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Marrakech museums | Couture culture | YSL legacy

Cool, understated elegance that belies inner sparkle and sizzle.

A public garden, two museums, cultural spaces … Yves Saint Laurent says thanks for the memories.

Rarely does a guest say “Thank you for having me” quite so generously as Yves Saint Laurent did to Morocco.

The French couturier and his long-time partner, Pierre Bergé, bequeathed to Marrakech a public garden (Jardin Majorelle), and two museums – the Berber Museum, which opened in 2011, and the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (mYSLm), which opened in October 2017.

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Jardin Majorelle and the Berber Museum in Marrakech. Photo Didier Cornice

One is a voluptuous curation of the late French couturier’s output, the other a tribute to the 9,000-year-old Amazigh (Berber) tradition that did much to inspire it.

And while their subject matter might seem worlds apart, the runways of Paris and Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains have more in common than you might imagine.

Both YSL and Bergé were captivated by Berber culture and art from the day, in 1966, they arrived in Morocco where they would seek rest and recreation for more than four decades. Saint Laurent understood the intersection between the two cultures: impeccable craftsmanship.

“Traditional, folkloric costumes have always interested me,” Saint Laurent maintained.

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YSL was inspired by traditional Moroccan dress. Here, a woman at work in the High Atlas Mountains in 2018. Photo Susan Skelly

Berber groups from the Rif in the north of Morocco to the Sahara in the south are known for, and identified by, their finery – its weaves, colours, jewels and motifs. What you see in the Berber Museum is a kind of runway-ready ethnic luxe, accessorised with fringed bags, richly coloured leather and wool boots, meticulous basketry, pottery, and ceremonial pieces.

In his couture work, YSL drew on many Moroccan traditions, from its blazing colour to accoutrements such as the fez, tassels, finely braided belts, and statement jewellery that used hammered metals, coral cabochons and hinged diadems.

The Berber Museum was once the studio of the French Orientalist painter, Jacques Majorelle, a painter who came to Morocco in 1917 and proved as deft at gardening as he was at painting.

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Cactus and cobalt blue, both trademarks of the Jardin Majorelle. Photo Susan Skelly

Majorelle died in 1962. In 1980, the property, by then in disrepair, was bought by Saint Laurent and Bergé. Back then, writes Bergé in his Letters to Yves, penned during the year that followed the designer’s death in 2008 at age 71, it was “mysterious and abandoned. In the evening the wind would blow up, as often happens in Marrakech, whistling through the palm trees and shaking the flowers of the bougainvilleas.”

The garden’s second incarnation was the work of American landscaper Madison Cox. Today, the 4.8-hectare botanical sanctuary attracts 800,000 visitors a year. It’s an arty landscape of cacti, amaryllis, bamboo and bougainvillea … with paint trims in an ultramarine blue that was trademarked ‘Majorelle Blue’. It’s also home to many species of birds: blackbirds, house sparrows, robins,  warblers, grey wagtails and turtledoves.

Much of the content of the Berber Museum is from the personal collections of Saint Laurent and Bergé. The two collected enthusiastically, helped no doubt by having sold the Yves Saint Laurent Groupe in 1993 to a French pharmaceutical giant for $A906m ($US655m). They amassed work by artists including Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian and Andy Warhol, as well as Old Master paintings, Art Deco furniture, and Chinese and African antiques.

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Front row resting spot for French couture’s movers and shakers. Photo Susan Skelly

In 2009, much of the collection was sold at auction for nearly A$588m (€375m), benefitting both the couple’s not-for-profit Foundation and AIDS research. The Jardin Majorelle property was donated to the newly-formed Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent in 2011.

On a gentle day this past autumn, the pathways are thick with visitors posing with sci-fi cactus and hoping to absorb some of YSL’s maverick magic.

In a shady corner is a memorial to both Saint Laurent and to Bergé, who died in 2017, five weeks before the museum that had occupied so much of his life opened.

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Selfie Central: Musee Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech. Photo © Fondation Jardin Majorelle/Photo Nicolas Mathéus

One hundred metres along the Rue Yves Saint Laurent, the new mYSLm holds court like an avant-garde sand dune. Just about everyone stops in front of the YSL-logo for a selfie.

Pierre Bergé told the French architect firm Studio KO (Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty), “I want something strong, Moroccan, contemporary, and, above all, absolutely uncompromising.” The result is a purity of line, with contrasting walls of terrazzo, concrete, and terracotta bricks, and a round central atrium open to the sky. The duo used the bricks to evoke the warp and weft of fabric, the interiors glossy in the way of a luscious silk lining. The atrium features eye-popping aquamarine tiles which forms the perfect backdrop to a sculpture YSL and Bergé acquired in the 1960s.

The main exhibition space is one of fashion fabulousness, 50 outfits that pay lavish homage to collections inspired by painters, writers and landscapes. They have been selected from an archive of 5,000 items of clothing and 15,000 accessories and will revolve over time.

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The aquamarine tile backdrop to the sculpture, Oiseau Senoufo. Photo © Fondation Jardin Majorelle/Photo Nicolas Mathéus

A smaller exhibition space will each year show the work of a photographer who worked with YSL. On this visit, the walls recall André Rau’s shoot for French Elle in 1992, on location in Marrakech’s exotic medina, of course. With Catherine Deneuve modelling.

A bonus until February 2, 2019  is an exhibition of Moroccan portraiture, Les Marocains, by the French-Moroccan photographer and video artist, Leila Alaoui, who died from injuries sustained after a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), in 2016, while working on a photo essay for Amnesty International. Alaoui captures a detail and richness Yves Saint Laurent would have applauded.

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Les Marocains exhibition of photography by Leila Alaoui.

A visit to the Jardin Majorelle and the Berber Museum in Marrakech are part of a Collette ‘Colours of Morocco’ tour itinerary (details: 1300 792 195 or www.gocollette.com.au.) The Yves Saint Laurent Museum is 100 metres from both, along the Rue Yves Saint Laurent. The Yves Saint Laurent museum precinct and garden is open 10am-6pm daily except Wednesday.

An edited version of this feature appeared in The Australian’s Travel & Indulgence section on December 1, 2018







Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab. susan@excessallareas.com.au

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.