A Follow-Up Story: Révolution de la Mode Marocaine

By Re

Clacking resonates from each direction—from the left, the hooves of a horse-drawn carriage bear a veiled woman swallowed up in black linen; from the right, the sound of Manolo Blahnik heels support the naked ankles of long, bare legs. This is Casablanca, a vivacious, diversifying city and the fashion and economic capital of Morocco.

Contouring the streets are American and European clothing brands. Sisters Afaf and Marwa El Ouadrassi, dressed respectively in a Homer Simpson-printed and plaid button down, shop for attire expressive of their generation—fun and free, with quintessential Moroccan finesse, they said. But they haven’t found this in the Western collections that color their city with advertisements of scantily dressed Westerners; hence, they launched their own label, Afaf & Marwa. The El Ouadrassi sisters remain hopeful that an opportunity exists for them to thrive in Morocco’s ever-emerging fashion industry, but like finding the right outfits, finding that opportunity has been a struggle.

It is a universal misconception that Western development now surging cross borders has only facilitated the development of low-wage countries like Morocco by creating jobs and thus generating capital; one would think that growing Western influence in Morocco would pave the way for the El Ouadrassisisters. But Western brands have pervaded Morocco, hoarding consumers and essentially leaving authentic Moroccan designers working in relative obscurity in their own country.

“There are a lot of difficulties,” Afaf said. “When you make ready-to-wear or haute couture, it’s difficult to make it work.” Moroccan consumers do not trust small fashion designers, Afaf said. Rather, they favor fast-fashion labels for the luxury names. “That’s why we are here…We’ll start slowly and hopefully make sure to make it happen.”

But Moroccan fashion has been developing slowly for decades, establishing what has become three inimitable generations of fashion designers, each rewriting the boundaries of fashion, modernizing the Moroccan milieu and subverting autocratic social norms.

The evolution of Moroccan fashion dates back to the country’s independence from France in 1956. Prior, women seldom left the home, and the hayk, a long piece of cloth with which they’d wrap themselves, was the only clothing they needed. As more Moroccan girls began going to school in the late ‘50s, the hayk no longer sufficed and they began wearing men’s djellabas—long, hooded outer-robes.

By the mid-1960s many of the privileged, bourgeois schoolgirls of the independence movement had grown up and moved to Casablanca, where they became accustomed to a Westernized, urban lifestyle, and sought clothes to suit it. The heavy, brocade belted dresses available to them, however, were constraining. Women learned to handcraft their own designs, shopping for materials in European fashion capitals. According to sociologist Angela Jansen, this alone revolutionized Moroccan urban dress “by introducing European haute couture fabrics, by reducing the amount of layers, the cuts and the decorations and by giving Moroccan dress a more ‘modern’ look.”

As Moroccans learned to make intricate garments, Western clothing manufacturing began moving to Morocco in search of lower production costs in the late ‘80s.

“The fashion market [in Morocco] focused on a subcontracting position towards Western market-makers—brands, suppliers, discount labels,” said fashion industry expert Valérie Liais du Rocher. “Morocco has a lot of potential…a key geographic positioning, few hours from European major cities, seven hours by boat from Tangier’s new hub to New York City. Hence its renewed attractiveness and competitiveness for fast-fashion Western contractors. Moreover, the local human resources are valuable—a numerous [and] experienced workforce, existing equipment, decent working conditions.”

With a steadily growing economy at the end of the 20th century, the country began attracting Western retail stores in the ‘90s, with the introduction of brands including Zara, Massimo Dutti, Mango, Stradivarius, Bershka, Promod and Etam. Louis Vuitton, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent followed.

High fashion was no longer limited to an exclusive Moroccan elite and therefore Moroccan fashion magazines like Femmes du Maroc became tailored to Moroccan demographics and featured products available on the local market. “These first so-called lifestyle magazines made it their primary goal to propose an alternative to a ‘European type of modernity.’ This is, a ‘Moroccan type of modernity,’” Jansen said, despite the influx of franchises. Fashion became more accessible and affordable, and therefore a second generation of inspired Moroccan designers emerged.

