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An interview with Björn Dahlström; Director of the new Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech

July 30, 2017

ArtsMixed Media | by Harry Seymour


This autumn, the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent will unveil to the world the brand new Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech, to coincide with a relaunch of its original Parisian home at 5 Avenue Marceau, where Saint Laurent’s atelier is being returned to its original appearance. The new Museé Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (mYSLm) will be dedicated to the seminal work of the late great couturier, housing the Fondation’s collection that consists of 5,000 items of clothing, 15,000 haute couture accessories and tens of thousands of sketches and art objects currently in storage in France.

Since the publishing of Antoine Gallard’s Thousand and One Nights in the eighteenth century, the West has had a fascination with Oriental cultures (the predominantly Islamic cultures that encompass the Middle East and North Africa) Its magical, exotic and seductive charms have drawn European visitors for hundreds of years, from Aristocrats on grand tours to twentieth century homoerotic tourists seeking allure. Morocco in particular became synonymous with beautiful and romantic sights, sounds and smells. During the 1960s and 70s it became the avant garde playground for cultured, rich, and often gay Europeans.

Marrakech became the second home for the French designer Yves Saint Laurent and his life and business partner Pierre Bergé. Having grown up in French Algeria, Saint Laurent had a life long love for North Africa and its Orientalist appeals. He had a villa on the now-named “Rue Yves Saint Laurent” which he and Bergé owned since 1980. The villa (in which Bergé still lives) was as great source of both solace and inspiration to Saint Laurent, and it’s adjoining Majorelle Gardens that were rescued from demolition and renovated by the couple are today open to the public and have become the most visited attraction in the city. Full of shady palms, square trickling fountains and beautifully pungent orange blossom all set against an azure sky, it is easy to see why the couple instantly fell in love with the setting, and why Saint Laurent chose to have his ashes scattered there. Today the gardens also house a museum dedicated to Berber culture. Berbers traditionally wore exquisite hand embroidered clothes, headdresses with pleats of bright fabric, and grand silver and wool tasselled jewellery – all elements common in Saint Laurent’s oeuvre.

The new Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech has been designed by the French architecture firm Studio KO (who have previously worked on the Balmain Boutique in New York and Chiltern Firehouse in London). The building spans 4,000 square metres in a space next to the gardens, and houses a permanent exhibition space dedicated to the work of the designer, a temporary exhibition area, 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 new director the mYSLm is Björn Dahlström, an art historian who 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, making him the ideal candidate for directing the new museum. Candid Magazine sat down with Dahlström in Marrakech for an excusive interview about what to expect from the mYSLm.

Candid Magazine: Can you tell us a bit about your career history as an art historian and curator, and what inspires your work?
Björn Dahlström: I studied history of art and museology at the École du Louvre in Paris. Afterwards, while I was an intern at the Watermill Centre 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 alongside 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.

mYSLm, Marrakech, Morocco.

CM: How did your work with the Berber Museum come about?
BD: Christophe Martin, the scenographer of the Berber Museum, and a close friend of mine, introduced me to Pierre Bergé, who was at the origin of a museum within the Jardin Majorelle. He entrusted me with coordinating the museum project. I was born in Morocco, hence am familiar with Berber culture. But there was a lot of work bringing myself up to speed, gathering an advisory board of experts, and conceptualizing a museum, admittedly a modest one, but one in line with international museum standards that would deal with an important and sensitive subject: the Berbers. The culture of the indigenous people of Morocco fascinated both Jacques Majorelle (A French painter and the original owner of the gardens) and later, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who collected many of the objects now showcased in the museum. It opened six years ago and has since welcomed hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic visitors. I’m very proud to have been a part of this project from the beginning.

CM: What’s your relationship to both the brand and YSL the designer? Have you always been a big admirer?
BD: I was born in the 70s. When I was a child, my mother wore Opium (the infamous YSL perfume) like many women at the time. My first contact with YSL was an olfactory one. It’s later that I started to be interested in clothing and realized the importance of YSL in fashion history. Beyond YSL’s designs, which I admire, the man himself seems almost a fictional character. It is no wonder he inspired two biopic movies released several months apart from one another in 2014. His work and his life are subjects of fascination.

