keller from Givenchy. Furthermore, three young graduates from fashion schools were distinguished: Alice Paris, a graduate from the Accademia di Costume e di Moda in Rome; Daisy Yu, a graduate from Central Saint Martins, London; and Juliette Tréhorel, a graduate from Atelier Chardon Savard, Paris. They will benefit from decisive support as they begin their careers: €10,000 and the opportunity to join the studios of three LVMH brands for one year – this year being Givenchy, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior.

Having had the opportunity to see the work of the candidates close up, the major changes since the millennium are the inclusion of digital effects, combined with a desire for handwork and fashion’s new? relationship with touch/ and fashion’s new emphasis on the tactile?

Perhaps the most dramatic effect was created for Anrealage by its Tokyo-based designer Kunihiko Morinaga, who applied digital tools to his no-colour collection so they lit up with bright plaids and checks.

But just about every designer had a unique story behind his collection.

Hed Mayner talked about “body language in clothes”, explaining how his menswear first gained traction in Japan and then found an audience and clientele in Europe. Mayner won the first award given in honour of the late Karl Lagerfeld – Delphine Arnault’s idea, which will become a permanent part of the LVMH Prize, offering the winner €150,000 with one year’s mentorship.

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©Virgile Guinard

Nigeria’s Kenneth Izedonmwen proved with his brand Kenneth Ize that, as he put it, “Africa’s time is now”. Although his own colourful work is personal, the garments were alive with vivid mixes of colour, expressing feelings and emotions.

“I am from a fashion family. I am obsessed with clothes and was inspired by how my mother would wear African garments mixed with extravagance,” he said. “It’s going to mean a lot to Africa. There has never been a competition that Africa has been so involved with.”

The strength of the LVMH Prize is that it genuinely involves the company, above all by advising and teaching fledgling designers how to turn talent into a business. The presence of experienced designers on stage also underscores the message that this award is serious – even if the event was tinged with celebrity when “Tomb Raider” movie star Alicia Vikander presented the finalist with his golden statuette.

Both designers and executives took note of the changing fashion world. “We have a lot to learn from the younger generation – and Thebe wants to stay in Johannesburg, using, by principle, local resources,” said Nicolas Ghesquière.

Maria Grazia Chiuri explained that as judges were obliged to choose only one of the impressive eight finalists, the winner was exceptional for having a global goal at such a young age.

The business executives behind LVMH were also in force in the well of the Louis Vuitton Foundation, created by architect Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne. Sidney Toledano, Chairman and CEO of LVMH, said that he was impressed by the maturity of the work on display, and that the work of each of the final eight contestants was important for having been selected – even if they were not ultimately the big winner.

For Thebe, the first prize was still a dream, and Delphine Arnault felt much the same.

“It was so hard to choose,” she said. “Each one deserved the prize. But in the end, it was about putting a vote in the envelope – and waiting to see who was the winner.”

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©Bertrand Rindoff Petroff