This exhibition celebrates Yves Saint Laurent’s Moroccan obsession through contemporary voices
By Alex James Taylor | Art | 14 June 2022

Yves Saint Laurent à Marrakech Copyright Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, Paris Photo by Pierre Bergé

In the late 60s, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé travelled to Marrakech and became enamoured with the country. On that first trip, they purchased a modest house in the medina named Dar el-Hanch, House of the Serpent and from then on, Marrakech’s colourful and cultural influence surged through the couturier’s artistic output.

On the 60th anniversary of the founding of the house of Yves Saint Laurent, this singular connection between the designer and Marrakech is celebrated through a lens of newness: exhibiting Yves’ work in Portugal for the first time, and in dialogue with contemporary Moroccan artists.

Hosted by Portuguese duchess Claudine de Cadaval – who met Yves at his first haute couture showroom and remained friends for decades after – inside her family’s 17th-century palace, the exhibition offers three multi-media perspectives on Yves’ relationship with Morocco, brought to life by co-curators Mouna Mekouar and Stephan Janson, and Madison Cox, president of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.

Inside the church of São João Evangelista on the palace grounds, fifteen of Yves’ ready-to-wear looks created during the height of his Morrocco years are exhibited together for the first time, while inside the palace, contemporary Moroccan artists have created multi-media works in reaction to the designer’s annual ‘Love’ greeting cards he would craft and send to loved ones. Lastly, a curation of sculptural garments by Moroccan couturier Noureddine Amir stands in tribute to Pierre Bergé, who championed and exhibited the designer’s work before his passing.

[It shows] the contemporary reality,” Madison Cox tells us below, speaking about the importance of showing Yves’ work alongside contemporary voices: he was all about accessibility and collaboration – tenants celebrated within this unique exhibition.

GALLERYYves Saint Laurent's 'Love' greeting cards

Alex James Taylor: I’m interested in how the exhibition came to be – you must have so many people approach you wanting to put on exhibitions?
Madison Cox: They approached me about four years ago with the idea of doing something in the church however Saint Laurent Haute Couture is part of the French museum collections – in other words, it’s entered into this different status and because of that, there are very stringent rules for exhibition spaces: climate control, humidity control, light control, these things. When I first came here, I realised that obviously neither the church or palace exhibition spaces could conform to those specifications. So there’s a whole other part of Saint Laurent’s work, his Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collections, which have been very rarely if at all exhibited. What interests me is the point of inspiration, where do ideas come from? Where do creative juices come from? And so one source of great inspiration for Saint Laurent was Morocco, it was his second home, so I thought it would be interesting to [explore this connection] and call on Mouna Mekouar to also create a curation around contemporary Moroccan artists. None of those artists knew Yves Saint Laurent personally, but the idea was that they’re all artists who have drawn inspiration from their country.

AJT: In terms of those contemporary artists, some may not have even been familiar with Yves’ work before this, so it shows his artistry in a new light, from new voices.
MC: Yes. What’s interesting is Saint Laurent has never previously been exhibited in Portugal, so I thought this would also be a way to introduce the Portuguese public – a country that is basically Morroco’s closest neighbour except for Spain – [to his work]. There are so many parallels and great dialogues between the Portuguese and Moroccan cultures, so all these elements seemed to ring true to draw in that contemporary aspect of Morocco.

Yves Saint Laurent sketches

AJT: And how did it work in terms of choosing the garments to show? You’ve got such an extensive archive to draw from.
MC: I asked Stephen Johnson [curator], who is a fashion designer himself, he was one of the trio including Mouna and myself who curated an exhibition for the 60th anniversary of Yves Saint Laurent earlier this year at various Parisian museums. We thought, “Okay, as Saint Laurent was inspired by Morocco, let’s go back into the archives of ready-to-wear clothes that evokes that period.” Most of the clothes you see in the church are from the mid-70s. It was not easy because we could have showed five times that, you could have had an exhibition of 150 pieces instead of fifteen pieces. But we felt given the space and the opulence of the ornate, baroque church, it would be interesting to show something that was not those big grand ballgowns.

Those are from the mid-70s, almost 50 years ago, and yet you could see someone walking down the street in them.”

AJT: I love seeing the Rive Gauche pieces, the way Yves brought the street onto the catwalk was revolutionary.
MC: Absolutely. [It shows] the contemporary reality. Those are from the mid-70s, almost 50 years ago, and yet you could see someone walking down the street in them. That point was interesting, and then also to underline this great influence and dialogue that exists between Morocco and Portugal.

