Mi Casa (blanca) est su Casa (blanca)

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“Of all the gin joints on all the world”  I ended up at Ric’s Bar Americain in Casablanca in readiness for the city’s annual fashion week and started my love affair with Morocco’s most business-minded populus.

Casablanca, a modern city – housing the nation’s largest industrial port – with an exploding population, inevitably feels like a building site in some parts, but the country’s attitude to its traditional architecture and craftsmanship as it grows is what saves the city from becoming the Moroccan version of a modern-day Istanbul or Athens.

Tower  blocks are abundant, but the legacy left by the French occupation is felt strongly through the city. Mohammed V Place, Arab League Park, the wide palm-tree lined boulevards … all form part of the Art Deco quarter.

The new medina, built only at the turn of the last century and incorporating Arabo-Andaluscian architecture, is situated in the southern part of the city, in the Habous neighbourhood. It is arguably the most beautiful part of Casablanca and perhaps the most Moroccan: this is where you shop. Pottery, leather, traditional wooden furniture and clothing sit beside rows of sewing machines manned by stall holders in djellabas, jewel bright rugs adorn stall fronts and are hung from every available nook and cranny. Images of uncontrollable Patsys & Eddies and shoe-obsessed Manhattanites spring to mind.

The Mahkama du Pacha – or courthouse – sits beside the souk. Built in the Moorish style it has ornate, carved Cedar wood ceilings, marble columns and chiselled stucco alongside the traditional, geometric mosaic that is abundant in Moroccan architecture. Hours can be spent in the central courtyard admiring the craftmanship.

No Casablancan trip is complete without a visit to the Hassan II Mosque. Built half on land, half over the ocean – The Qu’ran teaches that Allah’s throne was built over the ocean – this is where traditional Moroccan architecture meet technology. Three thousand and three hundred craftsmen came together to build the worlds tallest minaret (200 m), a retractable roof, which turns the 25,000 capacity prayer hall into a glorious patio in seconds, plus thousands of metres of mosaic, wooden carvings and Venetian Plaster. The Mosque also houses Hammans soon to be open to the public. It is an awe-inspiring edifice and a spiritual one at that.

If architecture was the order of the day, then fashion was on the invite for the evening. Festimode Casablanca fashion week has been running since 2006 and intends to promote young designers on both the national and international stage. As is befitting of such a forward-thinking city, it extends invitations from surrounding countries to show alongside Moroccan designers  and then forge strong links in industry and production which the body can then promote worldwide.

Italian Paolo Errico and Turkish Hatice Gökce where part of this three-night event and showed alongside designers, Mehdi Khessouane, Siham Sara Chraibi, Said Mahrouf, Ghitta Laskrouif,  Noureddine Amir and Fadila El Gadi.

The collections varied in levels of success when judged on a global platform, what is interesting here is the desire to learn and develop which is the life-force of any industry. Many designers worked in manipulating fabrics – Noureddine Amir manipulates raffia, linen and wool into wearable sculptures for the catwalk. Ghitta Laskrouif focus on strong silhouettes made from ecological fabrics. Fast-paced development with an global conscience is a common theme in Morocco, you only need to look to their solar power initiative – they aim to be 100 per cent dependent on the sun for electricity by 2017 – to have confirmation of that.

Other designers worked in more traditional fabrics, Said Mahrouf an established designer in Casablanca already, presented a collection of flowing and feminine pieces in muted tones of silk, which will delight his growing legion of fans. The last show on the second day he received rapturous applause and a standing ovation.

The most successful show of Festimode was undoubtedly Fadila El Gadi. Working since 1990 and co-designer of Jardin Majorelle clothing – of Yves Saint Laurent heritage – she is already an international figure with global boutiques. It was her simple elegant approach to traditional embroidery techniques married with simple shapes that made her the standout star of the event.

There can be no mention of Casablanca or Morocco without talk of food. Dates, figs and olives are abundant and eaten with tiny cups of bitter, strong coffee. Sweet pastries devoured with pots and pots of mint tea, in the medinas and the many cafes dotted along the seafront.

Lunch should be taken at Sqala, opposite the Marina Casablanca,which has a delectable array of mezes and makes the best b’stillas in town, all served in a mint-scented garden. Friday is couscous day in Morocco, Le Royal Mansour restaurant at Hotel Meridien serves a mouthwatering feast in authentic surroundings. Everything from the lamb is consumed. Kidneys, brains and the meat, falling off the bone. All equally as delicious as the other.

Fashion, food and architecture? That makes for an intoxicating – albeit gin-based– cultural cocktail, and one that  will make me come back again and again, Sam.

by Marie-Louise von Haselberg

For more information please visit:
Le Royal Mansour, Sqala, Festimode, Fadila el Gadi