After my honeymoon in Morocco five years ago, I was thrilled to return to Marrakech—this time on a trendspotting business trip where I got to interact more intimately with the vibrant artisan community.
The trip was organized by Carana, an American international development agency working in Morocco that won a 2013 international bid from the Washington, D.C.-based Millennium Challenge Corporation.
A plus of the excursion was that I got to travel with four accessories wholesalers (Elizabeth Randlett of Mar y Sol handbags, Ellen Dorsch of Creative Women textiles, Phyllis Woods of Tribalinks jewelry, and Suzan Schreinders of the Netherlands-based Imbarro). Each gave me glimpses into how they source items from overseas and integrate local craftsmanship into a more contemporary interpretation for their consumer. The group was selected by ByHand Consulting, a Boulder, Colorado-based organization that helps international artisans reach new export markets.
As inspiration seekers in Morocco, we were hardly alone. “Moroccan design has been in fashion for quite a number of years, with peaks, and at the moment there seems to be a renewal of interest,” said Frederic Alcantara, a French-Moroccan sourcing agent for retailers around the world. Visit the exotic North African country today and you might just brush shoulders with people from Anna Sui developing their jeweled babouche slipper line, UGG shooting its look book, Theodora & Callum scarves developing print designs, and retailers like Anthropologie, ABC Carpet and Pottery Barn building their import collections.
Stepping Back in Time
Our first stop was the Medina, or walled old city, where we found our exotic riad (a hotel with open courtyard). Filled with colorful mosaic floors, walls and columns, it was the perfect starting point for our artisan adventure. Next, a visit to the ancient souk, where we saw artisans making leather shoes (namely the ubiquitous babouche slippers), bags and handicrafts in original, ancient techniques.
If you want to get lost in the souk in Marrakech, the shoe section is the best place to do it! The deeper into the market you go, the better (and less touristy) the finds. And while the friendly locals will always help you find your way out, be prepared to be directed past their friend’s shops as well!
Leather bags are everywhere, and increasingly bags with material inserts, whether carpet fabrics or woven textiles. After visiting the local tannery, I got a new appreciation for the craftsmanship of these products, which are all made by hand. Above, some bags I meant to come back for but never did. Browser’s remorse!
Morocco has truly incredible hand-crafted wooden boxes. Above, a shopkeeper uses his hand-held calculator to show me dirham-to-dollar price conversions as we haggle back and forth. The mother-of-pearl inlay jewelry box in front now adorns my dresser at home.
If all the colorful merchandise doesn’t make your head spin in Morocco, the food certainly will! From ubiquitous appetizers laid out in colorful ceramic tagines to spice piles to delicious sticky pastries made with orange blossom syrup, the food is the best part of the trip. Wash it all down with mint tea.
The next day, armed with our Moroccan guides/translators, we set off for the city’s first-ever Artisan Expo, a consortium of 50 designers from Marrakech and Fez. Here, we met the talent behind the country’s amazing textile embroideries, metal lanterns, intricate mosaics, straw and leather handbags and beauty/spa amenities like the now world-famous argan oil.
“I’ve always been impressed by the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the Moroccan artisans, and was not disappointed on this trip,” said Tribalinks’ Phyllis Woods. Woods has bought jewelry components from Morocco and other countries in Africa to fashion into her own jewelry designs. “In fact, I think the quality of their products is even better than before. I love the antique Berber pendants and bracelets, which are not easy to find.” Mar Y Sol’s Elizabeth Randlett concurred. “Morocco gave me the chance to really get into bright colors and playful ornamentation, something I usually struggle with. This kind of beauty is such an inherent part of the culture’s aesthetic, it was easy to be inspired!”
Sidi Ghanem/Industrial Quarter
On day three, we hit Sidi Ghanem. Tip: If you want to shop this famed Industrial Quarter, start practicing your French. While the French left colonial Morocco in 1956, they also left their language behind, and locals switch easily between French and Arabic. Laid out in a grid (unlike the winding souk), the Industrial Quarter is dusty, dirty, raw… and fascinating, not unlike SoHo decades ago. These shops feature wholesale/retail storefronts in the front, and workshops in the back where everything is made by hand—from intricate ironwork to handbags to embroidered fabrics to candles. One Moroccan specialty is tadelakt, which resembles ceramic but is actually a form of polished plaster. Visitors see it on everything from decorative bowls and boxes to hotel interior walls.
Atelier Nihal was a favorite of the group, and while the wholesalers on the trip spoke to owner Marion Verdier about textile and handbag development, I did some shopping at the adjacent storefront. In fact, all the women on the trip bought something here, especially impressed by the faux-leather textiles, all hand-cut into strips then hand-woven and hand-assembled on the premises. Verdier, formerly a stylist for magazines and movies in France, is an example of European entrepreneurs succeeding in Marrakech. Many owners in this warehouse district hail from France (some with Moroccan roots) or Belgium. While the craftsmanship still remains 100% Moroccan, such Europeans bring in their more contemporary design sensibilities, business skills and understanding of the European and American markets, all which are boosting business.
At Noir Bougie, a favorite find (and the reason my suitcase was so heavy on my return) were glowing candle cubes inset with stylized metal disks. I created a pink piece with brass cut-out disks on three sides, and it casts lovely shadows on my walls back home.
Next was Jamo, run by a Tokyo native and her Moroccan husband, whose specialty is 500 different babouche slipper styles, leather and straw bags and more, sold to companies like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. Particularly charming were the leather iPad cases in traditional motifs. Talk about Old World meeting New!
While most companies still feature classic Moroccan design, some go for mainstream trends with just touches of tradition slipped in. One example is Samparely, where only a small Hamsa hand or tassel belies its true roots. “My point was not to do only Moroccan style, but pieces that are still trendy,” says owner Solange Cohen, who exhibits her line at American trade shows.
Onward to the Gueliz, or Marrakech’s “New Town,” where I found French bistros, chic restaurants and French shops all catering to French expats, French-Moroccans and travelers looking for a break from the haggling of the medina’s bazaars. While having lunch at a lovely rooftop restaurant, I met Heather O’Neill, co-owner of Mushmina, a company with a social mission. Fluent in Arabic from a Peace Corp stint, she left America for rural Morocco to help women diversify their line of products for the export market. Today, as product manager of Mushmina, O’Neill lives outside Casablanca with her Moroccan husband while her sister and co-founder runs the retail boutique in Philadelphia. “We create custom prints and now we’re getting influence from items like black and white Berber carpets,” O’Neill said, noting they put Made in Morocco hang tags on all merchandise.
Lastly, to cap off our Moroccan adventure, a trip to the famed Majorelle Gardens—an oasis of lush calm owned by Yves Saint Laurent (his ashes were scattered there after his 2008 death). Cobalt blue reigns but canary yellow and lush greens add visual pop. Can’t get to Marrakech anytime soon? Just capture the moment with one of YSL’s most vibrant nail polish colors: Bleu Majorelle.
And if you are heading to this exotic land, take me with you!! Shukran!