Yves Saint Laurent's Marrakech connections

With a new museum dedicated to the designer launching in the Moroccan city in October, we look back at how a remarkable city impacted a remarkable man

Yves Saint Laurent. Place Djemaa El Fna. Photo by Reginald Gray
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Rue Yves Saint Laurent looks much like any other street in Marrakech's "ville nouvelle" – if ever so slightly less dusty and dishevelled. It is only as you head up the road, away from the tooting horns of Avenue Yacoub El Mansour, a busy thoroughfare that transects this part of the city, and slip into the gates of Jardin Majorelle, that it becomes clear how special Rue Saint Laurent really is. To escape into Jardin Majorelle's shaded, cobalt-blue environs is to find an oasis of greenery and quiet in a city desperately lacking in both. It is not difficult to understand why Yves Saint Laurent fell in love with it.

Jardin Majorelle
Jardin Majorelle

The fashion designer first visited Marrakech in 1966 with his partner Pierre Bergé, the famed co-founder of the Yves Saint Laurent brand who passed away on September 8. They were greeted with a week's worth of rain. But once the sun came out and they ventured out from La Mamounia hotel's legendary confines, Saint Laurent became captivated by the city, entranced, in particular, by the quality of the light that washed over it. He would go on to write of the city's "benevolent pink magic".

By the end of that trip, he had bought a house there and would return regularly for the remainder of his life. It has been described as "an exceptional case of love at first sight".

In many ways, Saint Laurent was returning to his roots. He was born in Algeria in 1936, enjoying a privileged upbringing in the port city of Oran. "Oran, a cosmopolis of trading people from all over, and mostly from elsewhere, a town glittering in a patchwork of all colours under the sedate North African sun. It was a good place to be well off, and we were well off. My summers swept by as if mounted on clouds, at a villa on a beach, where my relatives and friends with similar roots formed an enclave," the designer said in 1983.

Yves Saint Laurent, Dar el Hanch. Photo by Pierre Bergé
Yves Saint Laurent, Dar el Hanch. Photo by Pierre Bergé

It was a world of wealth, coloured by that colonial tendency to romanticise the motherland, so Saint Laurent always had one foot in North Africa and the other firmly in France. "There were many lovely dinner parties at our comfortable house in town, and I can still see my mother, about to leave for a ball, come to kiss me goodnight, wearing a long dress of white tulle with pear-shaped white sequins," he recalled.

Long after he moved to Paris and found fame, creating couture for Christian Dior and then his own eponymous brand, Saint Laurent would return to Oran for a few weeks before each show, working on new designs at his old desk, and returning to his atelier in Paris with a suitcase full of sketches. In 1962, after Algeria's independence, Saint Laurent's parents, Charles and Lucienne, and sisters, Brigitte and Michèle, moved to Paris, leaving most of their possessions behind and relying on him to rent them a tiny apartment. The ladies of the family were able to adapt to Parisian life, but Charles was filled with longing for the life he had left behind. Perhaps his son felt the same, and found a substitute in Morocco.

In Marrakech, he could stroll anonymously through the souqs of the old city, taking inspiration from the colours and clothes. The city had yet to be tainted by mass tourism, and was avant-garde enough to attract the likes of Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones and French philosopher Michel Foucault, who had been visiting since the 1960s.

It was also during that first trip to Marrakech that Saint Laurent and Bergé came across Jardin Majorelle. The garden was the brainchild of French artist Jacques Majorelle, son of the famous furniture designer Louis Majorelle. Much like Saint Laurent, but 50 years earlier, Majorelle visited Marrakech and was immediately bewitched by the city. In 1923, he bought a four-acre plot on a palm grove on the outskirts of Marrakech, which promptly grew to 10 acres. He commissioned architect Paul Sinoir to design a cubist villa on the grounds, and set up a studio on the first floor. A passionate amateur botanist, Majorelle created an incredible garden surrounding the villa, which would ultimately become his life's work. 

