Moroccans Stuck in an Identity Bind

Photo: AnnaMarie Houlis
Photo: AnnaMarie Houlis
Renowned French designer Yves Saint Laurent put Morocco on the fashion map in the 1980s when his famous garden in Marrakech, the Jardin Majorelle, inspired his collections. American designer Michael Kors incorporated Morocco’s bold colors and busy textile patterns in his S/S “Afriluxe” show during New York Fashion Week last year. And American Peter Som’s Resort collection reflected nomadic desserts and exotic Moroccan motifs including a wandering-vine pattern. Morocco is an inspiration for fashion designers around the world, but Moroccan designers have been largely ignored, working in relative obscurity even within their own country. Ghitta Laskrouif, 28, is out to change that with her architectural designs recreated from recycled materials, but she admits it is not easy to convince Moroccan women to explore beyond their country’s traditional fashion.

“I would cry sometimes. I would say ‘Why won’t I make it? Why won’t Morocco help me?” Laskrouif said. “And my mom, she would tell me I have to find a good job.”

Though perhaps finding a new job will not be necessary, as Laskrouif is the first and only Moroccan designer ever to sign with a fashion company. Flou Flou showcased her 20-piece collection, Flou by Ghitta, early last year.Alongside Diamantine and Marwa, Flou Flou is one of the few prominent Moroccan fashion companies with 15 stores in the country.

With Flou by Ghitta, and her three other collections since 2007, Laskrouif has begun an innovative trend that is entirely new to Morocco: repurposing old clothing and materials to craft original pieces. “I like recycling,” she said. “So I thought it was interesting to do that in fashion.”

Laskrouif’s latest prêt-à-porter collection is comprised of reprocessed materials, saturated with brilliant oranges, an array of blue hues, reds and earthy tones, almost entirely crocheted. These intricate, open weaves are often layered atop untextured, tightly stitched garments that exaggerate each piece’s inimitable design. Laskrouif’s designs are inarguably a display of aberrant development from stereotypical Moroccan fashion, as they are both more casual and shape-hugging.

Joseph Ouchen, a pioneer of Moroccan fashion photography, featured in magazines around the world and among the country’s first fashion bloggers said, “[Moroccans] do not care about fashion; they do not care about anything. It is sad. But…we had an experience with Ghitta Laskrouif.” It was the first time he found someone who worked recycled fashion, he said. “And I love it.”

But Moroccan women might not be ready for Laskrouif’s designs, as they still cling to the traditional caftan — a loosely fitted, floor-length overdress — and djellaba — a one-size-fits-all, unisex and hooded outer robe, Laskrouif said. She added, “We do not have many contemporary designers. We have caftans and traditional. I don’t really like…caftans.”

Moroccans are stuck in an identity bind, said founder of FestiMode Casablanca Fashion Week (FCFW—an annual runway show of Moroccan contemporary fashion), Jamal Abdennassar. He said Morocco lacks the creative economy to cultivate a market for local contemporary fashion. “We have to change the mentality—our vision of fashion,” he continued.“Moroccan fashion has a story. It exists from a long time ago, but has not reached its limits; it still must be explored.”

This attachment to traditional clothing makes it especially difficult for fashion forward Moroccan designers, according to Ouchen. “Because we are young, even when you ask someone ‘what is fashion?’ they will say ‘caftan,’” he said. “And I hate that.”’

That may be one reason that Laskrouif sells mainly to friends — girls around 20-38 years old who are into contemporary fashion. “I think my designs are more for more free people who do not have this idea of expensive things…It is more to show that I am free and I can wear anything I want,” said Laskrouif. And even if more stores were interested in her work, Laskrouif said that it is expensive and time-consuming, since she must produce larger quantities. “[Retail stores] ask to have many sizes in my designs so it is hard for me to make that many,” she explained.

Laskrouif works without a private studio to showcase her collections; rather she has a room (no door) in Casablanca’s Les Abattoirs, an abandoned 1920s slaughterhouse that has just recently been turned into an artistic space. “But for the moment I just bring things home to finish,” she explained.

Adding insult to the injury for Moroccan designers is the allure of counterfeit international brand names that are often sold in the souks and old medinas for discounted prices.

“Moroccans feel more important when they buy international clothes,” Laskrouif explained. “They love to say to their friends, ‘Oh look I am wearing this designer.’”

Amine Aksiman, an Intellectual Property Rights Lawyer based in Casablanca, spoke about the lure of a “designer” label even if it is fake.“People are more interested in buying counterfeited products,” than their own home-grown fashion, he said. And investors in Morocco want to have more money, so they invest in consuming international names instead of fostering their own creativity, he added.

Regardless, knock-off products will remain an issue as long as “[one risks] the maximum penalty of just six months in prison or between only 500 to 5,000 Euros,” for the act of counterfeiting, Aksiman added. And “they need to make laws to favor [designers and artists alike] so they are not punished for speaking up, but judges are not specialized. We have maximum of ten judges in all of Morocco who know about intellectual property rights,” he said.

