Madiba and the fashionista

2013-12-08 06:00

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Designer Marianne Fassler tells Charl Blignaut how Mandela smiled when he saw his image on her clothes – and how he influenced global fashion trends

“I’m an Afrikaner. Growing up, we really didn’t know much about Nelson Mandela, other than what we heard about the Rivonia Trial. For the rest, there was a news blackout,” says the red-dreadlocked matriarch of authentic South African fashion design.

“I only started again becoming more aware when I went to university in the 70s and began to question the status quo.”

By 1976 Marianne Fassler was so outraged by the violence that greeted the Soweto Uprising that she did not hesitate to use the catwalk to make a political statement. She staged a controversial show using only black models. It’s something international couturiers would only emulate decades later – like her famous use of leopard-print fabric.

Fassler’s designs – of trademark delicate textures meeting bold colours; streety edge meeting Africanised glamour – have referenced politics throughout her career.

So it was inevitable that sooner or later she would work with the image of Mandela.

She made her first Madiba ball gown in 1993.

“It was from a bolt of cloth that was a rejected design for a ceremonial ANC cloth honouring Nelson Mandela. It had a wonderful, large, smiling Mandela face in the centre of every flag and I just warmed to the material and immediately started making a huge ball gown out of it for a ramp show in Cape Town. It was a great hit and I sold many over quite a few years. I then started making skirts.”

The Da Gama textile house had licensed the use of Mandela’s image for a limited period of time and soon the fabric featuring his face emerged as a force on the street – used in diffusion ranges of everything from shirts to aprons.

But Fassler was one of the first to popularise it by creating her famous Madiba skirt. “I overdyed into the colours and added in prints. I sold them for years.”

I ask her who bought the early ball gowns and skirts.

“At the time of the elections, there were many foreign journalists and celebrities in the country, and I sold many,” she says. “I believe he even smiled when the umpteenth person rocked up to meet him wearing a skirt with his face on.”

Mandela’s own shirts were to become a fashion sensation and, says Fassler, he helped usher in a new dawn for African prints on the catwalk.

“He had such style, such charisma ... which of course was a result of having found his own groove, of having a strong sense of who he was and what he stood for,” says Fassler. “I was inspired by his powerful aura. He was a warrior, a gladiator, a sentry at our gates, a sexy knight in shining armour – a printed shirt with a big smile. I am absolutely sure that his shirts and style of dress inspired the whole return to print and, more specifically, eclectic African print on the ramps of the international fashion weeks.”

I ask what her feelings are on his passing.

“This is a real watershed for us in South Africa, but I agree with the columnist who said that Madiba will do what he has always done – bring us closer together in his death.”

Fassler’s street couture Madiba skirts on the catwalk at SA Fashion Week 2005. Picture: SA Fashion Week

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