By Lina Goelzer
“Maghreb” literally means sunset in Arabic. It also is a name attributed to a region in Northwest Africa that has long been a cultural crossroads and source of creative inspiration to the world. It started when cities, such as Casablanca and Marrakech, gained a romantic quality in the eyes of Westerners due to their portrayal in film and literature. Moroccan tradition has also influenced mainstream international fashion. For example, J. Crew has featured fall sweaters inspired by handmade scarves and rugs from Marrakech. Most notable is the late Yves Saint Laurent, also known as the “king of French fashion”. Marrakech, Morocco served as a second-base for Saint Laurent, who was fascinated by the mood of the city and the Berber culture of the surrounding villages. His designs from the late 1960’s to early 1980’s display the colors and embroidery typical of Morocco’s ethnic costumes and traditional dress. His success has inspired other designers to explore different cultures in their work.
Today, Saint Laurent’s mansion has thousands of traditional Berber outfits and artifacts on display, attracting as many as 700,000 visitors yearly. Thanks to his legacy, young Moroccans are encouraged to not only appreciate, but also preserve their culture and traditions.
At the same time, the spread of Western fashion has led to the development of an indigenous fashion industry marked by distinctly Maghrebian aesthetics. This is put on display at Tunis Fashion Week, an event meant to reflect the major fashion weeks in Milan, London, New York, and Paris. All three Maghrebian countries have strong textile industries and traditions of embroidery and handicrafts, serving as a resource to local designers.
In an effort to reinvigorate Tunisia’s fashion industry, young local designers bring new and different ideas while still paying homage to traditional culture. “There was only ‘official culture’ here,” said Moroccan designer Amine Bendriouch on Tunisia before the 2011 revolution. “No one was allowed to speak openly and everyone dressed the same ...now there are nightclubs, galleries, street style. Fashion here is still to be built, like everything else in the country, but Fashion Week Tunis is a good start.”
The process of localization demonstrates that the relationship between the global fashion industry and North African tradition is not one of domination. Tunisian designers have adopted the European concept of “Fashion Week”, yet used it to promote work inspired by local tradition, contributing to an increasingly exciting and self-sufficient local fashion culture.
The Maghreb’s unique situation at the crossroads of European, Arab, and African cultures has led to the development of a rich and dynamic fashion scene. The way in which local and international fashion industries continue to interact on the Maghrebi stage is worth watching.