Exploring Marrakech through the eyes of Yves Saint Laurent

With its façade of terra cotta bricks and pink granite blending seamlessly with the city’s trademark ochre tone, you could, at first, overlook Marrakech’s newest museum. Fortunately, a flash of Majorelle blue from
the adjacent garden serves as a reminder that you’re on the street named for one of fashion’s most famed designers, and this, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (tickets AED 39; 00212- 52-429 1515, museeyslmarrakech.com), is the city’s latest attention- grabber. The museum’s harmonious design is no coincidence. Conceived, at the request of the late Pierre Bergé – Saint Laurent’s partner – to be simultaneously Moroccan and contemporary, the Studio KO-designed building evokes “the warp and weft of a fabric” through a pattern of bricks made from Moroccan earth. Though Bergé passed away mere weeks ahead of the museum’s October 19 opening (but not before he saw it completed), I can’t help but think he would be pleased with the scene before me: well-heeled visitors photograph themselves against the brand’s oversized logo in the sun-lit, circular entry; model and actress Marisa Berenson saunters past in vintage YSL and chunky Berber- style jewellery; hushed discussions take place alongside mannequins in striking looks.

Split into a handful of galleries, the 4,000sqm museum houses roughly 1,000 pieces on long-term loan from the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. In the lobby of the Pierre Bergé Auditorium – where the glow of footage from runway shows lights rapt faces – colourful sketches depicting the designer’s work for the stage are grouped together alongside photographs of actress Catherine Deneuve wearing costumes Saint Laurent designed for her big- screen roles. A close friend of the designer, Deneuve also stars in the museum’s inaugural photography exhibition, Thirty Years Of The Fashion House In Marrakech by André Rau, in which she wears iconic fashion around the Moroccan city. Another temporary exhibition space is currently showing Jacques Majorelle’s Morocco, sumptuously coloured paintings of Moroccan gardens and medieval kasbahs.

There’s eye candy at every turn, but the buzz of excitement reaches a crescendo upon entering the main exhibition hall. The space is dramatically dark but the garments are lit just so: 50 couture pieces displayed against black walls and amid scenographer Christophe Martin’s immersive audiovisual elements – interview audio clips, films, quotes. Pieces rarely seen in public, such as the signature Mondrian dress and the Saharienne safari jacket that graced the pages of Vogue in 1968, are encircled by visitors snapping away for social media. Saint Laurent once said: “Marrakech taught me colour.” Yet this collection’s vibrancy appears to come so naturally it’s hard to believe it wasn’t intrinsic. Museum director Björn Dahlström has plans for the museum to be more than a tourist attraction. Artists will be nurtured, he says, through “partnering with the Marrakech Biennale, and the auditorium will be the venue for a wide range of events: performances, film screenings, live broadcasts from prestigious opera houses.”

The museum’s second floor is a research library and will be a haven of information with some 5,000 volumes covering Islamic and Arab-Andalusian culture, the Berber people, botany and fashion. “We would like the museum to become a meeting place, one filled with discovery and debates,” says Dahlström. “A cultural and social channel available to all, and especially Moroccans and Marrakchis.”

Beyond the museum, I don’t have to venture far to begin exploring the Marrakech that Saint Laurent fell in love with. Once owned by Jacques Majorelle then bought by Saint Laurent and Bergé in 1980, the Jardin Majorelle (tickets AED 27; 00212-52-431 3047, jardinmajorelle.com) is right next door. “The museum wouldn’t exist without the garden,” notes Dahlström. “The Jardin Majorelle had a significant impact on YSL’s work and life. This is where, for decades, he would come for two weeks twice a year to design his collections.” Inside this oasis, shaded by towering bamboo and sparkling with fountains and ponds, a building in Majorelle’s famed cobalt blue peeks through the fronds. Once the painter’s villa- studio, it now houses a Berber museum (tickets AED 12) filled with Saint Laurent and Bergé’s personal collection of Berber artefacts.

Less peaceful but no less inspiring is Marrakech’s ancient walled medina and its main square, Jemaâ El Fna (jemaa-el-fna.com) – another of Saint Laurent’s favourites in the city, and one that featured in his photoshoots. This chaotic marketplace calls for your attention from every direction all at once, and when I arrive shortly after sunset the most conspicuous call comes from a compilation of YSL fashion shows that is being projected on a large screen while the thumping beat of music echoes across the square. Side-stepping snake charmers and drummers, carts buckling under the weight of dates and oranges piled high, I duck into the maze of shop- and fragrance-clogged alleyways that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chancing a pathway beneath one of the many outrepassé arched doorways, a moment’s silence is found on a shop-free lane before turning another corner and being deposited back into the melee.

