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Tapping into creative Marrakech, Morocco’s hub for art and design

Marrakech is a city on the edge. Here, Europe, Africa and the Middle East mingle, and past and present are hard to tell apart. This ancient trading hub is a creative sweet spot where ideas thrive and flourish, making it a muse for artists and designers from around the world.

Majorelle Gardens (Gardens of Yves Saint-Laurent), Marrakech, Morocco. Image by Matthew Williams-Ellis / robertharding / Getty ImagesThe Vibrant colours of Jardin Majorelle, gifted to the city of Marrakesh by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent 

October 2017 saw the opening of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech, which celebrates the city’s legendary creative chutzpah alongside the journey and collection of Algerian-born couturier Yves Saint Laurent, who drew inspiration from the red city for more than 40 years. Arguably the most influential designer of the post-war era, he unleashed a storm of stylistic innovations. And it was here in Marrakech, ensconced at Jardin Majorelle, the home he shared with his life partner Pierre Bergé, that he worked on his ground-breaking collections.

Step inside the elegant museum designed by Studio KO, and you immediately have a strong sense of the artist-couturier that Saint Laurent believed himself to be. The building is rendered in ochre-hued bricks from Tetouan that mimic the warp and weft of fabric, its shape a mix of lines and curves reminiscent of his dress designs. Pink terrazzo, oak, laurel, zellij (ceramic-tile mosaic), coloured Iraqi glass and an amber-lacquered bookshop mirroring the Yves Opium perfume bottle lend texture and shape your mood – the building is as crafted as the couture.

Tourists arrive to visit the new Yves Saint Laurent museum in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. Image by FADEL SENNA / AFP / Getty ImagesThe newly opened Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech fuses the Moroccan traditions and contemporary flair 

To one side of the meditative central courtyard there’s a temporary exhibition space, currently dedicated to a collection of Jacques Majorelle’s Orientalist paintings. Like the work of great colourists Matisse and Gauguin, they are notable for their extraordinary palette and strong sense of light, and their influence on St Laurent is clear. It was Majorelle who conceived of the intense ultramarine blue that is the signature shade of Jardin Majorelle, which provides the dramatic backdrop to the exhibit. It’s no wonder then that Yves discovered colour in Marrakesh, turning from his earlier monochrome trouser suits and tuxedos to produce clothes of shockingly bright Fauvist hues.

This transition is beautifully illustrated in the 400 sq m permanent exhibition space choreographed by Christophe Martin. Here 50 of Saint Laurent’s creations (on rotation every four to six months) are showcased in a dramatic all-black hall, including rare pieces like the Mondrian dress – which floats on the wall like a replica of the painting – the Bougainvillea cape and La Blouse Roumaine. See these after a visit to the Berber Museum at Jardin Majorelle and the creative crossover is stark – silhouettes and fabrics echo Moroccan clothing like the kaftan, jabador and burnoose. The shapely clothes, bold jewellery and highly embellished accessories would do almost as well at a Berber wedding as a New York dinner party.

A burst of colour at Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech. Image by Musée Yves Saint Laurent MarrakechA burst of colour at Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech 

The installation brings together written and spoken words, including interviews with Yves and his collaborators, iconic photographs and film extracts that contextualise the spotlit garments in a deeply emotional display. Hours of work went into the digital editing of the ethereal models that sashay down invisible runways in floating projections above the mannequins, reminding you that fashion, like Marrakesh, is alive and vibrant.

Beyond St Laurent’s extraordinary legacy, the museum sets out to elevate Marrakesh’s status as a cultural destination, promoting a dynamic programme of Moroccan art, design, music and film in its 150-seat auditorium. In February 2018, for example, the sculptural dresses of Moroccan designer Nourredine Amir will follow the Jacques Majorelle show in the temporary exhibition space. Made entirely by hand from wrapped fabric, raffia palms, silk and even tree bark, his clothes stand midway between art and fashion, much as Yves’ work did. This exhibition will change again in late April.