Bougainvillea embroidered capes, SS1989 haute-couture collection © Fondation-Pierre-Bergé-Yves-Saint-Laurent. Photo Guy-Marineau.

CM: Do you have any favourite collections or pieces that Yves Saint Laurent designed?
BD: Fall-Winter 1976: the “Ballets Russes” collection. There’s also a perfectly cut and extremely chic white haute couture pantsuit from the Spring-Summer 1999 collection, which will be shown at the Marrakech museum.

CM: Can you talk us through the architecture of the building and what inspired it, such as the shapes and materials?
BD: Pierre Bergé asked the architects, Studio KO, to design a building that was contemporary and Moroccan at the same time, which is exactly what they’ve done. Contrasting curves and cube-shaped volumes are harmoniously combined; the proportions are pleasing and at 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 granito set alongside the red bricks perfectly situates the building within its environment, Marrakech, which is often referred to as the “Ochre City”.

CM: Can you tell us more about why colour is so important in the city?
BD: The colours and contrasts found in Morocco are quite special. All shapes absorb a special light under the winter skies of Marrakech. During springtime, the blooming flowers in the Jardin Majorelle are spectacular. YSL designed a cape, the Bougainvillea Cape – also included in the museum exhibition – which seems a 3D painting in purple and fuchsia hues. When hiking in the Atlas Mountains, the combination of the red earth, the snow and the sky is something unique to behold. In June, in the North, the dazzling white medina of Tangier poised above the deep blue of the Strait of Gibraltar is in and of itself a painter’s palette. I’m not surprised that Delacroix, Matisse, Majorelle and other artists, and fashion designers, were strongly attracted and inspired by this country.

CM: Can you 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?
BD: It is more than a museum; it’s a real cultural centre. Of course, the main hall of the museum will showcase the fashion work of Yves Saint Laurent, but there will also be a space for temporary exhibitions and an auditorium for concerts, performances, film screenings, colloquiums, and live in high definition broadcasts from prestigious worldwide opera houses and theatres. Then there is also the library of Arab-Andalusian Culture, and state of the art conservation departments.

Jardín Majorelle, Marrakech, Morocco.

CM: Lets speak about conservation – has it been tricky in the hot and arid climate in North Africa to work with delicate materials?
BD: The collection over 20,000 articles of clothing, accessories, photos, drawings and sketches currently safeguarded by the Fondation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. The museum in Marrakech has a state-of-the-art conservation facility in which we can store and preserve them. We employed the best people in the field to advise us on this important aspect of the museum; the experience and know-how of the foundation in Paris were invaluable assets as well. The museum’s basement is an impressive space, designed with optimal conservation conditions in mind. Optimal security, temperature and humidity will guarantee that the works remain in pristine condition. The conservation rooms will also 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 reserves), as well as an atelier for dust removal, and a laboratory for restoration work. The Yves Saint Laurent museum will be in the vanguard regarding conservation. We are looking forward to partnerships with other Moroccan and international institutions. 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.

CM: What will the spaces outside the permanent gallery be used for?
BD: The hall area will be devoted to temporary exhibitions with varied themes taken from the plastic arts, decorative arts, fashion, ethnography and botany. Anything that concerns the worlds of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, or the Kingdom of Morocco, will have its place at the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech. For example, we are looking forward to partnering with the Marrakech Biennale, in order to encourage the work of Moroccan and international artists. We will inaugurate this space with an exhibition entitled, The Morocco of Jacques Majorelle. It will showcase major works by this important Orientalist artist from Moroccan collections. The museum’s auditorium will also be the venue for a wide range of audio and visual events. We would like the museum to become a meeting place, one filled with discovery and debates, a cultural and social channel available to all, but above all to Moroccans.

