Saint Laurent in Morocco

Anthony Vaccarello’s ode to The Sheltering Sky

Words by Dan Thawley

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.

When the American writer Paul Bowles published his seminal novel The Sheltering Sky in 1949, the young French pied-noir Yves Saint Laurent had not yet left his hometown of Oran, Algeria, for the bright lights of Paris. He first set foot in Marrakech nearly two decades later with his partner Pierre Bergé, in 1966. Bowles’ novel, a Post-War, Beat Generation adventure set in the North African desert, was adapted into a film by the late Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 – his protagonists brought to life on the silver screen by John Malkovich and Debra Winger.

These parallel narratives were entwined forever on Friday, July 15th, 2022, when the Belgian designer and Saint Laurent creative director Anthony Vaccarello set out for the windswept desert of Agafay on Marrakech’s south-eastern limits, as it stretches towards the Atlas mountains towards Taroudant. There, with the stage designer Es Devlin, Bureau Betak and Bowles’ desert adventures in mind, he imagined a mirrored arcade facing the sunset and encircling a round pool sunk into the sand. The pool’s inky surface was whipped up by winds that harboured the subtle threat of far-away sandstorms, but none came. Instead, piano and strings by Sebastian rolled in, prefacing the Saint Laurent Men’s Spring Summer 2023 runway show there on the edge of Yves’ beloved city. Opening with a ring of smoke that curled around the perimeter of the sandy plateau, models appeared as dark silhouettes punctuating the infinite desert vista – circling the water’s far edge before the details of their commanding figures were revealed in sharp relief against the day’s dying light.

There is no doubt that such a pointed stylistic exercise as a Saint Laurent défilé in the Moroccan desert carries the weight of history. After all, Yves’ legacy lives on in the city in a series of significant public and private institutions, from the Majorelle gardens and the Museé Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech, to the legendary Villa Oasis decorated by both Bill Willis and Jacques Grange. The cultural resonance of these mythic locations as much as Saint Laurent’s fashion oeuvre is such that the scrutiny of generations and the traps of artifice could lead so easily towards such literal affectations or reflexes as the djellaba, saharien jacket or babouche slippers, to swathes of passementerie or the Berber jewels of the souks.

Conscious of cliché, Vaccarello approached this ambitious menswear collection with the subtlety and insouciance of a veteran, not eschewing such references in their entirety but weaving them into a statement equally his own as it was Yves’. Predominantly black, the collection harked back to his own nascent years in fashion as a student of La Cambre in Brussels bathing in the avant-garde glamour of the Antwerp 6. Cue a New Wave shoulder, straight and rolled or near ‘pagoda’ in its construction, Vaccarello’s tailoring message was radical and angular on top, with soft pleated trousers falling on spare sandals, satin slides and high-shine patent boots.

Amongst myriad Le Smoking suits in barathea wool and soigné velvet, echoes of a young Yves emerged in multiple ways – from the uncanny casting and slicked back coiffs to the shape of an aviator lens, the cut of a trouser, or a trench. Layered within that vocabulary, nuances of North Africa and Saint Laurent’s women’s lexicon surfaced too: in a dark fuchsia officer’s coat abbreviated to thigh-length, in saffron-coloured and polka dot foulards, or the discreet silk tassel of a velvet cape. Lavallière blouses played a key role in Vaccarello’s desert uniform, diffusing a romance of skin and diaphanous silk crepes that lingered at the collarbone or mounted to a haughty glamour when worn sleeveless and wrapped high at the neck.

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.

From the front row, a pair of bristling, enveloping faux fur coats caught the eye of Italian designer Romeo Gigli, a recent ‘Marrakshi’ who decamped to the city mere months before the pandemic. ‘When I first showed my own collection in Paris in the 1990s, Pierre Bergé was furious,’ he laughed, recalling comparisons to Yves’ work long ago. There in the desert, along with crystal 4-leaf clover brooches, jewelled buckles and patent envelope clutches, those coats were the kind of opulent statements that embellished the severe wardrobe of Vaccarello’s Saint Laurent garçons with a camp elegance. Their solemn march, interjected by electronic crescendos and choral interludes, formed a constant loop around the central pool until the show’s finale: a visceral shock of cinematic proportions that recalled the architectural grandeur of an altogether different 1990s desert film: Stargate.

As the final model circled the reflective pool, a ring of white light appeared just beneath the water line. Increasing in luminescence until it burst through the surface, the light framed a black metallic ring that rose from horizontal to vertical and back in a 60-second ascent and descent billowing with white smoke. The effect was magistral, seeming to harness all the elements at once as water and smoke sprayed off its bright halo in the evening wind, casting a lunar reflection on the water below. Uniting Saint Laurent past and present in an ouroboros of earth, water, wind and light, Vaccarello’s (carbon-neutral) gesture of epic proportions was a daring statement poised on the knife edge of history: Yves’ history, his own history, and our collective willingness to embrace and evolve the bygone tenets of menswear in today’s swirling, universal landscape of identity and style.

Watch the Saint Laurent Men’s Spring Summer 2023 runway film by Nathalie Canguilhem below. 

Saint Laurent Men’s SS2023 collection by Anthony Vaccarello, Agafay, Morocco.
Set design by Anthony Vaccarello, Es Devlin, and Bureau Betak.

“We think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” – Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (1949).

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