Jean Paul Gaultier, Serge Lutens, the Hermès family, the Bransons, the Bulgaris — every stylish globetrotter seems to have a place in Morocco these days. Where Europe meets Africa at the Strait of Gibraltar, in a sublime fusion of the elegant and the exotic that is by turns antediluvian and achingly chic, Marrakech is a magnet for fashion buffs. It’s hard to name a label that hasn’t squeezed Africa’s most stylish city for creative juice. A few recent collections by Tory Burch, Mara Hoffman and Kate Spade come to mind, while Matthew Williamson, fresh off Poppy Delevingne’s Marrakech wedding, drew his pre-fall 2015 collection from its architecture, mosaics and decorative techniques. And for spring/summer 2018, Anthony Vaccarello opened his show with a boho parade inspired by the city loved by Yves Saint Laurent.
Marrakech is divided into three main districts — the 12th-century walled-in medina; Ville Nouvelle, which edges it; and the tony Palmeraie, on the town’s desert outskirts — but its heart is the bustling main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. At night, it transforms into a not-to-be-missed food court, and the slender laneways that snake off of it twist through a dazzling mazelike bazaar. Each time I return here, I’m armed with a mental list of everything I didn’t buy on my last foray. Having already amassed a collection of lanterns, bedspreads, carpets, handbags, jewellery, slippers and embroidered velvet coats, this time I was on the hunt for curtain tie-backs (hammered silver discs so lushly tasselled they’re like drop earrings for your drapes), handira (glam woven blankets banded with sequins and plush fringe) and, oh yes, a six-metre python skin (that would look marvellous pressed under glass on my dining-room wall). Never been? Never mind: With these picks, your Marrakech to-do list will match any style maker’s.
Suffice it to say that the city is not a healthy place for impulse shoppers with no self-control. While GPS has made navigating the souk (market) easier, hiring a guide — at $50 per half day — is worth it. Guides can save you time and money by quickly getting you where you want to go and, if you like, helping with bargaining (so you pay about 50 percent of the initially offered price). Mustapha Chouquir is the insider favourite. For serious spending, book Cobblestone, owned by Michael Diamond, a Morocco connoisseur who coordinates flawless itineraries tailored to any interest, from culture and design to shopping, cuisine and camel trekking.
In addition to traditional local vendors, there are lots of fashionable expats drawn by Marrakech’s design flair. Isabelle Topolina, a couture pattern maker from Normandy, now fills a trio of eponymous shops with her vibrant textiles and well-cut dresses and counts Plum Sykes among her fans. Sarah Buchan, from London, launched Kaftan Queen seven years ago, while Bordeaux native Laetitia Trouillet’s gimlet eye led Sarah Jessica Parker and Gwyneth Paltrow to hire her as a personal shopper before she opened her handbag and accessories boutique, Lalla. Dispatched to Morocco to oversee production for brands like Kenzo and Lacroix, Ludovic Petit debuted his own showroom, Lup 31, in 2015 to retail his signature take on North African design. On the home-decor front, you’ll find Alessandra Lippini, former style editor for Vogue Italia, behind the heavy wooden doors of her by-appointment-only furniture emporium, Ministero del Gusto. Valérie Barkowski, a Belgian former creative director, now produces sumptuous home accessories for her V.Barkowski store. Filled to its lantern-strung rafters with furniture, fabric, pouffes, urns, antique doors and carpets, Trésor des Nomades is the treasure trove Naomi Campbell mines for bohemian decor. Meanwhile, Sidi Ghanem, an industrial zone 20 minutes from town, has been revamped into a thriving design district filled with bistros, galleries, workshops and retail spaces.
Accessories boutique Lalla. Photography by Cécile Perrinet Lhermitte.
While you may go broke trawling the city’s souk and boutiques, you can check into a stylish riad (a historic villa wrapped around a courtyard) without spending a fortune. Staying in the medina offers the richest cultural experience, and, given the deluge of sophisto expats revamping historic properties into small hotels, this is where the gems are found, as sheer volume keeps prices down. With its six rooms, indoor pool and easy-to-find location (essential), I’ve loved Riad Dixneuf la Ksour since it opened in 2009. It’s practically next door to El Fenn, Vanessa Branson’s 28-room boutique arts hotel, which is a cool spot for dinner and drinks — and my recommendation if cost isn’t an issue. Merging fashion and hospitality, British designer Jasper Conran’s recently opened five-suite L’Hôtel Marrakech gives a glam ’30s spin to a 19th-century riad. Valérie Barkowski’s Dar Kawa takes the opposite tack with four rooms in the textile designer’s former home done in an understated palette of black, grey and white.
A junior suite at El Fenn. Photography by Mathias Ondraczek.
The city’s great design aesthetic stretches to dining venues too. A short list of chic hot spots includes Le Jardin, a garden courtyard swathed in bottle-green mosaic tile; the whitewashed La Famille, which looks like it was lifted straight out of Ibiza; the airy rooftop at trendy Nomad; and the veranda of long-time local favourite Grand Café de la Poste. Of course, with wow style and a splashy Euro crowd, nightlife is golden in Marrakech. Azar, Le Palace and the Bill Willis-designed Dar Yacout are the spots for glam dinners. Buzzy Comptoir Darna, Kechmara and Pointbar are all favoured watering holes. Saturdays, it’s late-night dancing at Theatro in a blizzard of confetti. Friday evenings, there’s only one place to be: Bô-Zin. I finish a late supper with friends here on our last evening in Marrakech. The dinner crowd rolls in for drinks, and the bar turns into a midnight dance floor. I’ll be tragically hungover for my morning flight to a wedding in the South of France, but who cares? I’m more concerned about the extra baggage fees.
One of Marrakech’s must-visit dining spots, Le Jardin.
This article first appeared in the February 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.
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