A city known for snake charmers, carpet peddlers, and belly dancers, Marrakech has lured foreigners—Romans, French, Spanish, Jews, and Arabs among them—since desert nomads first settled this sandy patch of land at Africa’s northwestern extreme, in the 11th century. The ethnic mélange has flourished within the clay walls of the old city, known as the medina, giving rise to the sophisticated culture of artisanship that eventually welcomed a young Yves Saint Laurent in 1966.
The Algerian-raised 30-year-old first visited Marrakech on holiday with his paramour and longtime business partner, Pierre Bergé, around five years after cofounding the YSL fashion house, and fell instantly in love. In 1968 the two bought a traditional house called “Dar el Hanch” (the Serpent) within the medina’s ancient maze. A seemingly endless, drug-infused party ensued, with a near-constant rotation of house guests that included YSL muses Loulou de La Falaise and Betty Catroux as well as Paul and Talitha Getty and Andy Warhol.
Morocco, and especially Marrakech, had a lasting influence on the designer, whose fashion legacy is celebrated this month with the concurrent openings of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, in the former fashion house where Saint Laurent created his collections from 1974 to 2002, and Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (MYSLM). The latter is adjacent to the Jardin Majorelle—which Saint Laurent and Bergé bought in 1980, after learning it would face destruction as part of a real estate project. While the couple lived in the property’s Villa Oasis, hidden among the property’s bamboo and palm trees, Saint Laurent designed his collections each year, in June and December in the former Jacques Majorelle painting studio, which became the Berber museum in 2011.
“Yves discovered color here,” Bergé once said of Laurent’s relationship to the pink city. Though adaptations of everyday Moroccan clothing like the djellaba, the jabador, and the burnoose made appearances in the silhouettes Saint Laurent sent down the runway—just as he adapted the Moroccan veil and turban in his haute couture—it was the vibrant hues of these nomad caftans that reminded the designer of Delacroix sketches and encouraged him to ease back on his signature black-and-white palette in favor of playing with Marrakech’s vibrant color wheel.
The opening of MYSLM comes during a creative boom in the city. Drawn here by the legacy of Saint Laurent, who made Marrakech singularly fashionable, aspiring international as well as Moroccan designers, photographers, and painters arrive to cherry-pick, as the designer once did, from the city’s rich visual influences and artisanal traditions. Designed by Olivier Marty and Karl Fournier, of Paris-based Studio KO, MYSLM charts this Moroccan cultural appropriation as it played out in Saint Laurent’s creations from the late 1960s onward. In one of several visits to the foundation’s Paris archives, the French architects came across a particular sketch of a shoulder, at once curvy and linear, that helped give direction to the design brief. The finished product is very much a collaboration between Studio KO and Bergé, who first met in 2003 over lunch in Marella Agnelli’s garden in the secluded Palmeraie, an oasis filled with thousands of palm trees on the city’s fringe.
“Monsieur Bergé obsessed over every detail,” recalls Marty, noting the structure’s ochre-hued bricks, which were aligned to evoke the warp and weft of fabric; terrazzo exterior walls that curve to the ground “like a dress”; and the Moroccan-style stained glass popular in the 19th and early 20th century. The late French business tycoon oversaw all aspects of MYSLM, including the acoustics—for which he drew on his controversial six-year tenure as president of Paris’s Opéra Bastille—and the technology, hiring conservation specialists X-Art to implement a state-of-the-art climate-control system that maintains the condition of the archive, a vast collection that spans YSL’s 1965 Mondrian dress to the 5,000-volume research library’s Thousand and One Nights by Dr. J.C. Mardrus, widely considered the most scandalous translation of the Middle Eastern tales.
The museum’s focus is a permanent exhibition space where rare pieces such as “Le Smoking” and the 1989 Bougainvillea cape are showcased against black walls that screen original scenography, by architect Christophe Martin, of Saint Laurent’s inspirations, drawings, and runway moments. Across the hall, past Studio KO’s geometric take on the riad fountain, done here in a monochrome of celadon-green zellige tiles, a traditional Moroccan series of doors opens to the 130-seat auditorium, outfitted in sleek oak. Rounding out the interiors are the temporary exhibition gallery, a bookshop with amber lacquered shelving the color of Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume bottle, and a terrace café.
