Marianne Fassler is Africa’s Alice in Wonderland. Her fashion garments and home reflect her hypnotic love affair with South Africa and the continent she calls home.

Beads, baubles, electric colours and bright skulls are as comfortable as dogs snoozing in the sun at Fassler’s home and studio ‘Leopard Frock’ in Saxonwold, Johannesburg.

“Welcome,” she says as she leads the way through castle size doors into the entrance hall where a grinning beaded yellow skull greets you like a friendly butler as you venture towards the wonderland of African art, sculptures and beadwork that is her lounge.

Skulls have always fascinated artists, and Fassler used the recently discovered Karabo skull in her fashion theme for the 2010 World Cup. Discreetly imprinted on this series of garments is a tiny hominin skull. “It was to show the origins of the world coming back to Africa for the World Cup.”

She goes on to explain how in France skulls represent vanity as one aspect of identity. “Skulls, like tattoos clothing or hairstyles are about identity,” she says. Leopard prints and waist-length scarlet dreadlocks are part of her identity.

“It’s taken eight years to nurture these dreadlocks – they are my own hair and now that they are well formed I find it’s the easiest of the many hairstyles I’ve had,” she says.

Outside in the street beyond the walls of Leopard Frock a woman selling mielies chants the familiar “e mieleees!” cry, as hundreds of other woman have done for decades before her. This is part of our South African identity that Fassler has celebrated throughout her life.

She graduated from Wits with a BA Hons in 1974, having studied Afrikaans and Dutch literature and History of Art.

Thinking back to those years she says: “As a student one starts developing as a person. I loved being at Wits in the Afrikaans department in the late 1960s and 1970s because it had outstanding lecturers who somehow got away with being controversial and subversive because for quite some time I don’t think anyone believed you could be subversive in Afrikaans,” she smiles.

Afrikaans is Fassler’s first language; her family name is van der Wat.

“John Vorster was in power at the time but we had access to all the contemporary Dutch literature and they were breaking every possible political and sexual taboo.”

Fassler discussed this with her open-minded parents – her father is a gynaecologist obstetrician and her mother an artist – both of whom had also studied at Wits and encouraged debate.

“My whole family through several generations have always been free thinkers and we have always wanted the best for South Africa and to contribute our skills to our country,” she explains. “When I grew up there was never any discussion in our home about leaving our country and I raised my children the same way.

“It has given us all a deep-rooted sense of commitment and belonging. From my parents to my children, we all believe that what South Africa needs is qualified, committed South Africans who stay and build up our country instead of adding to the brain drain. There is no place for people with one foot out the door; we need people to stay and be mentors and to love our country,” says Fassler whose ancestors arrived her in the 1670s.

“This is my country and I will not be leaving. What’s in Australia for me? What’s in England for me? I’m not a politician but I am an activist and I hope I represent what is good about South Africa,” she states.

Sipping tea in her self-made wonderland she speaks against stereotypes. “We stereotype everything. In the apartheid era I was stereotyped as an Afrikaner; today we stereotype South Africa as being Jacob Zuma or Julius Malema when there is so much more to everything” – as her intricate, multi-layered designs reflect.

She started her business in 1975. “I made my own clothes and people liked them and asked me to make clothes for them, which I did,” she says. Her first fashion show was in the garden at her parents’ home and at their church.

“Young designers today think you start famous. You don’t. You start in your community, making clothes for your friends. And if your clothes are good enough you will grow.”

At the same time, these are tough years for the clothing industry, with the global threat from exploited Asian labour. “The Asian tiger has affected people in the clothing industry in Europe as much as it has affected us in South Africa. I admire the deep culture of China but it is such a pity that substandard Chinese goods are let in because it destroys local markets.”

Fassler has done extremely well to sidestep the tiger by building herself into a coveted name with clients all over the world clamouring for her clothes.

She isn’t interested in fashion per se. What interests her is the psychology behind clothes; why people feel a certain way in certain garments, what certain colours do for people; what people say through their clothes.

“A lot of people find clothing quite intimidating. I teach them how to enjoy clothes and how to dress without being prescriptive.”

This year she has been in business for 36 years and she attributes her longevity to her understanding of her clients: “People who wear Fassler will always wear Fassler. I have generations from the same family wearing my clothes.”

Loyalty is important to her, and she and her team show great loyalty to one another. “I cherish the skills of the people who work for me. The only people who leave me are my second-in-commands because I kick them out the nest. They are skilled designers and they must go and make a name for themselves.”

She strongly believes in mentoring new talent, and there are always two or three students from various design institutions in her studio. “You really only learn on the job and they learn all the skills here – from dressmaking to admin.”

Fassler is 100% hands-on in her business. No garment is sent out without her inspecting it and advising where refinements need to be made.

“I believe in excellence and consider it one of the valuable inheritances of an Afrikaans upbringing. My parents expected excellence from me.”

At the end May this year she will be presenting her special collection of Tretchikoff-inspired garments at a retrospective of his work that she has been working on for four years.

“It will be at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town and it will be the first time that this intensely interesting artist who passed away about four years ago will be showed in a gallery. He’s a South African icon and it’s time that he is recognised. I think he’d be delighted,” says Fassler who made a leopard print dressing gown with geisha girls on the lining for Tretchi while he was still alive. He loved it and wore it to the end.

“I am looking so forward to this show and I count myself very lucky to have been able to make a career out of something I love doing,” says Fassler.

It’s a great note on which to end this time spent with her, but there is just one more question I have to ask. She’s got the skulls, she’s got the dreads, but does she have a tattoo? “Not yet,” she replies. “According to the Japanese Yakuza tradition you don’t just go out and get a tattoo, you have to deserve your tattoo, and I’m still waiting to find out what I deserve.”