Another artist who fell for the Ochre City in the Sixties, perfumer Serge Lutens’ riad is hidden within the medina. Arriving there by sidecar with Insiders Experience (insidersexperience.com) is both the coolest and zippiest way to navigate the busy streets. Inside the private home – currently not open to the public though Royal Mansour can exclusively arrange visits for hotel guests – Lutens’ obsessive design of every square inch results in a gasp-inducing experience; taking in detailed wall and ceiling carvings, lanterns throwing intricate arabesque patterns on surfaces, it’s not surprising to learn that as many as 500 people were working on the house at any given time during its 43 years under construction. Being led through the labyrinth of corridors – some extraordinarily narrow and low – by the chief houseman felt at times claustrophobic with its tight rooms and dark colours, but a beguiling air of fantasy was palpable, most notably in his fragrance laboratory, filled with heady ingredients.

The house of Lutens – offbeat though it is – isn’t an anomaly in a city that revels in the art of detail. Passing the walls of the medina, down a quiet, palm-lined driveway and through the monumental gates of Royal Mansour (riads from AED 4,331; 00212-52-980 8080, royalmansour.com), I enter my own exquisitely detailed home. Owned by, and created at the behest of, King Mohammed VI of Morocco to help put Marrakech on the luxury-tourism map, this hotel is filled with beautiful décor all made by hand, from mosaic’d floors and painted wooden ceilings to every carved stone moulding and engraved silver table in-between – a feat that took just three- and-half years (if only Lutens had the King’s team at his riad). The plan worked, and international luxury chains soon followed, but Royal Mansour remains a truly special place.

Escorted to my riad – even the most basic “room” here is a lavish three levels – the pathways are serene, lined with gurgling water features. The tranquil atmosphere is all-consuming, and if it seems like there’s not even staff to disturb the peace, that too is part of the plan: a warren of underground tunnels allow employees to make their way around the property and into the riads’ service entrances without being seen. At my abode, I find both bright spaces and cosy rooms – a sunlit interior courtyard, a lounge bursting with silk cushions and a living area with a wood-burning fireplace – but I spend most of my time in the upper levels. Here, I get ready for dinner or a day out behind the walk-in wardrobe’s wooden-latticed mousharabi screen, and enjoy breakfast and a dip in the plunge pool on the rooftop terrace.

Initially cursing the journeys up and down the riad’s steps, I come to appreciate the workout as meals at Royal Mansour are a rich affair. Overseen by Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno, La Grande Tables Marocaine and Française boast indulgent menus – the memory of a pigeon- and spice-filled pastilla, dough crisp and flaky, still lingers. Yet nothing in this exquisite hotel is quite as otherworldly as Le Spa. A glasswork jewel box heavily decorated in pristine white wrought iron, it’s like stepping into a fairy tale.

Little wonder Marrakech enchanted Yves Saint Laurent. With its artistic atmosphere and cultural riches, it’s the sort of place where even if I spent 1,001 nights, I’d still wish for one more.

Marrakech Style

‘Good clothing is a passport to happiness,’ said Yves Saint Laurent – and we can’t argue. Our picks for retail therapy

Start in the Guéliz neighbourhood, just across the street from Jardin Majorelle and Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech, at 33 rue Majorelle (00212-52- 431 4195, 33ruemajorelle.com), a two-level boutique that’s a veritable treasure trove of contemporary Moroccan designers – an ornate kilim clutch by Nour will fit right in at the riad. The medina is where the real shopping action is, so start by picking up a butter-soft kaftan for lounging in style at Maison du Caftan (00212-52-444 1051). Near the main square, El Fenn (00212-52-444 1210, el-fenn.com/boutique) is a new upscale concept shop run by the delightful Vanessa Branson (sister to Richard), and where you can pick up colourful Fez pottery among other fashionable pieces for your wardrobe and home – minus the haggling. But the pièce de résistance of Moroccan-holiday souvenirs is one of the country’s antique Berber rugs. In the thick of the bazaar is La Porte d’Or (00212-52-444 5454, theportedor.com). Follow owner Hakim downstairs where piles upon piles of plush Beni Ourain rugs (some well over a century old, passed down generations) will be theatrically flung out before you as you sip mint tea. In addition to the shop being a favourite of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and late American architect and interior designer Frank Lloyd Wright (Hakim alleges Wright purchased one for his famed Fallingwater house), a wall of photos boasts its wider celebrity pedigree with the Beckhams and Bill Clinton gamely smiling down.

This story was originally published in the November 2017 edition of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East, as seen below

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