“Our brief was to create a completely Moroccan vocabulary contextualized for the new epoch,” says Fournier, gesturing toward the firm’s minimalist rethink of the traditional moucharabieh, a latticework screen that provides shade from the North African sun while allowing a gentle, subdued light into the museum’s boardroom. The choice of French architects for a museum paying homage to a Frenchman is not without detractors, especially around Marrakech, but their intentions are clear. “Bergé hired us to design a building at once contemporary and Moroccan,” Fournier says. “He envisioned a cultural centre for the people of Marrakech,” adds Marty. “He did not want a mausoleum.”
As the museum sets out to elevate the city’s status as a cultural destination while engaging with the still-diverse local community through contemporary art, film, and theater, Saint Laurent’s legacy already thrives among those who have followed in the iconic designer’s babouche-clad footsteps. In fact, Bergé was so captivated by the sculptural dresses of Noureddine Amir, who was born in the Moroccan capital of Rabat on the northern coast, that he gave him a solo exhibition at the Paris-based Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent-—the first for any fashion designer—in 2016. Next year, the show will be reprised for MYSLM.
“It was magic,” Amir says of the collaboration. He’s seated in a low-slung club chair surrounded by African art and palm fronds in his colonial villa and studio in the modern Gueliz neighborhood. The fashion-school graduate struggled within the confines of Morocco’s conservative sartorial scene until, in 1997, a chance meeting with Iranian artist Shirin Neshat led to a role as costume designer for her films. Amir credits Neshat with opening his eyes to a world beyond Morocco, especially to India and Afghanistan. “Moroccans live under the weight of tradition,” he says.
Now unfettered by such limits, Amir continues to chart the unconventional course that first attracted Bergé, who once told the under-the-radar designer, “You don’t copy anyone. That is what’s interesting in your designs.” For his couture collection each year, Amir first creates the material itself. “It starts as silk, cotton, wool, raffia, or even tree bark,” he explains, holding up a handful of crinkled muslin. “Then I transform the material to make it my own.”
Amir meticulously shapes couture pieces for men and women that are more sculptural adornments than clothing. “I am not totally in fashion,” Amir says. “My clients are people who are tired of trends.” What his Moroccan and international following does appreciate is the precision and sophistication he achieves without losing artistic integrity. Such craftsmanship is still possible here, he says, pointing to three artisans meticulously wrapping fabric on the concrete floor. “Clothing made by hand,” he says, while pulling out fantastical frocks formed of silk molded into swirls, overlaid tufts of organza, and coiled cotton cones. “It just seems more organic, more alive.” His hope is that MYSLM will become the kind of center that showcases the work of other up-and-coming Moroccan designers as much as that of its eponym.
But not all express complete confidence that MYSLM will achieve its stated mission to promote contemporary discourse on culture, art, and design, especially through a Moroccan lens. Across town, another talented couturier is circumspect about the museum’s opening. “It was really amazing what YSL did,” says Artsi Ifrach, a tattooed designer of Moroccan parentage raised in Israel, from his Gueliz studio and boutique in a French colonial building. “But my work is about taking the past, in the form of artisan heritage here, and building the future.” Ifrach believes that MYSLM will be a boon for his adopted city but is withholding his final verdict. “I just hope the museum contributes to the future of fashion and design for Moroccans.”
Designing under the brand Maison ARTC, Ifrach moved here in 2009 with aspirations of “breaking the caftan mold.” His artful, one-of-a-kind dresses, skirts, jackets, and coats are made with repurposed fabrics and sell at Dover Street Market in Japan, but are crafted entirely in Morocco.
