The Photographer Who Gave Up Manhattan for Marrakech
When the fashion photographer Randall Bachner moved to Marrakech, he swapped the high-pitched frenzy of Manhattan for the immersive and seductive atmosphere of the Marrakech souk.
A secret maze of genie shoe stands and spice stalls, where rose-scented smoke fills the air, the Marrakech souk is navigated by way of dusty streets brimming with donkeys and men in long dresses, haggling over oils and perfumes and, sometimes, second-hand teeth from traveling dentists.
This sprawling mass of shopping heaven lies beyond the Jemaa el Fna, the main square where the nightly entertainment has been described as the “greatest show on earth.”
It includes a crowd of snake charmers with cobras sliding across the floor and male belly dancers performing amid the steam rising from the makeshift food stands. The smell of grilled meat mixes with the exotic wafts of cinnamon tea served with a mush of sweet brown dessert.
While the mayhem and old-fashioned rituals usually keep the tourists entertained for a few days, one visitor, the New York art-and-fashion photographer Randall Bachner, decided to stay on and join in. These days, he can be found sipping mint tea in a Beanie hat in Marrakshi Life, his hip clothing store which lies deep inside the myriad of artisan craft shops. It opened in September of 2013.
Finding the shop is a trip in itself and an introduction to a slice of history. Thankfully, his assistant knows these roads like the back of his hand.
“Over there are the wool dyers, and here in the carpet section where people from all regions of Morocco come after the third prayer of the day to present their designs. It is the only part of the souk where business is done as it always has been,” he said, leading me to the shop in an upscale enclave which is also home to the popular café, the Terrasse des épices and the Hammam de la Rose spa, with its beautiful blue interiors and private steam rooms decorated in glittering gold.
En route, we pass men in workshops bashing out artisan lamps where candles will soon flicker through the delicate metal patterns, before we reach the section where Mr. Bachner keeps his modern-looking boutique.
Inside, Marrakshi Life, one finds graphic wall prints, oversized shrunken wool hats, used for a recent shoot, and rows of Oxford shirts, as well as over-sized black coats from the 18-month old brand. It is like finding a lone Dior shop deep in the desert.
Taking his cue from the Japanese designer Issey Miyake, Mr. Bachner, who has worked for everyone from T-Magazine to W, decided that he wanted a change in his career in order to put his focus on making things.
Mr. Bachner moved here in May 2013. “Northern Africa was for me a dramatic shift, not only in terms of people and geography but also in terms of rhythm and awareness,” he said. “The juxtaposition has become Marrakshi Life, the appreciation and celebration of a new home and of local materials and craftsmanship seen through an ex-pat’s eye.” Mr. Bachner stayed because he realized the city is filled with artisans and the possibilities fascinated him.
Although he brings a Western spin to things, he seems equally inspired by the local sense of style. “I like looking at how people put their outfits together here like PJs,” he said.
Marrakech, he decided, was a place he could both live and create, the latter part thanks to the weaving traditions still found around the souk and the tailors he has discovered in this city of pink walls and palm trees where imams shriek periodically for prayer from the old stone mosques. “There are some of the best tailors here,” he said.
His Oxford shirts and matching boxers are, needless to say, woven. They were created in the men’s weaving guild which we visit one morning. Mr. Bachner found it by wandering through the market and identified a craftsmen here who works in a tiny booth.
“I got the weaver to use his craftsmanship on modern silhouettes we designed,” he said. Inside the guild, men in caps and long gowns sit in twos, weaving together in small rooms.
Marrakshi Life, Mr. Bachner explained in his sneakers while walking alongside men in traditional dresses with hoods covering their faces in the market, began life as a menswear line. It has since expanded to include womenswear and homeware.
In December, he did his first trunk shows in Paris and New York. His clients already include the odd billionaire. Their advice is helping him build his empire. The collection includes kimono capes and hand woven jump overalls. Prices are relatively inexpensive and come in at around 135 euros for a shirt or 35 euros for hand woven boxers.
His neighbors include some of the other designer outposts one finds speckled around the area. But as an American creating a new brand here, and living the daily life of the souk, he seems to be in a league of his own. “After the New York mentality, it is the ultimate contrast to see people making things by hand,” he said.
Walking back from the weaving guild, he stopped to buy pins from a lady decked from head to toe in a black Djellaba, a cloth spread in front of her on the floor displaying items for sale. “This is the only place in the souk you can buy safety pins,” he said.
Indeed, although he works here in the old town, he lives in the new part of the city where he walks his dog in the morning. “For conveniences and shops where you can buy what you need,” it is much easier, he said.
Not everything is easy and rosy. Mr. Bachner said it had been hard to introduce his work ethic and share his vision with the locals and his team.
Living there, he added, can be a bit of a limited scene among expats and hard to find original, good healthy food (though his favorite restaurant in the spice market is called Nomad).
One of the designs hanging in his booth is a woven, oversized coat for women which is made of blocks of bold color, creating a modern-looking graphic finish, using old world textile weaving.
“One of the challenges is to get the weavers to see my vision,” Mr. Bachner said. “But one reason I chose Morocco was because I was inspired by the artisan weavers. Seeing what they were doing, I was inspired to add my vision to their technique. The light and the vibrancy of the city really inspired me and made it one of the few places that I could imagine living.”