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Marrakech seduced Yves Saint Laurent and he put up no resistance. Since the first visit in 1962, the world's foremost fashion designer sought anonymity in its embrace, devouring the city with an almost religious fervour.

It’s easy to see why. There’s a moment here when the sky turns blood orange, and soft evening light gilds everything in a warm amber glow. Writer Paul Bowles captured it in The Sheltering Sky, and fashionable sorts, like exotic birds, have long migrated to this pan-cultural Bohemian outpost.

Saint Laurent, immediately smitten, was quick to invest, purchasing three properties over two decades. The first, a modest house named Dar el-Hanch (‘House of the Serpent’) served as an antidote to the poisonous grasp of Paris. Alongside his lover and business manager Pierre Berge, the designer felt liberated from fame within its walls, secreted behind palm and orange blossom trees, cocooned from the outside world.

In Marrakech he wandered freely, combing flea markets for furniture and local objets, elevated in mood by its rich history and artisanal flair. Calm and content, he could sketch endlessly, designing world-beating couture collections with an added vigour. “Paris is the mirror of anxieties,” commented muse and best friend Betty Catroux. “Marrakech is the place where he is happy.”

Born and raised in the colonial city of Oran, Algeria, Yves Saint Laurent was shrouded in selective nostalgia. Although he endured years of bullying at school for being unmistakably ‘other’, the sights and smells of North Africa would always resonate with this deeply sensual individual. Marrakech was less uptight than Oran but shared the same sun-baked soil and Arabic sensibilities. Under the sheltering sky, YSL finally felt at home.

In the mid-1960s, the ancient city had remained unchanged for years. When Saint Laurent arrived, there was no electricity or traffic lights, only beleaguered donkeys dragging carts of beetroot, and the odd stray goat avoiding slaughter. Despite the primitive limitations romance was everywhere, an aesthetic appeal that spoke to him like classic art and Proustian literature. “On every street corner in Marrakech, you encounter groups that are impressive in their intensity,” he told biographer Laurence Benaim. “Men and women…where pink, blue, green and violet kaftans mingle. These groups look as if they have been drawn and painted by Delacroix.”

Dropping acid into the palette, Andy Warhol, Mick & Bianca, and doomed American socialite Talitha Getty were regular guests at Dar el-Hanch, as was alter-ego and YSL mainstay Loulou de la Falaise. High on kief and the scripts of crooked French pharmacists, the Saint Laurent set came to epitomise the louche attitude and hippy-luxe style of the period. Basking in an adult playground full of sun and colour, the designer extracted the best of the mix, blending Berber tradition with bold Parisian chic. Keen to grow his hair and leave the starch of couture behind, Prêt-à-Porter was born from this laissez-faire idealism. Creativity flowed like wine. In Marrakech, anything was possible.

Keen to grow his hair and leave the starch of couture behind, Pret-a Porter was born from this laissez-faire idealism. Creativity flowed like wine. In Marrakech, anything was possible.

The great and the good still flock here, scouring the labyrinthine souk, knocked out by the sensory overload of aromas, medieval culture and high octane glamour that pervades this most beguiling of cities. Marrakech is the beating heart of Morocco, a landmark almost frozen in time, and yet culture and architecture still overlap to devastating effect.

Nothing epitomises this more than the verdant Jardin Majorelle. Conceived by expatriate French painter, Jacques Majorelle, the artist turned ‘gardenist’ acquired the plot of land in 1923, creating a botanical sanctuary around a linear Art Deco studio. The public gardens, punctuated by lofty cacti, offset by walls of cobalt ‘Majorelle Blue’, have always been popular, but by 1980 had fallen into disrepair. Saint Laurent stepped in, buying the land and restoring it to former glory. Majorelle’s studio developed into Villa Oasis, a showcase of refined taste and the couturier’s final home.

Then there is La Mamounia. Set in acres of lush, bird-filled gardens, this legendary hotel is as grand and fabulous as the guests who flock here. Winston Churchill treated it like a second home, while Saint Laurent would spend many happy hours dining in the womb-like restaurant, or languishing on a terrace, taking in views that stretched to the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Churchill called it “the most lovely spot in the whole world,” and it’s hard to disagree.

Marrakech comes alive when darkness descends. In Djemaa El Fna, the busiest market place in Africa, the vast public square morphs into a set from Game Of Thrones. Smoke rises from makeshift kitchens, while a circus of snake charmers, soothsayers and beat-hungry musicians provide a backdrop to remember. It’s a place that embodies the tone, spirit and ever-present drama of the late designer’s repertoire.

YSL remembered it well.

Neue Luxury invites you to retrace Yves’ footsteps with a private tour of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (MYSLM), Villa Oasis and the Jardin Majorelle with internationally acclaimed fashion writer and curator, Paul Tierney. Click here to learn more.

 

Neue Luxury • Fashion • Feature • BY Paul Tierney SHARE

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