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How Morocco’s Wave of Innovative Design is Conquering Fashion with Ancestral Savoir-Faire

The North African country’s nearly 10,000 artisan cooperatives harness a soft power heard around the world. Now, a wave of innovative design is conquering fashion with ancestral savoir-faire.

Ben Youssef Mosque, Marrakesh

Morocco’s aesthetic has been exported, and then interpreted, reimported, and reinterpreted so many times that it can be hard to distinguish moresque fantasy from Maghrebin reality. Spain’s legendary Alhambra was built for the Emir of Granada. Casablanca’s iconic Habous neighborhood was envisioned as a “new medina” by the French. Louis Vuitton’s maroquinerie attained world-renown during the Jazz Age, when art deco spread pointed arches, glazed mosaics, and fretwork from New York spires to Hollywood movie palaces. Post-independence, old-world socialites like Barbara Hutton and new-wave sybarites like Yves Saint Laurent and the rich hippies calling themselves the “gyp-set” nurtured the country’s glamorous mystique into global fashion and modern art. Arab, Berber, French, Portuguese, Sahrawi, and Spanish styles and artisanal skills in textiles, leather, carpentry, ceramics, masonry, and metalwork have blended over centuries of repeated North African and European incursions, and evolved over the ages.

Yves Saint Laurent in his Marrakech home photographed for Vogue US’s August 1980 issue. Photo: Horst P. Horst

But this universality comes at a cost. The Moroccan “look” can be picked up anywhere, from clamorous souks in Marrakech, to crisp showrooms in Paris, to cut-price outlets in Cleveland. For the casual customer, it can be hard to appreciate the quality and cost difference between a piece conceived and crafted in the atelier of a caring artisan and one made in a sweatshop – or even in China. The handicrafts sector accounts for an estimated 22% of employment in Morocco, but only 7% of the country’s economic output. That split reflects a low value placed on Moroccan artisanship – a problem the country aims to redress, notably through programs by the Maison d’Artisan, like the recent “Our Hands, Our Treasure” campaign. The vision is of “artisanship at the service of inclusive and sustainable development,” says Fatima- Zahra Ammor, Morocco’s Minister of Tourism, Handicrafts, and Social and Solidarity Economy. Artisans “work with local materials that they know how to preserve,” adds Martine Therer, of the United Nation Development Programme. What’s more, “It represents a form of soft power,” she explains, referring to the cultural diplomacy that accompanies economic impact, citing as an example artisanship’s role at the heart of French dominance among global luxury brands.

Model Shalom Harlow wearing a Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche dress for Vogue US’s April 1996 issue shot in Morocco. Photo: Arthur Elgort

For those visiting the country, at the gates to Marrakech’s medina, La Mamounia is a local attraction and the perennial place to be. Opened in 1929 – in the palace and grounds of an 18th-century royal residence – the hotel transports with ornate salons, rooms, and suites hewn from traditional craftsmanship. Intricately geometric Tuareg mats share space with tilework by Said Benadiba, a maalem: a master artisan recognized nationally and by Unesco as a Living Human Treasure. Orange groves, and vegetable and herb gardens for use in the restaurants, complete the local flavor. Meanwhile, in its namesake city, Le Casablanca rises above leafy, villa-strewn Anfa, within easy reach of the oceanfront corniche’s parks, malls, and entertainment to the east and the historic center, west, with plenty of contemporary designer shopping along the way. Spacious, modern rooms enjoy views over the pool and surrounding gardens to the Hassan II Mosque and the Atlantic.

A souk in Marrakech

Morocco’s renewed methodology for artisanship includes the culinary arts, with several chefs sourcing ingredients and inspiration locally. Near the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech’s fashionable Gueliz neighborhood, concept store Moro serves lightened traditional dishes like saffron chicken, or cauliflower steak, on a sunny, minimalist patio. In the medina, Le Jardin serves classics – including a mouthwatering beef Tanjia Marrakechia – in a multilevel riad setting festooned with flowering plants and palm trees. And in edgy Sidi Ghanem, designers and gallery owners stop at Jajjah for mint tea and sweets. While in Casablanca, La Sqala offers the most local flavors imaginable in a vast walled garden at the edge of the old medina, tucked behind the ramparts. For a more buttoned-up vibe, head to La Pergola for Moroccan fare with Parisian flare fit for high-rolling business meals, fashionistas, or ladies-who-lunch. At night, soak up the ambience amid the golden pretty-young things of the city’s smart set at Manaos, featuring live music and ocean views.

The Jardin Majorelle

At the core of Morocco’s approach are almost 10 000 artisanal cooperatives across the country, focused on training and empowering women and young people. Rural women here have traditionally done weaving or other cottage industry crafts alongside raising the children and maintaining the house, often passing the skills to their daughters. And men have apprenticed in more grueling tasks like masonry, tile, and metal work, or leather tanning. But the unstructured nature of the sector made the work precarious, in both financial and personal terms. Cooperatives, in addition to providing a steady supply of work in safe surroundings, help artisans register as skilled, independent professional tradespeople. This brings them into the formal economy, with protections such as health and unemployment insurance. And it has led high-end brands – who understand that exceptional products rely on exceptional creative conditions – to explore and experiment with the contemporary appeal of traditional craftwork.

Doum’s geometric handbags

Zyne shoes

Doum was founded by the mother-daughter team of Samira and Yasmine Erguibi, and creates prim, highly geometric handbags using raffia, canvas, and Alter Nappa leather substitute. Its cooperative, Doum For Women, supports rural women from around Marrakech. “What started with the manufacturing of luxury handcrafted bags is now a place of power for over 200 women that weave their heritage, respect, and care into every stitch,” say the founders. “Our basketry cooperative is the first in Morocco recognized and certified Sedex [sustainable supply chain] for its social compliance.” Similarly, Zyne shoes was founded in Casablanca by Zineb Britel and Laura Pujol, who studied and worked in Paris at houses including Christian Dior, Sonia Rykiel, and Christian Louboutin. Zyne interprets the ubiquitous babouche pointed slipper into glamorously embroidered satin mules or playfully elegant woven sandals that seem to spin straw into gold, and recently gained fame as a favorite of Meghan Markle. The shoes are handmade by a cooperative that grew from five to 50 women under Zyne’s wing. “We wanted to showcase the amazing craftsmanship that is part of our Moroccan DNA, so we started researching old embroidery techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation and ways in which we could showcase them through our product,” Pujol says. “When I create a new collection, I always start by speaking to our artisans,” adds Britel, “discussing what excites them, what we haven’t explored yet, what is possible and what they want to learn.”

Beni Rugs

Visibility is key for such brands and their growth comes in step with concept stores that expose them to local style hunters and foreign buyers. Soufiane Zarib 16 sells dramatic and plush Beni Rugs and much more in a three-story atrium rising above a black-and-green marble pool, showing sensuous, modern furniture, ceramics, and accessories redolent of elevated functionality (even the workers’ jumpsuits are available in a fetching ready-to-wear line.) Hajjaj puts a vibrant, pop-art spin on upcycled materials. Moro, a gallery, restaurant, and now boutique hotel evolved from The Moroccans argan oil skincare line. And 33 Rue Majorelle curates homegrown luxury, from whimsical furniture by Noun to evocative tunic-shirts by designers like Noureddine Amir. His retrospective during the inaugural season of the Pierre-Bergé-Yves-Saint- Laurent Foundation in 2016 was described as an “earthquake” on the Moroccan fashion scene. “Noureddine Amir is an artist who uses garments as his medium,” said Bergé of the protégé he’d discovered two years before. Amir, who was born in Marrakech, studied at Paris’s Esmod, and started his career in the 1990s as a costume designer. His creations sculpt traditional wool, raffia, and other materials into textures and shapes reminiscent of Amazigh constructions in North America, but wholly beyond place, or even time. In 2018, he was the first Moroccan designer to present haute couture in Paris, and last Fall, alongside Saint Laurent’s Moroccan-inspired clothing and art, in the 14th-century palace of the Dukes of Cadaval in Portugal’s Algarve.

Maison Sara Chraibi

In January, Sara Chraïbi was the latest Moroccan designer to surprise and delight on the Paris runways. Chraïbi trained and worked as an architect before coming to fashion. That structure, geometry, and play of positive and negative space shows in her multi-faceted designs. The opulent clothes both rely on and subvert tradition in limitless ways that only haute couture can accommodate. Aloe-fiber-based silk normally woven into elaborate trim becomes whole fabric. Pearl-festooned wedding dresses are reborn as the looped strands of a caplet. Given the buzz following her collection, it seems Morocco’s conquest of world imagination is far from over.

Originally published in the March 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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