39-year-old Said Mahrouf is Moroccan, but is an acclaimed site specific performance and fashion designer raised and educated in Amsterdam and New York, with collections displayed in museums including the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam, Centraal Museum in Utrecht, Carriage Works Gallery in Sydney and Villa des Arts in Casablanca.He said, “People do not understand that there is actually business in [Morocco’s authentic contemporary fashion]; this is a profitable business.People have not grasped that idea yet to invest in something that has potential.”

Mahrouf’s elegant designs are an ode to femininity, carefully crafted with delicate materials. Solid oranges, blues and shades of gray, tan and black pervaded his most recent collection of dramatic gowns with elaborate and sophisticated cuts, shimmered pantsuits and rompers with soft, sensual lines.Mahrouf said growing up outside Morocco has given him an advantage; it was not always caftans and djellabas for him. “I already had that kind of aesthetic,” he said. “And also I traveled a lot so I know people, and met people along the way…It was easy for me to get a visa. A lot of [Moroccans] do not have that.”

But Moroccan contemporary fashion can and should be developed, according to Bechar El Mahfoudi, 40, the founder of the Moroccan Association of Fashion Designers (AMC.MODE). “We must not confuse the preservation of the traditional costume and Moroccan craftsmanship with the future of design in fashion in Morocco.” He said new Moroccan identities through fashion would enrich his country.

That is the idea behind FCFW, founded six years ago, to show industry insiders a new wave of creativity and substantiate contemporary design in Morocco, with the anticipation that it will be recognized and picked up. This year FCFW seated television personalities, journalists, students, bloggers, international fashion designers and friends of friends. The result of the event’s diverse range of prêt-à-porter fashion to luxury couture collections was a multi-dimensional effect of innovation and dynamism. There was a range of satin gowns to office slacks, beside sailor-patterned onesies.

According to Ouchen, the fashion blogger, “If there is no Fashion Week,” he said, “there is not fashion here in Morocco.”

“We need more events to make Moroccan designers show their work. I think if we ask industry insiders to come to those events, they can see that there is hope in those designers,” Laskrouif added.

Ouchen agreed, “[FCFW] is an opportunity to meet people who think like us.We do not have the opportunity to meet everyday. And it keeps young designers thinking, ‘Yes I want to show next year in Fashion Week.’ It is motivation for them. And even for the other designers, it pushes them to produce a collection.”

FCFW not only shows the public the work and talent of the creators of Morocco and the Diaspora, FCFW 7th Edition also included designers from both Turkey and Italy, in order to create a springboard to international events with creators of the Mediterranean. Laskrouif was fortune to show her 2012 collection alongside Turkish designer Hatice Gökçe, both a designer and a fashion design consultant for major companies in Turkey such as Flokser Group, Abbate, Bil’s Shirts and Erenko Textileon, on the third night of the event.

“It gives a little bit of importance to Moroccan designers [like myself]; we can exchange with…international designers,” she said.

Atttendees at the event said Gökçe’s presence encourages an enhanced Arab Maghreb relationship that will permit regional integration of Morocco’s textile sector.

Laskrouif’s collection impressed the judges at FCFW. She won the Seventh Edition Designer Award, given by Groupe AKSAL, a conglomerate that owns department stores, malls, luxury products, retail and commercial real estates.

“[Groupe AKSAL] are going to help me [sell] my collection in other places and also to make a t-shirt collection that will be sold in Morocco Mall at Galeries Lafayette, a top store. They will do communications for me all year. Maybe there will be other projects, but for the moment it is one year. It is all about promoting and press conferences and things like that,” which is extraordinary considering the exhausting workload she typically faces alone, she said.

Aksiman, the lawyer and Valérie Liais du Rocher, a fashion industry expert said Moroccan fashion designers need managers to support them. “This award, it’s like having a manager,” Laskrouif said.

There is hope for young Moroccan designers like Laskrouif. Over the last ten years, the annual growth rate of the textile industry was 7.3 percent vs. 4.1 percent for other industries, according to Rocher. “Contemporary fashion in Morocco benefits from a new dynamic and conditions are now set to foster and encourage a real economy in the fashion industry.”

The textile industry now makes up 40 percent of Morocco’s industrial productions, accounting for nearly half of the industrial sector’s employment.

Because of economic growth in Morocco, the country’s stability makes it a new place for investment, she added. For example, in 2003 Morocco had just 23 brands, and by 2007 it had 110 according to Rocher’s statistics.

Young designers like Laskrouif are optimistic. “Contemporary design has a future. Moroccan people, they are starting to get interested in Fashion Week and fashion events.”

But perhaps most important, according to Ouchen — young Moroccan designers are exceptionally motivated. “They are really avant-garde,” he said. “They are not looking to [fuse] the traditional and new…This is the new Morocco. It starts now.”