Björn Dahlström on Museé Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech
Dedicated to the life and seminal work of the celebrated fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (YSL), the Museé Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech was unveiled last year. It proudly houses a collection of 5,000 items of clothing, 15,000 haute couture accessories and tens of thousands of sketches and art objects.
Years ago, Marrakech became a second home for Yves Saint Laurent and his life and business partner Pierre Bergé. Having grown up in French Algeria, Saint Laurent had a lifelong love for North Africa and its culture. ‘Rue Yves Saint Laurent’, a villa owned by Saint Laurent and Bergé since 1980, was a great source of solace and inspiration to the French designer. It’s adjoining Majorelle Gardens, which the pair renovated, is one of the most visited attractions in the city today.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech’s building spans 4,000 square metres and is next to the gardens. It houses a permanent exhibition space dedicated to the work of Yves Saint Laurent, a temporary exhibition area, an auditorium, bookshop, café, terrace, and library that focuses on Arabic and Andalusian history, geography, literature, poetry, as well as Botany and Berber culture and fashion.
The director of the museum, Björn Dahlström, is an art historian trained at the École du Louvre in Paris. Dahlström has previously worked at the Luxemburg Museum of Modern Art and curated award-winning shows at the Venice Biennial. In 2011, he was placed in charge of the Fondation Jardin Majorelle and the Musée Berbère, which led to his role as the director of the Museé Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech. In this interview with Omenka, he reveals how it all began, as well as the long-term goals of the museum.
How did the idea for the Musée Yves Saint Laurent come about?
Marrakech was a place where Yves Saint Laurent lived, worked, and designed his collections, but also where he developed very strong and lifelong friendships.
In 2010, Pierre Bergé organised an exhibition at the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech, dedicated to the links between Yves Saint Laurent’s design and Morocco. It was such a popular success that when 5 years later a piece of land was up for sale next to the Jardin Majorelle, Pierre Bergé decided to buy it and to commission a new building to construct the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech.
Then Pierre Bergé asked the architects, Studio KO, to design a building that is contemporary and Moroccan at the same time. This is exactly what they did. Contrasting curves and cube-shaped volumes are harmoniously combined; the proportions are pleasing and of a human scale. Local material such as brick has been used to adorn the exterior walls of the museum. The setting and alignment of the bricks evoke the warp and weft of a fabric. The predominance of rose-coloured granite set alongside the red bricks perfectly situates the building within its environment, Marrakech, which is often referred to as the “Ochre City”.
What specific experiences in your successful career as an art historian and curator have prepared you for your role as director of the Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech?
I studied art history and museum studies at the École du Louvre in Paris. Afterwards, while I was an intern at the Watermill Center in Long Island, NY, assisting the curator of Robert Wilson’s collection, I met Marie-Claude Beaud, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Luxembourg. She is an important and unique figure in the art world, known for her interdisciplinary approach to museum programming. She hired me as a curator for a new museum in Luxembourg designed by I.M. Pei; I learned a lot working with her. We worked for years preparing the museum, with the goal of establishing it as an important European modern art institution. To do so, we worked of course in Luxembourg, but also abroad where we co-produced many exhibitions, among them “Air Conditioned” by the artist Su Mei Tse at the Venice Biennale in 2003, for which we won the Golden Lion for best National Pavilion. Those were very exciting years.
Marie-Claude was my mentor; she taught me how to build bridges between disciplines, which could explain why today I am in charge of different types of museums.
What challenges have you faced in opening the museum in Africa and in particular, Morocco?
We had to comply with the highest international standards in the conservation of objects. Hence the museum’s storage has been designed with optimal conservation conditions in mind. It houses the Yves Saint Laurent collection held by the museum, as well as 3,000 objects constituting the reserves of the Berber Museum, situated in the nearby Jardin Majorelle, which we are also responsible for. Optimal security, temperature and humidity guarantee the safeguarding and preservation of textiles. In addition, the conservation rooms include an area where new textiles entering the collection can be examined and quarantined if necessary (to protect against any infestation when placing them in the storage), a workshop for dust removal, and a laboratory for restoration work. The Yves Saint Laurent museum is in the vanguard of conservation though it was a real challenge. Building a museum is a bit like designing a hospital; the public is unaware of the detailed technical requirements of such a project. Textiles are among the most fragile materials, and therefore the most challenging to conserve. We must guarantee their safekeeping and durability.
Yves Saint Laurent is originally from Algeria, what informed the location of a museum in Marrakech in his honour?
Yves Saint Laurent was born in Oran, Algeria. This is significant when we learn that during his first trip to Marrakech in 1966, he acquired a home here. In a certain way, he was returning to his roots. Since then and until his death, Yves Saint Laurent often came to Marrakech and Tangier.
Yves Saint Laurent once declared: “In Morocco, I realised that the range of colours I use was that of the zelliges, zouacs, djellabas and caftans. The boldness seen since then in my work, I owe to this country, to its forceful harmonies, to its audacious combinations, to the fervour of its creativity. This culture became mine, but I wasn’t satisfied with absorbing it; I took, transformed and adapted it.”
Yves Saint Laurent was Moroccan, African in a way. Creating a museum in his name in Marrakech makes sense.
Please tell us more about how the space will operate as a multidisciplinary museum, and why you think these types of spaces are important in the 21st century.
It is more than a museum; it’s a cultural centre. Of course, the main hall of the museum showcases the fashion work of Yves Saint Laurent, but there is also a space for temporary exhibitions and an auditorium for concerts, performances, film screenings, colloquia, and live high definition broadcasts from prestigious opera houses and theatres all over the world. The museum also houses a research library with more than 5,000 volumes dealing with Islamic and Arab-Andalusian culture, the Berbers, botany and fashion, as well as a bookstore, café, a state-of-the-art conservation department and administrative offices, all within 4,000 m². All these facilities allow the museum to activate diverse and dynamic cultural programmes.
Kindly take us through your curatorial thrust in exhibiting clothes and accessories in the museum.
I haven’t been the curator of the permanent exhibition. Pierre Bergé was, I have only been coordinating. Dominique Deroche, who joined the YSL fashion house in 1966, and the YSL biographer Laurence Benaïm were also involved in the selection of models. In addition, the talented scenographer Christophe Martin’s input in the project was important. With this YSL exhibition, the idea is to show the strong connection between Yves Saint Laurent’s work and Moroccan influences. We tried to enhance those connections, not only between the patterns or in the forms, but through the colours as well. After Yves Saint Laurent came to Morocco for the first time, his designs changed radically. The discovery of the “Orient” gave him access to imaginary voyages, which are clearly displayed in the exhibition and somehow connected to Morocco.
How will the museum support the immediate community and enhance the local, as well as the broader fashion industry in Africa?
We are the first fashion museum in Africa, so of course, will present and share fashion to a maximum audience – and in that way, support fashion in Africa. This is what we are currently doing by showing Noureddine Amir’s “Sculptural Dresses” within the museum’s temporary exhibition space. Africa is a continent from which many designers have been inspired, not to mention a great interest in the discipline throughout the continent. In terms of local communities, the museum is supporting and sponsoring a lot of cultural initiatives. Regarding educational programmes, we are working now on an ambitious programme, an initiative dedicated to public schools in Marrakech and eventually on a broader scale, to other schools outside of the city.
What are the long-term goals for the museum?
We want to become a social player where we belong, an institution that is connected to its roots, Morocco and the African continent. As for Morocco – becoming a cultural crossroad, this was Pierre Bergé’s vision, which we want to pursue.
December 20, 2021
December 13, 2021