Tulle dresses emblazoned with evil eyes and balloons may not obviously promote cultural preservation, but the designer feels a responsibility for the fast-disappearing heritage once vibrant in the Marrakech souks. Ifrach works only with locals, and he encourages the Berber women who finish each Maison ARTC piece with embroidery adapted from techniques practiced by their mothers and grandmothers to be creative. “My brand is like a kibbutz,” he says, borrowing from the communal concept of his native Israel. He holds up a skirt he calls Sexy Christ, upcycled from a needlepoint found in a Tangier flea market and finished with apple-green ruffles. “It is all about sharing. I do the sketches and mostly leave [my Berber embroiderers] Samira and Fatifa to choose the colors and to fill in the details.”
“Happiness in Marrakech,” Ifrach says, “manifests in color. Even today you can understand what Saint Laurent found here.” A striped dressing room resembling a circus tent echoes the playful spirit of his outlandish garments. Wearing them is a matter of taste, but its undeniable quality is what sets ATRC apart from the knockoff tunics in the souks. “Our work is about taking the past and making it relevant. If it does not evolve, it becomes a souvenir, and I am not in the knickknack business.”
“Everything we do here is by hand, so each piece is unique,” says Robert Merloz, a few miles away in the mostly residential Majorelle Quarter near the entrance to MYSLM. “That is why I love Morocco, and why I am here.” The French fashion designer has a complicated relationship with the city and the brand’s legacy.
Handpicked by Bergé to lead the couture house after Saint Laurent’s death, the gifted (but green) Frenchman fled both Marrakech and YSL following disastrous reviews of his first collection. After two years spent exploring South America and living in Madagascar, he returned to Morocco for its unparalleled local talent. “What they can do here is amazing, with lamb and cow hide in Fès, carpet weaving in the south, Berber crochet.” Merloz works with a women’s cooperative in Bou Tazert, a desert village three hours south of Marrakech. “An oasis,” he says of this association of 60 women, whom he has trained to do the sort of intricate scalloped finishes and delicate tribal motifs that appear on his Maroc’n’Roll 1432 handbags, caftans, and bomber jackets.
Over the past few seasons, the dapper, bow-tied Merloz’s work has evolved to include working with one of the medina’s zouac house painters, who hand-embellish traditional wall designs on supple leather tote bags. “This was new for him,” says Merloz of his Marrakchi colleague. “But he has been really open to trying something different.”
Across from the entrance to MYSLM, Merloz’s just-opened boutique and workshop features original stone-carved jybs (relief wall sculptures) and delicate wooden moucharabieh windows. He speaks of finding his own universe here, of adapting a vocabulary of traditional “Maroc” alongside the French concept of “le rock,” as evidenced by his babouches and handbags dappled with silver studs. “I am always drawing from old-fashioned Moroccan techniques, then infusing that with my own contemporary artistic expression.”
Merloz is quick to credit artisans for his success. “I have an idea, and they can make it beautifully,” he says, pointing to Iman, a pretty young Berber woman who embroiders Tazert-style details onto the vintage cashmere sweaters and lampshades he is rebranding with hand-painted Marrakech symbols such as camels and bowls of couscous.
Notwithstanding a loyalty to his own legacy with the YSL brand, Merloz’s recent move speaks to his enthusiasm for MYSLM. “The museum will be a jewel for Marrakech, because of the collection, but also because it was made by Moroccans with their own materials. I think it will be a symbol of confidence for Moroccans.”
Not all successful designers working in Marrakech trained as Saint Laurent did. Thanks to contacts from his former career as a New York fashion photographer, Randall Bachner launched Marrakshi Life. The production shop works with designers such as Ulla Johnson, whose fringe-covered bomber jackets come off the flatbed looms in Bachner’s cavernous atelier inside a former printing house, a 15-minute drive from the city center. “Other designers come here and take inspiration from what we do. It’s a very collaborative process,” he says, pointing to a pair of overalls, one of his line’s basic shapes that Australian designer Lucy Folk custom-colored. “I get excited by connecting these North African artisans to the fashion world at large.”
