For centuries, Morocco, and more generally the Maghreb, have inspired fashion designers and artists from all over the world. Needless to say, Yves Saint Laurent’s use of colors and embroideries inspired by the region, and the countless western interpretations of the Moroccan kaftan or the Algerian karakou – a sort of a two-piece peplum wedding dress –  initiated in the mid-Sixties a zest for neo-orientalism among many major fashion houses. Nowadays, fashion designers from the Maghreb are reclaiming their culture and celebrating their craft through bold, complex, and modern creations.

“I think Morocco is not a fashion destination, I think Morocco is a culture destination,” says FTA finalist in the Evening Wear category Artsi Ifrach, the founder of Maison ARTC, a house based in Marrakech. For FTA finalist in the Debut Talent category Mohammed El Marnissi, a Moroccan designer based in Belgium who also draws inspiration from landscapes and architecture, his home country’s visual and cultural legacy have definitely contributed to international fashion. On a personal level, he aims “to use his heritage and craftsmanship, as inspiration back into a contemporary design”.

In Morocco, the first couture houses were founded in the 1960s to redefine and disrupt traditional garments. Couture designers like Zina Guessous, Zhor Sebti or Tamy Tazi, who could nowadays be labelled as “traditional”, were actually pioneers and represented a first wave of local modernization, in opposition to a colonial construct that modernity was a thing of the West. In the 1990s, a second generation of designers led by Zineb Joundy, Albert Oiknine and Zhor Rais, walked in their footsteps, as fashion schools, shows and magazines emerged alongside.

“Culture creates fashion”

It was only in the early 2000s that a new contemporary scene took a more radical turn with designers inspired by artistic processes, like Nourredine Amir, or pop culture, like Amine Bendriouich and Hassan Hajjaj. Their approaches became more hybrid and less boxed into an economy oriented Western vision of fashion. The sense of fashion in Morocco is less tangible, it’s more about culture in general and definitely doesn’t exclude traditional couture, a bridge that designers like Sara Chraibi or Said Mahrouf crossed with ease.

For Ifrach, “Culture creates fashion. The best fashion designers in Morocco are all those artisans, tailors and embroideries women that with their craftsmanship are creating an impact in the fashion industry worldwide.” This is a vision that stresses the need to support and value craftsmanship in a difficult, globalized economy. Valuing the technique and time that an artisan will spend on a product is a tedious educational task that cooperatives like The Anou tackle. Ethics and sustainability are also part of many Tunisian designers’ approach as the country is drowning in foreign subcontracting and needs to refocus on locally made and sourced products with added value for both exports and the local market. The need to bolster the “Made in Algeria” label is also a huge challenge for the country in the face of Chinese competition.

The celebration of craftsmanship and ancestral knowhow is therefore a very strong and common factor for nascent brands such as Dihyan (Youssra Nichane is FTA finalist in the Jewelry category), who aim to revive worldly adornments and make them everyday, versatile accessories. For Leila Roukni, founder of up and coming leather goods label Talel and FTA finalist in the Accessories category, “The Moroccan knowhow in tannery, and later on leatherwork, was among the firsts to make history”. Roukni takes a lot of pride in working with artisans and believes that the richness and diversity of the Moroccan culture “is perfectly embodied by local designers who subtly know how to mix the ancient artistic heritage with current trends to create a new fashion dynamic and timeless looks”.

Freed from the constraints

On the other hand, this new wave of designers also seems to be loosening their grip on the ornamental aspects of craft to create bold, often minimalistic, but always unapologetic, collections where the relationship with traditional techniques is more diffuse. FTA finalist in the Accessories category, Tunisian shoe maker Duha Bukadi, for instance, is all about structure and vibrant colors. As an architect, she also represents the multi-skilling and audacity of a self-taught generation, freed from the constraints of the classical fashion industry that traditionally valued training and credentials over the expression of creativity and unique ideas. For Algerian-Dutch designer Rayana Boulila, FTA finalist in the Debut Talent category, fashion is all about the movement that a piece of fabric will bring to the body, like the memory of the wind blowing on a haïk (the veil worn by Algerian and Tunisian women). “Wearing clothes is a performance, but [it] also questions the position of women in society”, she explains.

If the goals and references have increasingly shifted towards the South coast of the Mediterranean, the big fours, Paris, Milan, New York, London, and especially the French capital, are still the main showcase for designers from the Maghreb and the closest things there is to a guarantee for success. The example of Azzedine Alaïa, who moved to Paris from Tunisia in the late 50s, and his stupendous ascent and success in international fashion remains an unprecedented success story.