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Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech, by Tristan Rutherford

easyJet Magazine, October 2017

In 1966 Yves Saint-Laurent boarded a Caravelle plane in Paris for Marrakech. It was a flight that would change the fashion world forever. The Rose City deep in Morocco’s enchanting south offered the 27-year-old designer an artistic rebirth. This month, the debt gets repaid as the spaceship-style Musée Yves Saint-Laurent opens beside the gardens of Jardin Majorelle.

Because 51 years ago Saint-Laurent was burnt out from a jetset decade. In his teens he had won a global fashion gong alongside a young German named Karl Lagerfeld, from a jury that included Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain. After sending sketches to Christian Dior, the Frenchman was hired on the spot. By 21, Saint-Laurent was head designer at the House of Dior. Bi-annual collections and Champagne catwalks took their toll. Not to mention parties with Bianca Jagger and Loulou de la Falaise at Studio 54. The final straw was his release of Le Smoking. This pioneering female tuxedo, first modelled by Catherine Deneuve, made him a wanted man from Tokyo to New York.

Saint-Laurent’s airplane skimmed the Sahara, arced over the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, then descended into Marrakech. Like a legion of travellers before, the desert oasis sucked him into its cacophonous embrace. The designer checked into La Mamounia, the sultan’s palace turned rococo hotel. The holiday had a rainy start, recalls Saint-Laurent’s life partner Pierre Bergé: “Every day we nervously asked La Mamounia concierge, Camille, about the weather.” Then sunlight swept in. “A Moroccan sun that probes every recess and corner. The birds were singing. We would never forget that morning, since in a certain way, it decided our destiny.”

When idly flicking through a guidebook, Bergé stumbled across a mysterious botanical garden. The Jardin Majorelle had been curated with 300 exotic plant species by painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s, then abandoned on his death. Saint-Laurent and Bergé chanced upon a Lost World of chokingly aromatic jasmine and light-blotting black bamboo. A succulent jungle refuge that jarred so beautifully with Marrakech’s medieval medina. It was love at first sight. They would invite city city’s beautiful people – billionaires Paul and Talitha Getty, decorator Jacqueline Foissac and her young son Quito Fierro – for garden walks.

By 1980, Marrakech had spilled out of the ochre Old City walls. The Jardin Majorelle’s bubbling fountains and citrus groves were to be concreted over to make way for a hotel. The only way for Saint-Laurent and Bergé to save it was to purchase the garden and adjoining villa. It became their on-off home for the next three decades. “It feels perfectly natural, fifty years after we first visited, to build a museum here dedicated to Yves’s oeuvre, which was so inspired by the city,” explains Bergé, whose book Yves Saint-Laurent: A Moroccan Passion recalls the era.

Quito Fierro, the boy who knew Saint-Laurent in the 1960s, is now General Secretary of the Jardin Majorelle, Morocco’s most visited museum. “Yves would come to his Marrakech house every year in December and June to design the haute couture collections,” he remembers. Kaftans and capes were plotted on paper pads as Saint-Laurent reclined under a carob tree.

 

“The garden had a big influence on him,” says Fierro. The creamy cobalt colourscheme known as Majorelle Blue was infused into embroidery, scarves and soft leather satchels, all of which are now on sale in the garden’s boutique. Visitors can spot an YSL colour palette at every turn. The plum-violet bougainvillea that chokes the nodding palms pairs with the city’s bottle green cacti and blood red stone.  

Marrakech became one of the few places where Saint-Laurent could design in peace. “People in the medina were not reading Vogue,” explains Fierro. “Yves could browse the markets for inspiration without being recognised.” Period photos show the Frenchman watching a snakecharmer amid the melodious bustle of the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. He’s wearing a billowing white shirt, white flares and white tennis shoes with only a gold medallion to offset the tout-blanc look.

 

In snapshots from the nearby Menara Gardens, an endless Arabian orchard of olives and scented citrus, he sports a pink scarf, black shades and sockless slip-ons. While working at home he looks perfectly at ease in a silken jellaba, like the male model he could have been. Saint-Laurent’s introduction of babouche sandals and tarbouch hats into mainstream fashion comes directly from here.

The time out in Marrakech also refreshed Saint-Laurent mentally. The Jardin Majorelle’s 15 bird species would soothe the soul. Cocktails in the long bar of the Hotel La Mamounia – under a ceiling handpainted by Jacques Majorelle himself – would still the senses. Drives were taken to the chasming green Ourika Valley with Saint-Laurent and Bergé’s faithful Chihuahuas in tow. A short drive from the Rose City, the valley is an Indiana Jones patchwork of raging waterfalls, rope bridges, snow-topped kasbahs and sub-tropical scrub.

Visiting artists like Andy Warhol, who wore a black poloneck despite the Marrakech heat, would drop by for dinner. Each morning’s work was so productive that Saint-Laurent would fly back to Paris with a completed dossier of drawings. As Bergé remembers: “When models would later present Yves’ collections, there was always a Moroccan scent in the air. It seemed to escape from the drawings he had done in the shade of the palm trees in the Jardin Majorelle.”

Today the only disturbance comes from the Musée Yves Saint-Laurent that rises like a Moorish flying saucer next to the Jardin Majorelle. (It opens to the public on October 19th, in tandem with a Paris branch of the museum). The new Marrakech site was designed by uber-cool architects Studio KO, the team behind London’s Chiltern Firehouse. “It was rare and amazing for Pierre Bergé to entrust the new museum to an entirely Morocco-based team,” explains project manager Fayçal Tiaïba. His brief was to create a structure as elegantly simple as an Yves Saint-Laurent gown that shouts Morocco at every turn.

“We didn’t want Arabesque style,” explains Tiaïba. Instead the curving brick structure couples modern Moroccan concepts of volume, space and light. “The materials you see are also 100% Moroccan”, continues the architect. Columns of cedar and oak come from the aforementioned Ourika Valley. For the stone clad exterior, the Studio KO team prototyped several types of Marrakech brick to find the block that casts the perfect texture and colour across the building. As guests walk through a catwalk entrance, the opening drama builds like a fashion show. The entrance opens onto a perfectly cylindrical piazza akin to a Marrakech riad. “And if you look up you cannot see another building around despite being in the heart of the city. We had to judge it perfectly.”

Four-metre high windows create a wall of light that entices visitors inside the museum proper. It was Saint-Laurent’s dream to create a space for Marrakech visitors, fashionistas and locals – of which he was all three. Firstly, the main exhibition space is a visitor-friendly onslaught of Polaroids, sketches and historical ephemera from Saint-Laurent’s glittering career. A second library space covers the designer’s Marrakech mores: global fashion, Arabian culture and botanical plants. The third auditorium is community-focussed – a space that opens each evening to stage shows, plays and pop-up art conferences. “It’s more than a museum”, says Tiaïba. “It’s a cultural hub.”

The final haute-couture display will be the highlight for any visitor. “The goal of the Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint-Laurent is to protect and promote the designer who safeguarded every haute-couture collection since 1962,” concludes Tiaïba. Selections of these 5,000 outfits – carefully stored in Paris – will be flown to Marrakech to showcase to the world, mirroring Saint-Laurent’s journey five decades ago. Then as now, Saint-Laurent’s free-wheeling spirit will shock the fashion world with its cross-cultural mix of frilly taffeta dresses and silken gandoura gowns. The French designer, with his business in Paris and his heart in Marrakech, lives on.

Kathryn Tomasetti and Tristan Rutherford write extensively about the Middle East.