Marianne Fassler is known for her colourful clothing collections that reference the melting pot of cultures that is South Africa. But when recording artist and writer Mx Blouse sat down with her, it soon became clear that after four decades in fashion, it’s Fassler’s love of art, this country and her experiences through the ’80s and ’90s that have shaped her into the icon she is today.
‘Fashion is a whole state of being,’ says Marianne Fassler, while a woman named Bridget paints the designer’s nails as I get myself settled across both of them at Fassler’s desk inside her home studio in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. I gather that Fassler and Bridget have a long-standing relationship, as she often turns to Bridget during the course of our conversation, trying to recall details.
Prior to entering the office, which is full of African artifacts including a stick that belonged to the late singer Busi Mhlongo, I’ve already met some members of Fassler’s staff, having visited the workshop where a little over ten women – and maybe a man or two – were working away, stitching and cutting through swathes of fabric. It’s a busy day at the studio, yet everyone smiled and greeted me as I walked through, giving me the sense that there’s something familial about this space. Indeed, when I ask Fassler about the future of her decades-old practice, her response is that the brand belongs to everyone there.
‘I’ve never seen it as just me. I’ve always referred to it as our clothes, our range and our business,’ she says, adding that her creative director, Lezanne Viviers, often talks about Chanel and how the iconic brand has survived since its founder, Coco Chanel, passed on. ‘It doesn’t really matter to me if I’m dead, but if it matters to them – all the people who work here – I’d hate it to die out and leave them with nowhere to go.’
Born and raised in Johannesburg, Fassler’s undoubtedly one of the most recognisable, respected and resilient fashion entrepreneurs in SA. She’s become known for her irreverent, eclectic personal style, which extends to her work via texture, hand embroidery, beading, recycled materials, her flamboyant use of colour and disruption of patterns such as tartan and leopard print. A recent range, for example, with artist Lady Skollie starring in the lookbook, was a richly hued blend of asymmetrical shapes, soft, voluminous fabrics and vibrant prints.
Fassler’s practice started in the ’70s, and many young designers have come under her wing before starting their own labels. She’s stayed in business through the best times for the South African textile manufacturing industry at the height of apartheid, the ruinous state of emergency of the ’80s, the dawn of democracy, and the introduction of South African fashion weeks in the ’90s, to now, the Instagram age. Much of her work draws inspiration from her surroundings, art and her love for Johannesburg, and it’s this curiosity about the world that keeps her creative juices flowing.
‘I didn’t have what one would call a conventional upbringing,’ she says. ‘My mother’s a painter and my father’s a doctor. So clearly there was privilege, but they were also colourful people compared to some of my friends’ parents. We were exposed to a lot of things. It felt quite cosmopolitan and multi-cultured, which wasn’t normal for Afrikaans families back then. We mixed with Jews, Catholics, Muslims and different types of people. It wasn’t necessarily a politically controversial upbringing, but I certainly became politicised at a fairly young age.’
In the ’80s, Fassler mingled with South Africans from various backgrounds, and it’s the colourful nature of that social life that has informed her work. ‘I’ve asked Felipe [Mazibuko, the stylist]: “Do you remember how fabulous the early ’90s were?” The city was an interesting place. It was in the early ’80s that it began to change dramatically. It became dangerous to do many things – in the whole country, in fact. But Jo’burg’s always been a very cool place. The art community wasn’t segregated, and certainly not the clubs I went to. The circles I moved in, my clients and even the LGBT community were everywhere. It felt quite enlightened. It was wonderful.’
She recalls socialising with members of the literary community, artists of all types and political activists. ‘We now have the focus on blackness, which is a great thing. Growing up, we had great leaders like Robert Sobukwe and people like Steve Biko, so I was exposed early on to that celebration of diversity, and it’s always a part of what we’ve done,’ she says. ‘I often think the barriers we create between people are psychological. In my time, I’ve hung around with many people of different backgrounds and have always felt I was part of their community.’
Fassler met Mhlongo in the ’90s, and the singer became one of her greatest friends and muses. ‘They used to host great fashion shows in Durban. I was invited to do a show there and given the opportunity to work with Busi,’ she recalls. ‘The collection was exquisite and I dressed her in one of my Ndebele-inspired outfits. She looked amazing. The moment we met, we saw each other: she looked at me, I looked at her and she said: “I see you. We are sisters.” We became really connected at that moment. She always wore that outfit, among others, on stage.’
Above all else, Fassler stresses the importance of nurturing relationships within the creative community, a topic she often discusses with Viviers, who says it was because of Fassler that she started her own art collection. ‘With the artists of my era, we were all friends,’ says Fassler. ‘That’s how you become a collector, by interacting with the community, and I think those are the parallels between myself and Lezanne. I’ve always told her: “Fashion is about culture. You can’t just work in fashion – you’ve got to meet artists, make friends, engage in current affairs and become an activist.”’
Text: Mx Blouse