Between 2003 to 2007, 89.3 percent of Morocco’s garment production was directed to the export market, with almost 90 percent of it headed to the European Union. As of 2011, there were approximately 1,600 garment factories in the country. Now, Morocco’s main markets are France with 31.3 percent of its exports and Spain with 30.1 percent of its exports due to both its historical ties as a French and Spanish protectorate and geographic location.

This is ever-modernizing environment nurtured creative minds like Afaf and Marwa. At the turn of the 21st century, a third pioneer generation of Moroccan fashion designers grew up faced with integration into global markets and ensuing liberalization movements, like the Arab Spring. Unlike earlier generations, these designers no longer live under severe censorship. Instead, they seize a growing freedom to express critical convictions through fashion, analyzing their cultural heritage against a global background and revolutionizing national identity. Designers of this generation are no longer producing traditional caftans and djellabas. Nor are they designing motifs of folkloric mosaics and embroidery; their designs expose more skin and even read audacious lyrics. They are Moroccans designing for Moroccans, and no longer the European Union or American franchised brands.

“This generation is very resourceful, as the fashion eco-system is still developing. Young designers are also very inventive: they assume their Moroccan roots and traditions as well as their mixed international influences,” said du Rocher. “They are not centered on Western fashion, but rather on developing their style, expressing their Moroccan identity. They’re creating a Moroccan contemporary fashion.”

But it is not easy for those designers to find a local market or local manufacturers willing to produce their designs. Most Moroccan manufacturers are family-run and, consequently, the young leaders taking over these businesses do not have the authority to modernize family practices; rather, they’re expected to uphold tradition, and, thus, contemporary businesses have yet to launch.

Further, fashion consumers in Morocco thrive on trends, and thus new clothing must be made both regularly available and prêt-a-porter to meet consumer demands. The domestic market has not developed an interest in new Moroccan fashion, because designers have neither the financial support nor the resources to rapidly produce mass quantities. Fast-fashion Western brands, however, produce low-cost clothing collections that mimic current luxury fashion trends and require just short development cycles and rapid prototyping to quickly turn around and procure products. They are an optimal investment.

To make matters worse, fast-fashion has been counterfeited and sold for discount prices in the souks and old medinas. According to intellectual property rights lawyer Amine Aksiman, consumers are more interested in counterfeited Western products than local designs. He said 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. “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.

Founder of FestiMode Casablanca Fashion Week (FCFW), Jamal Abdennassar, said Moroccans are stuck in an identity bind. “We have to change the mentality—our vision of fashion. Moroccan fashion has a story. It exists from a long time ago, but has not reached its limits; it still must be explored,” he explained.

Abdennassar founded FCFW six years ago with the intent to show industry insiders, and presumably investors, this new wave of creativity and substantiate contemporary design in Morocco, with the anticipation that it will be recognized and picked up. FCFW not only shows the public the work and talent of Moroccan creators, but FCFW 7th Edition also included designers from both Turkey and Italy in an effort to create a springboard to international events with creators of the Mediterranean.

“[Fashion Week] is an opportunity to meet people who think like us, we don’t have the opportunity to meet everyday,” said Joesph Ouchen, a pioneer of Moroccan fashion photography, featured in magazines around the world and among the country’s first fashion bloggers. Ouchen is one of few street-style photographers, and even fewer of the Arab African realm. “[Fashion Week] is motivation for young designers…it pushes them to produce a collection. And it is a place for people who can put money to invest in the younger designers; this is important for us. If there is no Fashion Week, there is not fashion here in Morocco.”

But, thus far, Abdennassar has funded the event solely out of pocket, and simply could not afford it this year. When approached, neither the government nor the community would provide him with financial support.

“The textile industries have a mentality for exploitation,” Abdennassar said. “They don’t have a mentality for development. They develop their wallets, but they don’t develop anything in the city. It’s crystal clear. Next, that means that you find me all alone in the process of doing everything…The institution, or I don’t know who, must take things and make them more important and more professional. But I didn’t find that.”

The fashion week event, which was supposed to be held in November 2013, was canceled. Still, Abdennassar insisted, “I won’t let it go because I profoundly believe that everything will be okay.”

According to Afaf, Casablanca is capable of making everything okay, but it just simply isn’t. “It is not money because investors go to international brands and they bring them here to Morocco,” Afaf said. “There are many designers, but they don’t have enough help.”