Bachner describes himself as more of a translator of Moroccan carpet weaving and clothing forms, including caftans, drawstring jumpsuits, and the lab coat he adapted from one worn by his head weaver. This tightly edited collection of relaxed, unisex beachwear is finding favor with customers from Malibu to Trancoso.
It’s a decidedly family affair, Bachner tells me as he strides between the looms, introducing me to fathers, sons, and brothers working side by side, barefoot as they once were in the souks. “Everyone prays twice a day. In between, we’re developing new cotton fabrics by playing with grid, weight, and color.” His enthusiasm matches that of the most experienced among Marrakech’s expatriate creators. “We can do anything here because these artisans are always saying yes, always willing to learn.” He speaks about the creative process but saves his most heartfelt enthusiasm for the human aspect. “It is a wonderful feeling to provide work for so many people in my adopted country.”
Laetitia Trouillet, another design outsider, arrived from London by way of Bordeaux 12 years ago. “In my own modest way I got inspired here like Saint Laurent did,” says the elegant young Frenchwoman, eager not to overstate the comparison as she motions toward the inventory at Lalla, her airy boutique on a gritty lane off Mohammed V Avenue in Gueliz. “Every day I am awed by the natural light and the way locals wear their colorful clothing.”
Trouillet speaks enthusiastically of MYSLM as well as Studio KO’s other work in and around Marrakech, at perennially popular eateries like Café de la Poste and Bo-Zin as well as the L’Heure Bleu hotel, in the nearby seaside town of Essaouira. She has already seen the new museum make a positive impact. “The excitement around its opening counters talk in the international media of Morocco only in the context of European terrorism.”
In a former shop for electrical goods, Trouillet offers her interpretations of the local rainbow in sky blue, saffron yellow and currant-red leather saddlebags, fashioned from vintage caftans and kitschy Senegalese textiles sewn up as beach totes. “I am continually amazed by how clever people here are about rearranging and customizing even the most mundane things,” she says, pointing to a clutch made from inexpensive industrial carpeting. A closer look reveals neon-hued threads woven in. “Some weaver thought, ‘Why not hot pink?’ Everyone here thinks like an artisan.”
On a more accessible scale, her Lalla brand is preserving traditions by using local materials and techniques in new ways. Few leave her shop without purchasing a pastel-hued cosmetic bag made of towel fabric. In Marrakech, even the most humble material is etched with swirling arabesques. Standing among piles of the St. Tropez–ready pouches, Trouillet leans over to pick up a larger item. “My workers are totally open to new ideas for traditional Moroccan fabrics. You can’t believe what a kick they got when I asked them to make me this surfboard case,” she says, holding an unusually elongated towel strip.
It was in Marrakech that Trouillet encountered another Frenchwoman, Parme Marin, whose bold leather-and-bone necklaces now hang alongside Trouillet’s accessories at her boutique. Marin was a struggling actress in New York City in 2012, making jewelry “just for fun, for myself” when a stylist from Vogue Italia asked to borrow one of her bold and vaguely ethnic necklaces for a shoot. “I thought, ‘Well, if Vogue likes it…’ and then I thought of Marrakech.”
Visiting her father—who had relocated to the city—made Marin aware of the craftsmanship and wealth of materials available here. “Far more than what I could find in New York City,” she says. It took Marin a year and a half to find the right artisans to craft her funky yet feminine accessories. “We went through many, many prototypes,” she says. This gave her time to explore Marrakech through its architecture. “Walls and windows—the essential forms here are very geometric,” she says. “I took the shape for a necklace from a fireplace by Bill Willis,” best known here as Saint Laurent’s interior designer.
The beauty of Marrakech, Marin says, is “working with people who mastered the techniques and artistry of their great-grandfathers. To this I bring my own personality and, together, we create something very classically made yet totally modern. I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”
So it was with Saint Laurent and Bergé, who continued to visit Morocco until their deaths; Saint Laurent passed away in 2008, and Bergé just last month at the age of 86. But thanks to MYSLM, there’s hope that their legacy will spur on a new generation of artists and designers who never cease to draw inspiration from Marrakech’s enduring creative rhythms.