Starry African Combustion

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If you have ever lost yourself in the colours, textures, fabrics and ecstatic madness of fashion designer Marianne Fassler’s work, you will be sitting in the front row to catch her creations for Robyn Orlin’s new work, Beauty Remained for just a Moment then Returned Gently to her Starting Position, which runs at Johannesburg’s Dance Factory from tomorrow night until Sunday.

“We’ve known each other for a long time,” says Fassler. But this is their first collaboration, one that makes perfect sense. “We both work organically and while the process was a tough one and I had many sleepless nights, we might have stressed, but never panicked.

“I would sometimes say to Robyn during the dance process,: ‘That’s too long’, and she would tell me with a costume to ‘Keep it simple’.”

For Fassler it’s precisely as Picasso said: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” That’s how she gets high, after 48 hours of constant work, inspired as her designs might be.

The title already points to a Fassler/Orlin mantra. “We had to battle with that – beauty. What is beauty?”

She knows it doesn’t happen when people try too hard. Botox and designer bags aren’t going to do it.

Otto Nhlapo in Fassler

In her neighbourhood, she finds beauty in a man named Solly who with his trolley walks the streets of her suburb daily. That’s where the two started and it set off a creative chain of events which culminated in Fassler’s eye-popping costumes. It ran on into her recent Remix Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and, no doubt, the story will further unravel at next year’s New York Fashion Week. Scouring the pictures of the costumes, it’s vintage Fassler. That’s always where she’s found her muse, in the unexpected moments. They might not last, but the moment is breathtaking.

On one of Jozi’s street corners, there’s a man dressed in garbage bags.

“He looks like a picture from the Bible,” says the designer, who is constantly on the lookout for something that will add to her personal collection of memorable moments, to be translated into a design at some stage.

That’s how she creates as she uses leopard print scraps for her designer dresses or sweet wrappers for costumes, deconstructs a piece of striped fabric, only to put it together in a different way, strings bottles together for a monumental tutu or takes China bags and unpacks them in a way that turns an iconic item into couture and costumes deluxe as only Fassler can.

“We also gave the dancers some of these collected items to make their own costumes,” she says.

But don’t ask her for the perfect skirt or a Vera Wang-styled wedding dress. That’s not who Fassler is. Her customers are people who buy frocks for a street party in Richmond in the Karoo. Neither her couture or her costumes will leave you untouched. And if you get her kind of beauty, it’s like tripping into an African experience tinted by the world of Oz.

Whether she’s designing for stage or catwalk, Fassler isn’t easily fazed. This is what she lives for and what she loves doing. Her credo is to create what she did before, only differently. That’s why, when the Orlin piece was performed in a massive rock concert-type venue in Lyon for the Dance Biennale, for which the piece was commissioned, the French queued around the block to get in. “It was already an 800-strong audience,” says Fassler.

She was surprised by the kind of questions they received. “The Europeans are steeped in their classical roots,” she reminds us.

What they don’t always get and what surprises them is the unexpected, the almost craziness of a collaboration by a thought-provoking choreographer and a designer whose fashion shows attract people as much for their theatricality as their couture.

Robyn Orlin and Marianne Fassler are two artists I would turn to if asked to point to people who revel in the brilliance and beauty of Africa. Coming together for Beauty Remained it can only be a starry African combustion.

• Check it out at the Dance Factory from November 21 to 25.


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