Among these designers is 29-year-old designer Ghitta Laskrouif. For years Laskrouif had worked out of a room in Casablanca’s Les Abattoirs, an abandoned 1920s slaughterhouse that has just recently been turned into an artistic space. Her “studio” did not even have a door, leaving her work unsafe.

“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.”

Despite hardships, Laskrouif has had some success. She is the first Moroccan designer to sign with a Moroccan fashion label, Flou Flou in 2012. Flou Flou, one of just three Moroccan labels in the country, showcased Laskrouif’s 20-piece collection, Flou by Ghitta. With that, and three other collections since 2007, Laskrouif has begun an innovative trend for Morocco: repurposing old clothing and materials to craft original pieces.

Laskrouif’s latest prêt-à-porter collection also won an award during FestiMode Casablanca Fashion Week (FCFW) 2012. The collection was comprised of reprocessed materials, saturated with brilliant oranges, an array of blue hues, reds and earthy tones, almost entirely crocheted. These intricate, open weaves were often seen layered atop untextured, tightly stitched garments that exaggerate each piece’s design. Laskrouif’s designs veer from stereotypical Moroccan fashion; they are casual and shape-hugging.

She won the FCFW 2012 Seventh Edition Designer Award, given by Groupe AKSAL, a conglomerate that owns department stores, malls, luxury products, retail and commercial real estates. Groupe AKSAL was allegedly going to help Laskrouif sell her collection in stores and make a t-shirt collection that would be sold in the Morocco Mall at Galerie Lafayette, a major French store. They were to handle communications and management for her all year, promoting her collection and scheduling press conferences. But over a year later, Laskrouif has yet to receive the award.

With little support, she has decided to take her work home, now living and designing out of her bedroom in her parent’s house on the outskirts of Casablanca. Most of the time now, she sells only to her friends.

“I started my blog so I think it is a good way to get people interested in my work and also to know my inspiration,” she said.

It is for this reason that neither Afaf nor Marwa opted to study fashion design; they’re acutely aware that finding work post-graduation could be nearly impossible. For most creative Moroccan minds, fashion is not a profitable venture, but still fashion blogging becomes a stimulating hobby.

“I wanted to do fashion studies, but my parents started thinking twice,” Afaf said. “I was accepted to Casa Moda Academy, the only fashion school in Morocco…but my parents told me I should maybe do management and trade, and do fashion in parallel. So, follow my passion, but study something that will help me in the future.”

According to Fouad El Amri, CEO of Casa Moda Academy, the country’s first and only public institution of higher education in fashion design, and an iconic establishment for fashion in Africa, “It is very difficult in Morocco to convince young people and their parents in order to train them and prepare them for a profession in the arts and in design creation to study contemporary fashion.”

For now, Afaf and Marwa study management and science respectively, spending their weekends on photo shoots for their now three-year-old fashion blog AfafandMarwa.com. Their blog welcomes about 600 daily visitors, among Facebook and Instagram followers. Through AfafandMarwa.com, the sisters this year released their first label.

“[The label is] very special because we tried to translate the world we live in through our clothes. It’s colorful, fun, with funny prints…all handmade in Morocco…When we are in Tétouanto visit our grandparents, there are a lot of spots there where we can buy fabrics.”

And there are a lot of spots throughout the entire country and beyond where they can find inspiration. “For example, for printed t-shirts, I’m a big fan of Mahmoud Darwish, a Palestinian poet and I wrote his quotes on t-shirts,” Marwa explained, wearing a version of the shirt herself.

The collection includes three printed t-shirts, four kimonos, three clutches and three maxi skirts. “For the marketing strategies, I apply what I’ve learned in school,” Afaf said. “We sold 70 percent of what we produced…to a close circle of people we know…We are selling it on the Internet, on our blog.”

Indeed, the Internet has been kind to Moroccan fashion. Because Moroccan designers are not finding the tangible space to sell or showcase their collections, they’ve turned to cyber space. Social media has facilitated networking among fashion designers like Laskrouif and the El Ouadrassisisters, establishing a cyber-community and fostering an artistic revolution. Facebook, Tumbler, LookBook and other online platforms are used to showcase work and congregate. And these cyber spaces have just recently begun to translate into reality.

