Forget whipping out your phone to show off your family photos or tucking a loved one’s face into a locket around your neck. What if you could wear your favorite memories on your back?
That’s the idea the South African designer Thebe Magugu started exploring two years ago in a collection he called “Genealogy,” inspired by old pictures of his mother and aunts — even designing one shirt in which he incorporated his grandmother’s portrait as part of a wax print.
“Every house in the township where I’m from has family photos on display, and it’s a source of pride,” Mr. Magugu said. “So I thought it made sense to have one on a shirt. But then, whenever I wore it, everyone would say they loved the shirt, and they wished they could have it for themselves.”
Last month those wishes became reality with a trial run of the Heirloom shirt project, a three-week period in which anyone could go to the Thebe Magugu website, upload a favorite snapshot and customize their own version of a glossy, unisex shirt. Mr. Magugu had hoped for 50 orders, to break even. Instead he received a few hundred, from people all around the world (Michelle Obama ordered one with a photo of her mother, Marian Robinson).
Mr. Magugu had been worried that someone would “try and upload Lady Gaga, but none of them felt frivolous. There was an overarching sense of tragedy in all of them, he said. Most submissions were of people who had passed away.
“I think there is something about calling on people who have passed on for strength,” he said. “Whenever I feel uncomfortable, insecure or out of place, I always think of my grandmother because I had always spoken to her about going into fashion and she always said, ‘One day I’ll be front row.’”
His grandmother died in 2009, but, Mr. Magugu said, “when I have her shirt on, it is almost like a charm, a symbol of strength. I think it’s the same with a lot of people. People don’t want to forget those who’ve had such an impact on their lives.” An heirloom shirt, he said, acts “like a public record in a way.”
“I honestly feel like this is probably one of the most significant projects I’ve done.”
Because of that, and because he was still getting emails from customers who missed the deadline for the project, he decided to make the initiative an annual event, incorporating different styles. Next year he plans to add a shirtdress for women and a jalabiya for men — “I’ve sketched it already,” Mr. Magugu said — as well as a tote, while keeping the basic shirt as an option. Styles will continue to range from XS to XXXL.
In the meantime, the first batch of shirts will be delivered in early December, just in time for the holidays and to act, he said, as a conversation starter; a test case for how fashion can create human connection that goes beyond the idea of a mere souvenir or novelty tee.
“Maybe we’ll get to know one another in a different way,” he said. To that end, some of this year’s customers agreed to share the stories behind their shirts.
Cynthia Erivo, English actress and singer
“It happens to be a picture of my mother and my sister, taken a couple of days after my sister was born, in September 1989. They’re my family, and I love them very much, and to see them both in such a vulnerable space is very special. To be able to wear something like that is a way to carry both my sister and my mom around with me because I don’t get to see them that much; I’m traveling a lot and away a lot.”
Lupita Nyong’o, Mexican-Kenyan actress
“I remember my grandmother, Dorca Owino Amolo, always bent over, working. She was never idle. She picked corn from her farm, dekerneled it, dried it in the sun, sent it to be ground into flour in the local mill and then cooked it into large mounds of delicious Ugali for the whole family to eat. She grew her own vegetables, she raised her own livestock, she fermented her own milk. She swept, she washed, she brushed, she scrubbed, she chopped, she stirred, she pounded, she rolled. And she did all of this quietly, swiftly, gracefully and joyfully. Grandma taught me that work can be an expression of love, and I learned how to love the work of my body from her.”
Young Stunna, South African singer
“This is a picture of my late great-grandmother wearing her full church attire, holding down a church service with her church mates outside on the street because they couldn’t afford buildings or tents during that time. She really used to be a church person, and I realize she’s been praying all these years for her grandkids and great-grandkids, and that’s one of the major reasons I’m here today.
We used to hold church services at home every Sunday when I grew up, all her church members used to come to her house. That’s where I learned how to sing properly, and that’s why I fell in love with music so deeply. I learned almost everything from her: how to cook, how to clean. They don’t hold down the services like they did back in the day, but I’m still a worshiping kid who prays a lot, has faith and always fights for what he wants, and that’s all because of her teachings.”
Temi Otedola, Nigerian actress
“This photo is of Nana Otedola, my mother, taken in 1975 in Kaduna State, Nigeria. This is my favorite photo I have of my mom. I don’t have a lot of vintage family photos, so I cherish every single one. As I’ve gotten older, it’s touched me in a deeper way to see photos of my parents when they were young. I chose it because my mom is my role model and the most important woman in my life.
Clothes really hold nostalgic value to me. Even without knowing it, I associate my jeans, jackets or jewelry with certain memories. So to be wearing something that has the face of one of my most loved people imprinted on it feels powerful, and even more sentimental.”
Jordan Roth, American theater producer
“This is my grandmother Sylvia, who lived for almost 98 years. I found this picture, which is from the 1950s, only relatively recently. I have many of Sylvia’s purses and jewelry, and I always feel like I’m taking her out with me when I wear them. This piece allows me not only to take her with me but to give her the driver’s seat.”
Kimberly Drew, American curator and writer
“These are photographs of my two grandmothers, Minnie Mack and Barbara Louise Salley. I wanted to memorialize these women who made my existence possible. All too often, Black women are invisiblized in life and death. It means the world to be able to wear these women on my shoulder. Both of them lived with mental illness and struggled in a world that didn’t provide them the resources to live with abundance.
As their granddaughter who is also living with mental illness, I wear them as a badge of honor. I walk with them with my head held higher because I know they are walking into every room with me. They are with me in depressive episodes. They are with me in moments of joy and love. They remind me to take my medication. They remind me to stay wild.”