Circular patio at Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech. Image by Fondation Jardin MajorelleCircular patio at the brand new Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech 

But it would be a mistake for visitors to think that the museum is the only venue for a dialogue with contemporary Moroccan artists and designers. Get out into Marrakesh and you’ll find the city in the throes of a contemporary craft renaissance, with Moroccan and international artists, designers, photographers and filmmakers regularly swooping into the medina to cherry-pick inspiration, just like Yves and his friends, Andy Warhol and Bill Willis, did back in the 1960s.

Take for example, the wildly inventive fashion of Moroccan designer Artsi Ifrach or the upcycled Warhol-inspired pop-art of stylist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj at Riad Yima. Amine Bendriouich, author of Couture & Bullshit, was the first Arab and African finalist in the createurope Fashion Awards, and now splits his time between Marrakesh and Berlin, where he secured an artist’s residency. Algerian-born Norya Nemiche’s modern take on kaftans and abayas at Norya Ayron have earned a place in the closets of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kate Moss and Erykah Badu.

Display of various goods and spices in the market in Marrakesh, Morocco. Image by Gary Yeowell / Getty ImagesFind a stroke of inspiration just by strolling through the markets in Marrakesh 

What they all have in common is the same love of craftsmanship, texture, colour and pattern that is evident in St Laurent’s collections. Marrakesh, it seems, is a profound source of inspiration. Walk down the dappled alleys in the souq and you’ll find it all around you, the hot red earthen walls, the electric blue sky, hot splashes of gold in the brass shops, spice racks to rival Pantone swatches, and women and men dressed head to toe in striking, strong colours, embroidered babouche (leather slippers) and soft leather bags embossed and embellished with silver studs.

While local talent continually emerges, Marrakesh has an extraordinary ability to attract a steady stream of international artists and designers that help keep the creative dialogue fresh and evolving. They are drawn not only by the city’s striking colours and light, but also by its deep well of artisanal skills. Opening her boutique in 2014, Norya produced her first collection in just 10 days. ‘Dreams can come true here’, she says.

For Americans Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes at Popham Design that is certainly the case. Collaborating with artisans to invent new designs for their home in Marrakesh, they discovered a passion for the process and decided to make a business of it. Now their contemporary cement tiles are sold in markets around the world. The same story is repeated at Marrakshi Life, the brainchild of one-time New York photographer Randall Bachner, who now presides over a warehouse of weavers in the Sidi Ghanem design district. Here, father-and-son teams craft lengths of cotton fabrics in various weights, which are then tailored on-site into unisex lab coats, overalls and slouchy drop-crotch pants that look equally at home in Miami and Sydney.

Weavers at work at Marrakshi Life in Marrakesh's Sidi Ghanem design district. Image by Paula Hardy / Lonely PlanetWeavers at work at Marrakshi Life in Marrakesh’s Sidi Ghanem design district 

It is this end-to-end involvement in the production process that Marrakesh uniquely offers. There are few other places where it is possible to collaborate so closely with such a range of highly skilled artisans in leatherwork, textiles, weaving, ceramics, embroidery, metalwork, zellij mosaic and more. The possibilities are endless, as Belgian designer Laurence Leenaert demonstrates; her LRNCE line now includes super modern, Miró-esque rugs, contemporary ceramics, on-trend fringed sandals, super-soft leather satchels and lemon-wood furniture with a minimal, modernist aesthetic.

Passed down through the hands of generations of craftspeople, Marrakesh’s reservoir of heritage skills now chimes with a resurgent contemporary craft movement that rejects mass production for something more soulful, wrought by human hands. After all, there is nothing more contemporary than the human urge to collaborate, experiment and create. As Yves St Laurent understood, art and craft are a way of capturing the beauty of our world.

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The best approach is to walk through her cities and villages and experience the narrow alleys of ancient neighborhoods. This brings you close to the people: talk to them! They are certain to invite you to have a cup of Moroccan tea, a time-honored ritual of hospitality and ceremony.

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