The last home of Yves Saint Laurent, the Villa Mabrouka in Tangier is reimagined as an exquisite boutique hotel.
Some five years ago, English design mogul Jasper Conran passed through the horseshoe arch doorway and entered the vast, walled estate of Villa Mabrouka, the last home of Yves Saint Laurent. Located just outside Tangier’s dense Kasbah, the grounds dropped down through a series of terraces and sweeping lawns before ending in a cliff above the Strait of Gibraltar. With palms and banana trees, hedges, ferns, and abundant climbers, the two-hectare property was lushly verdant. Along with the main villa were a handful of cottages and pavilions tucked away among the hollyhock, bougainvillea, nasturtiums, jasmine, and iceberg roses.
In 2016, Conran’s five-room luxury riad L’Hôtel in Marrakech had opened, and he was beginning to think about a new project. “People said, ‘Open a hotel in Tangier,’” Conran recalls. “I said that I would if I could find the right place.” Then he heard that the house of Yves Saint Laurent was for sale and he went to have a look. “I didn’t come to buy it. But I knew immediately. I could see it. I could see what it could be,” he says with heavy emphasis. “But I had no idea what it would take.” Two weeks ahead of the June 21 grand opening, he gives a knowing laugh and adds, “An enormous amount!”
Born in 1936, Saint Laurent spent the first 18 years of his life in the white-washed port city of Oran on Algeria’s northwest coast before moving to Paris. His meteoric rise, first at Dior and then with his own eponymous maison founded in 1962 with Pierre Bergé, is the stuff of legend. Since the early-1980s, he had been summering at Château Gabriel, his home in Normandy, but by the mid-1990s, the couturier was keen to go elsewhere. In 1966, he and Bergé had bought their first home in Marrakech, and spent significant amounts of time in Morocco. “Tangier made sense because he had a whole staff in Marrakech that could come up for July and August,” says Madison Cox, the eminent American garden designer, longtime friend of Saint Laurent and Bergé, and President of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.
Yet, choosing Tangier went beyond the practical. It held many similarities to Oran, where Proustian-levels of nostalgia imbued his childhood memories. In a documentary filmed before his final collection in 2002, Saint Laurent speaks movingly of summers spent in a beach house outside Oran. Looking at black-and-white images of the two-story home with its wild, shady garden for siestas among cousins and boisterous outdoor meals with generations of extended family, he says, “I think those are the days when I was happiest of all.”
The brief for Jacques Grange, who handled the decorating, and Cox, who did the garden, was straightforward. “He wanted a house that was devoid of any architectural or decorative treatments,” said Cox. “Villa Oasis was richly decorated, incredibly ornamented, very dark, an Orientalist fantasy.” Marrakech’s chilly winters require a cozy, intimate atmosphere. “What he wanted in Tangier was something that went in the exact opposite direction: whitewashed rooms, no paintings on the walls, no decorative ceilings.” It was to be a contemplative counterpart to Marrakech. In July 1999, after two years of work, Saint Laurent spent his first summer in Villa Mabrouka – “luck” in Arabic. Rebuilt in the 1960s from an older structure, the house blended modernist elements with traditional Moroccan details like white stucco walls and great crenelated horseshoe arches. Floor-to-ceiling, metalframed doors and windows offered views across the Strait and let in plenty of Tangier’s lush light that shone off the checkerboard black and white marble floor. Airy and bright, with bold prints and fabrics, it was not minimalist but uncluttered.
Saint Laurent loved to sit on the wrap-around porches and look out over the sea towards Spain, just 14km away, says Cox, who was a frequent guest. “Whether it’s fog coming in, ships passing through, ferries crossing, or fishing boats going out, there is always something to watch. The Strait is quite active and animated.” At night, he enjoyed looking at the lights glimmering along the coast. “I think that after all those decades of having been in Marrakech, he found a certain sense of peace and serenity and also similarities to those moments he remembered in his childhood,” Cox comments.
Conran purchased the property in 2019 and began significant refurbishment work. (It had sat largely vacant since Saint Laurent’s death in 2008.) “Basically, the house was disassembled, repaired, and reassembled,” he explains. “Everything that is original to the house has been touched. Every tile. Every block.” He was more interested in preserving than reinventing, and the house retains its original form, with the shape of the rooms, the floor tiles, and the ceiling heights all the same. While guided by Saint Laurent’s legacy, Conran didn’t want to be wedded solely to it. There was the language of the original house as well as his own, honed over the decades with extensive work in fashion, home furnishings, and set designs. “It was a balancing act,” he says. Taking cues from the 1940s, the era of Saint Laurent’s childhood and halcyon interwar years of the Mediterranean, the results are fresh and contemporary in an understated way that exudes sophistication, glamour, and elegance.
Villa Mabrouka has 12 suites spread throughout the grounds, along with a restaurant, rooftop terrace coffee and juice bar (with homemade ice cream), and restaurant. There is a pair of pools – water trickles down a rockery into one that was dramatically hewn from bedrock by previous owners – and a hammam. Ranging in price from €450 to €1 350 a night, each suite is unique. The old master bedroom is now the 68sqm Marrakech Suite, with its green ceiling beams from the days when Saint Laurent slept here, a fireplace, and large terrace with fine views. Its spacious dressing room has an elongated octagonal-shaped metal-framed window that overlooks the sea.
While white stucco dominates, there are generous hints of color – ochres, butterscotch, mauve, various shades of green – and texture: velvet slipper armchairs, mother-of-pearl inlaid tables, and glazed linen covered sofas, cashmere bed covers, rattan flooring, Murano glass chandeliers, and Saint Laurent’s signature sage green and cornflower blue doors. Nearly all of the furnishings were made specifically for Villa Mabrouka, and most by Conran’s own designs. But any decorative touches, Conran says, were used to not compete with the views of the sea and the drama of the magnificent garden.
Saint Laurent and Bergé only went to Tangier in July and August, informs Cox. “So all the plants were summer or late-summer flowering.” She planted an enormous collection of different types of hydrangeas that had an exceptional variety of blooms. But a hotel is year-round. Thousands of new trees, shrubs, and plants went into restoring the garden but also updating it to reflect Villa Mabrouka’s latest iteration. Hotel guests will discover this sylvan arbor gradually and spend considerable time in its countless shady spots reading, listening to the birds, or just gazing out over the sea, three things Saint Laurent liked to do. When asked about his impression upon entering the grounds of Villa Mabrouka, Conran says. “You’re walking into paradise.” He uses the present tense. The feeling remains. It’s there every time he arrives.
Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia