I've been getting requests for Morocco recently, and I'd like to share with you the cool connection of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent to the city of Marrakech. When it's your turn to travel to Morocco, you'll want to plan ahead to uncover its riches! Marrakech is a city of bold, immediate impressions: jostling souks, fragrant kitchens, and the carnival atmosphere of Jemaa el-Fna, the main square. But if one aspect lingers, it will likely be the city’s light and colors – the pinkish ocher of the medina’s 800-year-old walls in the morning; Matisse greens and blues in the numerous public gardens; shop displays of fuchsia, sunflower-yellow, and ocean-blue women’s caftans. These saturated tones certainly influenced one of the city’s best-known devotees, Yves Saint Laurent, and helped guide him away from the black, navy, and white that had dominated couture since Chanel’s rise. “It was in Marrakech that Yves discovered color,” Saint Laurent’s longtime partner in business and life, Pierre Bergé, wrote after the designer’s death.
Without a doubt, Marrakech loved Saint Laurent back. To stroll its Old City is to experience what so delighted him. Moroccans’ love of color and visual expression is everywhere, from handicrafts to flowing djellabas (hooded robes). The medina is a patchwork of patterns: colorful rows of pointed-toe babouche slippers and ornate displays of sweetmeats, interlacing decoration in carpets and tile mosaics. Most notably, in October 2017, the city’s Musée Yves Saint Laurent opened to welcome visitors exploring the country’s influence on the visionary couturier. Here’s how to experience his Marrakech today.
Fashion First: Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech
Evoking the patterned weave of fabric, the museum’s textured, earthen exterior bricks contrast with an interior that French architecture firm Studio KO designed to be “like the lining of a luxurious couture jacket: luminous, velvety, and smooth.” Located next to Jardin Majorelle, the museum features an auditorium, restaurant, bookshop, and research library, but the highlights, of course, are exhibitions that draw on 5,000 garments, 15,000 haute couture accessories, and tens of thousands of sketches owned by the Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent.
Natural Inspiration: Jardin Majorelle
Built by painter and avid plant collector Jacques Majorelle, and restored and replanted by Bergé and Saint Laurent, the two-and-a-half-acre garden contains some 200 varieties of plants, including bougainvillea that Saint Laurent used in his designs and more than 20 types of bamboo. For an extra pop of color, Saint Laurent added brightly painted pots among the greens. Majorelle’s boxy art deco studio, painted an electric cobalt blue known as bleu Majorelle, houses the Berber Museum, Morocco’s first, containing the private collection of indigenous jewelry, costumes, and weavings amassed by Saint Laurent and Bergé over the years. Today, with around 600,000 visitors a year, Jardin Majorelle is one of Morocco’s most popular sites.
At Home in the City: Villa Oasis
Built in 1923, Villa Oasis was Majorelle’s home until the early 1960s. The legendary American interior decorator (and longtime Marrakech resident) Bill Willis renovated it, keeping, Bergé said, “Majorelle’s essence and spirit.” It’s a masterwork of traditional wood carving and stenciling, with intricate tilework and cedar panels painted in Moroccan motifs. Exclusive private tours can be arranged for guests staying at Royal Mansour and La Mamounia.
Park Life: Menara and Agdal Gardens
During their early years in Marrakech, Saint Laurent and Bergé followed local tradition and lounged on carpets, brewed tea, and passed lazy afternoons in the shade of the palm, fruit, and olive trees of Jardin Menara, a 220-acre park that dates to the twelfth century. While carpets and teapots are less common today, Menara remains especially popular on weekends and offers stunning views from a reflecting pool facing the Atlas Mountains.
Menara is just one of the city’s many fine public gardens. The even larger Agdal Gardens (agdal means “walled meadow” in Berber) date to around the same time, but sprawl nearly 1,000 acres. Located within the grounds of the Royal Palace, they are open to visitors just twice a week, on Fridays and Sundays – and only when the king of Morocco is away.
Everything Emporium: The Souks
The medina’s covered souks begin at the edge of Jemaa el-Fna. Head up the main Souk Semmarine, past the shops selling leatherwork, textiles, and filigreed lanterns, and into its center. It’s best to wander somewhat aimlessly through the labyrinth of narrow alleys and allow your senses to guide you. Rue Bab Doukkala gives you a feel for local life, with fruit vendors, public bread ovens, cobblers, and narrow barbershops. Take a break from haggling, the ping of shopkeepers’ hammers, and sinus-clearing mounds of spices with a cup of mint tea at Café des Épices on the medina’s “spice square.”
Block Party: Jemaa el-Fna
The energetic heart of this opulent, open city takes on the character of a medieval festival every day. The snake charmers, acrobats, and gnawa musicians on the UNESCO-listed square fascinated Saint Laurent when he arrived in Marrakech. Little has changed since – photographs of the youngish designer in Jemaa el-Fna could easily have been taken today. The broad, raucous site comes to life at dusk, when food stalls set up for dinner and smoke hovers over vendors selling bowls of snails in a spicy broth, grilled merguez sausages, and other favorite dishes.
Discover Saint Laurent’s beloved city on a private day tour visiting elite jewelry and rug workshops, learning about Berber patterns and their symbolism, and talking with women embroidering ornate caftans and djellabas. Abderrazzak Benchaabane, a famed perfumer, garden designer, and friend of Saint Laurent (he created a perfume inspired by Jardin Majorelle), welcomes guests into his home to craft a personal scent and tour his garden and private art collection.
La Mamounia’s views of the changing light on the Atlas Mountains across palms and olive trees have inspired artists and frequent guests such as Winston Churchill for nearly a century. The 209-room property is a study in texture and color contrasts, with 20 acres of gardens that were one of Saint Laurent’s favorite spots for afternoon tea – ask about its private tours of Villa Oasis.
Encompassing 12 acres a short walk from Jemaa el-Fna, Royal Mansour Marrakech is laid out like a small village where guests reside in private three-story riads with courtyards and roof terraces – 53 in total, the smallest of which are 1,500 square feet. The hotel recently expanded its date-palm-lined gardens and debuted an expansive pool with private pavilions and dining by three-Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno. As at La Mamounia, the concierge can arrange Villa Oasis tours!
Contact me to design a fantastically fashionable trip to magical Marrakech!
Article excerpts above by Jeff Koehler appeared in Sept. 2017 issue of Virtuoso Life. Photo by Fondation Jardin Majorelle Nicolas Mathéus.