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.”