GALLERYInstallation shots from 'Love'

“…the capes, the vests, the gilets, jackets, pants, it was all coming from the masculine wardrobe.”

AJT: Where do you keep the archive?
MC: Mainly in Paris. The biggest problem is that it’s bursting at the seams and so we have locations outside of Paris as well.

AJT: And it keeps getting larger.
MC: Constantly – either we have donations or we buy pieces we don’t have. The uniqueness about Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in that sense is, from day one, they started to save pieces. Whether they had the idea for doing a museum or foundation, I doubt it, but they saved every sketch, every drawing, fabric swatches. We have relatively few pieces from their first two collections because they had to sell them to raise money – it’s interesting, they couldn’t find financing in France so they finally found it from an American who invested $25,000 in the company. In the beginning, they were extremely frugal, so they had to sell the prototypes, which was the custom at most fashion houses in those days, they never kept anything. It was always looking for the new. Then within five years, when the business started to work pretty well, they started to keep a large percentage of clothes from every collection.

AJT: Where do you tend to source vintage pieces from?
MC: They’re coming up for auction more and more. There are also more institutions showing fashion and more private collectors collecting fashion.

AJT: Do you ever find any randomly on eBay?
MC: Yes, quite a bit. Also in a lot of vintage shops. Now what’s happening is fashion is becoming a… What was interesting about the series of exhibitions in Paris in January for the 60th Yves Saint Laurent anniversary, they were the first time fashion entered the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre, the Picasso Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Musée d’Orsay. These are fine art museums, they’re not fashion museums.Part of the programme was also to have these garments shown in their permanent collections, which are usually – apart from the Louvre – pretty dead spaces. But this brought this whole new generation and renewed interest to their own collections. So a lot of these museums who had never shown fashion before, realised its power.

AJT: It’s all about accessibility, as was Yves.
MC: Exactly, which is what I’m trying to do, break down those barriers. For example, we’ve never done an exhibition where we only show ready-to-wear clothes. It’s always been haute couture, because it was always considered the [epitome] of Yves’ body of work. But this is where I digress from Pierre Bergé and Saint Laurent. They thought only haute couture was interesting to keep, but when you look at the creative process of how each piece of clothing was created, it was exactly the same as haute couture. Yves did a sketch on a white piece of paper that was given to his atelier who made a dummy or prototype. Then, once it was validated, it went into production. So, we’re talking about preserving, honouring, exhibiting and explaining that creative process. And part of that is also, where do ideas come from? What inspires you to do something?

AJT: And Yves was the ultimate in that sense, the way he drew from so many different influences and mixed them all together.
MC: It’s interesting, the whole Moroccan influence, most of the garments – the capes, the vests, the gilets, jackets, pants – were coming from the masculine wardrobe. They were things men wore and continue to wear in Morocco. Women didn’t wear those hooded capes, those embroidered vests or boxy jackets. He was drawing from a Moroccan vocabulary, but it was a masculine vocabulary. So the woman who came with us from the Moroccan Museum, she looked at these garments and said, “My father wore those capes, my grandfather wore that, my brother wears that.”

AJT: And that feeds into the blurring of gender norms that exists today.
MC: Now it’s become the norm, exactly. And that’s what’s interesting, a lot of those things could be worn by a man or woman.

Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent à la Ménara, sans date Copyright Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, Paris; photo Pierre Bergé

He was drawing from a Moroccan vocabulary, but it was a masculine vocabulary.”

AJT: How did the people in Marrakech react to Yves’ work at the time?
MC: I think what he did for Moroccans is he validated or elevated their self-worth, in a sense. He elevated their culture or their patrimony. We’ve had more and more Moroccans coming to our museum because they identify with these pieces where they perhaps can’t with a ball gown or tuxedo. We’re addressing a Moroccan public, not just a European public. Also, even for your age, what does a ballgown mean? Even the Queen doesn’t wear a ballgown anymore. Do you want I mean? That’s what’s interesting. We’ve got to also make it relevant, and that’s the extraordinary thing about Yves, it always can be.

AJT: He gave you the impetus.
MC: As I said earlier, Yves and Pierre did not consider ready-to-wear to be something of value. So even though they kept pieces, or were given pieces by former employees, or clients, it was not what they considered worthy of exhibiting because it was considered ready-to-wear or mass. But I still think it’s as valid as the other.

AJT: And obviously he didn’t get a chance to see what’s happening now in terms of the fashion world shifting towards ready-to-wear.
MC: Exactly, I think he would have reacted very differently. You’re right, he was coming from an era that didn’t appreciate that as much. He was a pioneer before his time.

Love runs at Palácio Cadaval, Évora until October 2022.

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