Virtuoso Life September 2017 Yves Saint Laurent's Marrakech

Yves Saint Laurent's Marrakech

Vintage looks: Yves Saint Laurent on bustling Jemaa el-Fna.
Vintage looks: Yves Saint Laurent on bustling Jemaa el-Fna.
Photo by Reginald Gray
A new museum and exclusive tours of the designer’s home remind visitors why the city is always in fashion.

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, the city’s new Musée Yves Saint Laurent will welcome visitors to explore the country’s influence on the visionary couturier. Opening the same month in Paris in the designer’s historic couture house, Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris has been renovated as a replica of the studio where he worked from 1974 to 2002.
 
Here’s how to experience his Marrakech today.

Morocco’s new Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech museum.
Morocco’s new Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech museum.
Photo by Fondation Jardin Majorelle Nicolas Mathéus

Fashion First: Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech 

Evoking the patterned weave of fabric, the new 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 will feature an auditorium, restaurant, bookshop, and research library, but the highlights, of course, will be 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.

Jardin Majorelle.
Jardin Majorelle.
Photo by Alan Keohane

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.

Yves Saint Laurent with Pierre Bergé in Marrakech.
Yves Saint Laurent with Pierre Bergé in Marrakech.
Photo by DR

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.”

Traditional babouches for sale in the souk.
Traditional babouches for sale in the souk.
Photo by Alan Keohane

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.

Mint tea at La Mamounia.
Mint tea at La Mamounia.
Photo by Alan Keohane

Designs on Marrakech: A well-tailored approach to the city.

GO

Discover Saint Laurent’s beloved city with Mountain Voyage Morocco, Virtuoso’s on-site tour connection in Marrakech. Travelers on its private day tour visit elite jewelry and rug workshops, learn about Berber patterns and their symbolism, and have the opportunity to talk 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.

STAY

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.

Popular Articles