"We quickly became very familiar with this garden, and went there every day," Bergé wrote in the book Yves Saint Laurent: A Moroccan Passion. "It was open to the public yet almost empty. We were seduced by this oasis where colours used by Matisse were mixed with those of nature … And when we heard that the garden was to be sold and replaced by a hotel, we did everything we could to stop that project from happening. This is how we eventually became owners of the garden and of the villa. And we have brought life back to the garden through the years."

As it was then, the garden today is a maze of shaded lanes and towering trees. Bamboo thickets nudge against enormous cacti; birds flit from the treetops; and burbling streams lead to pools laden with lotus flowers and water lilies. At the heart of the garden stands a building in vibrant blue.

Saint Laurent came here twice a year to design his haute couture collections. On June 1 and December 1, he would travel to Marrakech for two weeks at a time, and it is here that he found the space, clarity and inspiration to create. The city's influence can be seen in the clothes themselves, as the designer drew from local fashions, crafts and colours, and by the billowing silhouettes of the jalabiya and the burnous cape. It is often said that it was here that he "discovered colour" and there are obvious examples: a cape in silk faille embroidered with bougainvillaea flowers from his spring/summer 1989 haute couture collection; the burnished orange and hot pinks of a silk-satin off-the-shoulder dress from his autumn/winter 1987 collection; and the elaborate turbans sported by many of his models.

"In Morocco, I realised that the range of colours I use was that of the zelliges, zouacs, djellabas and caftans. The boldness seen since then in my work, I owe to this country, to its forceful harmonies, to its audacious combinations, to the fervour of its creativity. This culture became mine, but I wasn't satisfied with just absorbing it; I took, transformed and adapted it," he said.

Saint Laurent's life in Morocco was captured in an iconic shoot for the August 1980 issue of Vogue, by the legendary photographer Horst P Horst. One particular image sees a handsome Saint Laurent reclining in the grounds of Jardin Majorelle, surrounded by all the accoutrements of a traditional Arabic home – colourful Berber rugs in shades of rust red, deep yellow, orange and green; floor cushions emblazoned with geometric patterns in rich shades of turquoise and pink; and oversized platters and bowls brimming with brightly coloured citrus fruits. Jardin Majorelle was the site of key events in Saint Laurent's life – and after he passed away on June 1, 2008, in Paris, his ashes were scattered in the garden. A memorial was set up here, in the form of a Roman pillar on a pedestal with a plate bearing his name.

Saint Laurent's ties to Marrakech are to be further cemented next month when, 51 years after the designer first visited the city, a museum celebrating his career, designs and life will open just up the road from Jardin Majorelle. An initiative by the Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent, which was established to safeguard the couturier's legacy, the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech will span more than 4,000 square metres, and feature a permanent exhibition space, a temporary exhibition gallery, research library, auditorium, bookshop and cafe. A reported 50 couture outfits will be on show in the Morrocan city at any given time, while the library will hold a reported 6,000 books on fashion, Yves Saint Laurent and Berber culture.

“I don’t think that people fully understand that the upcoming Yves Saint Laurent museum is not just any other fashion museum; it is the largest cultural project happening in Morocco,” says Stephen di Renza, creative director for retail operations at Jardin Majorelle, who visited Abu Dhabi earlier this year. “There will be temporary galleries for different exhibitions. Pierre Bergé owns the largest collection of Moroccan and Andalusian manuscripts, which will be available for reference. There is an amphitheatre for symposiums. And at the moment, we are discussing what kinds of cultural programming we’ll have – the idea is to have music, dance, arts etc.”

Façade of Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech.
Façade of Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech.

With its clear, uncluttered lines, the architecture of the museum echoes Saint Laurent's work. And its opening on October 19 will come a couple of weeks after the launch of another Yves Saint Laurent museum in Paris, in the pre-existing Fondation Pierre Bergé - Yves Saint Laurent at 5 Avenue Marceau. That this remarkable designer will be honoured by two museums is a mark of the impact that he had on fashion in the 20th century, but is also, arguably, a sign of the rising stature of fashion as an art form in itself. Either way, much like it did in his collections, Marrakech will take centre stage.   


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