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Celebrating YSL's fashion design in Morocco

Few designers have been so swayed in their aesthetic by a country and able to create the ultimate interpretation of national costumes that entranced the couture world for so long.

Fuchsia, violet, rose, marigold, pinks and cornflower blue are all in evidence in the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh. But while the exotic, plant-crammed garden itself is alive with colour, the dazzling hues that are attracting larger crowds than usual are in the newly restored museum.

An exhibition, Yves Saint Laurent and Morocco, traces the influence of traditional Moroccan costume on one of the most celebrated designers of the past century.

The small but stunning collection of dresses, trousers, capes and jackets, leads us on a cloud of crêpe de Chine, satin, silk chiffon and lavish embroidery through the French designer's interpretation of the clothes he saw around him in the narrow streets of the old town of Marrakesh and in the Atlas mountains.

Displayed in four rooms, 44 garments trace the evolution of designs bearing the unmistakeable mark of Morocco from 1967 when St Laurent first came under the spell of the Maghreb to a dress from a collection that was created in 2000.

The exhibition has been curated by Pierre Berge, the co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent who describes it as recognition of a cultural indebtedness to a country the designer considered his second home. "In essence, it is an homage to the lasting impact of Morocco and its people on the haute couture of Yves," he says.

The impact on St Laurent, in turn, altered the way affluent women dressed in the second half of the 20th century. The presence of Princess Lalla Salma, the wife of King Mohammed VI of Morocco, at the opening underlined the importance of the designs themselves and the significance of transforming French painter Jacque Majorelle's studio into a museum of international standing.

Princess Lalla visited the cleverly crafted exhibition spaces filled with the familiar shapes of her country's traditional garb, but will have noticed the subtle differences that lift them from the common place and elevate each piece into original couture.

Loulou de la Falaise , the daughter of a French marquis and an Anglo-Irish fashion model, was also at the opening, as was Betty Catroux - both mythical muses of St Laurent and frequent visitors to the Jardin Majorelle. Their presence adds an elegance as well as an edgy, modern feel to the event.

"Yves loved the garden and the studio," de la Falaise explains. "He was fascinated by the 1920s and 1930s. He also felt a connection with Matisse. So both of these interests came together here in this painter's Art Deco studio."

St Laurent gravitated to Morocco as a refuge from the pressures of the Parisian fashion scene with its constraints, conventions and competitiveness. But de la Falaise says that they didn't spend all their time in the seclusion of the walled garden. She often accompanied him on outings.

"We had such fun together," she elucidates. "We would go to Berber villages in the Atlas where they make pots. Or we would go to the souq and just browse. Nobody stopped and stared because it was Yves. They understood that he wanted to be left alone."

The Christophe Martin-designed exhibition avoids the usual clichéd chronological order in favour of rooms devoted to different aspects of the couture process. At the heart of the first room is a red cloak heavily ornamented with hand-made bougainvilleas. It is a statement piece that sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition.

On the surrounding walls are photographs and personal memorabilia showing happy times surrounded by an entourage of painters, writers, models and filmmakers. Andy Warhol and the 1960s jetsetters are pictured.

But above all, a smiling St Laurent relaxing in the garden or perched on the edge of the pool with his little French bulldog, Moujik.

The second room continues the theme with a series of garments that directly show YSL's mastery of interpretation. Here is the repertoire of traditional clothes from the tarboosh , djellaba, jabador, sarouel and caftan to the burnous (hooded cloak), but each has been modernised by a slight transformation.

"Just look at this sarouel," exclaims Tamy Tazi, the doyenne of Moroccan designers. "It shows how Yves understood our costumes. He has added a small fastening and now it has flair. It is a glamorous semi-circle with lots of movement and chic."

Tazi readily acknowledges that St Laurent was her mentor, always encouraging her at moments of doubt. "He is known as the creator of 'le smoking', but now it is time to show what he did for Moroccan wear."

She leads on to the next room, which is dedicated to the colours of Morocco. "Yves was," she states emphatically, "the true master of colour. The daring combinations, the clashes of coral, mustard and red show Yves's ability to put together hues that would in anyone else's hands simply have been a mess."

Berge interrupts to explain that it was the extraordinary light in Morocco that enchanted St Laurent and turned him away from designing in black to using colour in innovative ways.

"I also wanted this exhibition to show how Morocco freed Yves to use bold colours," he explained. "It also is clear that he knew how to tame and make the most of these vivid tones."

It would be easy to think that St Laurent used Morocco for convenience or commercial purposes but Catroux, long, lean and languid tells me that she was close to him from the time they met in a night club in Paris and that he simply adored the place from the start. "He never discussed work with me," she explains.

"We were very similar in looks and in temperament. Yves simply loved to come here and was passionate about the place. For him, it was calm and peaceful. He was born in Algeria - so I suppose this place reminded him of his upbringing."

Catroux is dressed in her signature tight black jacket and jeans - by Yves Saint Laurent, of course. "The hippy movement was happening when Yves came here," she recalls. "But he didn't do the ethnic look like everyone else. What he did was to sublimate its essence and create an amazing sophistication."

On the way out I notice that the street outside the Jardin Majorelle has a brand new sign. It has now been named the Rue Yves Saint Laurent. It goes without saying that few designers have received such an honour.

But then few designers have been so swayed in their aesthetic by a country and able to create the ultimate interpretation of national costumes that entranced the couture world for so long.

Updated: December 6, 2010 04:00 AM

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