According to du Rocher, “Things are moving slowly, but they [are moving].” She said the transition to an economic model that favors local contemporary fashion is a long-term process. That process includes growth of institutions such as Casa Moda Academy and the Moroccan Association of Fashion Designers (AMC.Mode). “The fashion community is more and more connected,” du Rocher added.

Industry insiders like Ouchen have reached out to this developing online web of connections. This year, Ouchen joined forces with Bechar El Mahfoudi, founder of AMC.Mode, in an effort to instill confidence in designers like the El Ouadrassisisters.

“To represent the designers and work with the needs of the designers…was the basic idea—to work on three big initiatives: So, the formation of fashion materials, these fashion workshops. We worked on planning the fashion events…We also worked on the idea of opening a structure, which was capable of supporting or responding to the needs of the designers,” El Mahfoudi said.

AMC.Mode served as the liaison between Laskrouif and Flou Flou in 2012, working entirely remotely. This year, Ouchen and El Mahfoudi upgraded to a brand new office space in Casablanca.

“We really didn’t have a lot of financial means because the structure [of the business] also required having a place, having people that can always work…We have been working with little money for about three years now, and now we are in the process of re-creating a structure to work with key projects,” El Mahfoudi added.

Both he and Ouchen anticipate further successes like those of Laskrouif, as they now have the tangible space to meet with designers, discuss individual needs and facilitate their development. Through their network of contacts, experience with blogging and ensuing knowledge of PR and marketing, Moroccans can come to AMC.Mode to get the help they need. AMC.Mode is also helping to prepare designers for emerging events like du Rocher’s The Souk.

The Souk, founded in 2012 in Marrakech, is the first designers market dedicated to young local designers, working in fields from fashion to graphic creation. “It’s not only about providing a commercial opportunity; it’s also a meeting point for creatives and makers. It’s an event we created two years ago, in line with our purpose of promoting local creativity – from design to business,” du Rocher said.

For du Rocher, finding the talent for the event is easy. She draws some of it from Studio IWA, which is a building located in Casablanca and serves as a meeting point for designers, a space to host events and a space to have photo shoots. “Studio IWA works as a local cultural incubator; we develop, professionalize and showcase innovative projects and emerging creatives, from artists to designers and start-ups. We work with fashion designers such as Ghitta Laskrouif, Soukaina Aziz El Idrissi, Vanska, the Harakat sisters and others from the AMC.Mode.”

Each year, The Souk welcomes about 30 designers and approximately 50 people. “It’s a challenge,” du Rocher said. “It’s very time-consuming, and not always very rewarding, but is definitely worth it. Our experience and feedback prove it really helps boosting some designers, drawing the public and media attention on our new talents and connecting and inspiring the creative minds.”

And new talents are ever-emerging. In 2012, Casa Moda Academy said goodbye to its first graduating class. This year, the academy relocated to a brand new campus in the district of Sidi Maarouf, a bigger and more contemporary site from their previous space.

The school offers an Information Center of Creation and Fashion, a space for fashion shows, exhibitions and conferences, classrooms that fit a maximum of 25 students and professional workshops. It also provides specialized equipment, professional information technology and communication and creation platforms, so students can put on annual exhibitions and runway shows.

According to Casa Moda Academy’s Development Director, Sylvie Richoux, “What is really important at Casa Moda Academy is fashion culture, fashion history, history of art and culture in general, in order to respond to fashion today which is globalized and international, and just importantly communication.”

Like-minded, Du Rocher said she is discussing workshop proposals for Casa Moda Academy, and ways in which they can work together in this increasingly international marketplace.

“[Moroccans] are really avant-garde,” Ouchen said. “It is a new Morocco. This is why I am optimistic about the future of Morocco.”

Afaf agreed. “Everything has a beginning. It’s our only option to be optimistic about it,” she said.

*NOTE: I filmed Révolution de la Mode Marocaine in December 2013 and January 2014, with former footage from 2012, funded by a Middle Eastern Islamic Studies Mellon Research Grant. The research, however, is compiled from a two-year investigation, both domestically and abroad. This is a follow-up story; check out the original here: Moroccans Stuck in an Identity Bind.