CM: How will you decide what to house in the permanent space and will this change over time?
BD: It has to. For the Marrakech museum, we will acquire hundreds of haute couture outfits from the collection housed at the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. We will rotate them in the exhibition spaces over several years, but will eventually have to renew the pieces we show in Marrakech and alternate with the Paris collection. Firstly for conservation reasons, but also to provide the public with new things to discover at the museum, while remaining in sync with vibrant, evolving and modern ways of presenting an important chapter in the history of fashion.

CM: Can you tell us about putting the process of putting the library together?
BD: All the books were donated. Pierre Bergé has given us his impressive Islamic library gathered over the years. Madison Cox has donated his extensive botanical library. A large collection of books devoted to Berber culture has been constituted since the Berber Museum opened six years ago. And we are always looking to add more volumes dealing with the history of fashion.

mYSLm, Marrakech, Morocco.

CM: What is the curatorial process like for exhibiting clothes and accessories in a museum?
BD: We established an exhibition committee headed by Pierre Bergé, along with Dominique Deroche, who joined the YSL fashion house in 1966, and the YSL biographer Laurence Benaïm. We are privileged that all the departments at the foundation in Paris have been enthusiastically working with us. We proposed options, themes and models to Pierre Bergé that he validated over the months. Here in Marrakech the idea was to give the public the opportunity to of course discover, and rediscover YSL’s most iconic contributions to fashion, but in a way that is very rooted in Africa, especially Morocco.

CM: How much input has Pierre Bergé had in the museum’s growth?
BD: Pierre Bergé has totally committed himself to this project, month after month and meeting after meeting, and has signed off on every aspect of the museum himself, whether strategic or technical.

CM: How will the new museum in Marrakech work in conjunction with the new YSL museum in Paris?
BD: The Marrakech museum couldn’t exist without Paris. The collection is housed there, and the Paris foundation’s expertise over the years in terms of textile conservation has been invaluable. Regarding the exhibitions and programming, I will work hand in hand with the newly appointed director of collections in Paris, Aurélie Samuel, as well as Olivier Flaviano, director of the Paris museum. Our goal is to develop complimentary programming between the two institutions.

CM: How much of the exhibition schedule is planned so far?
BD: A main hall will permanently showcase approximately fifty YSL models, the most famous among them being the Mondrian dress and “le smoking” (tuxedo suit), but also rarely seen models chosen from the extensive collection in Paris. The museum scenographer Christophe Martin has imagined a modular space, where audiovisual elements will play an important role alongside the clothing. However, Yves Saint Laurent will be present everywhere, whether in a gallery showcasing YSL and photography, or in the foyer of the auditorium, where YSL’s work in the theatre, ballet, cinema and music hall will be highlighted. Although the auditorium will be used for other events, we will also project films of YSL fashion shows, as well as documentaries and films dealing with the couturier and his work.

CM: What challenges have you faced opening the museum in Morocco?
BD: Building a state-of-the-art museum on this scale, in twenty months, has not been an easy task. This project has its human element: dozens of specialists have participated, including architects, scenographers, consultants, technicians, acoustic engineers, etc. The museum could not have been built in record time without a coherent team sharing the same vision. On a personal level, I must say that I’ve learned a lot.

CM: Will the Majorelle Gardens change in any way?
BD: The landscape designer Madison Cox is also general manager of the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, and of the Fondation Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech. He has played a leading role in the museum project. He has been in charge of the Jardin Majorelle for the past ten years, continuously improving it in every possible aspect: safeguarding the garden’s heritage while remaining attentive to design and ecological concerns, and implementing strategies aimed at visitors to the garden (he recently redesigned the Rue Yves Saint Laurent which provides access to both the Jardin Majorelle and the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech). He is very committed to the Foundation and the garden; I am sure he will continue improving the Jardin Majorelle, both for our employees and our many visitors.

Björn Dahlström.

CM: Do you think museums and institutions often attempt to do too much? Often there is such an emphasis on being multidisciplinary and varied and having such an impact that the original ideas and message can be lost – how will you work around this?
BD: We decided we would first stick to our core disciplines at the Fondation Jardin Majorelle: Islamic and Moroccan culture, fashion and botany. I admit that this is quite broad if understood in an interdisciplinary manner, but we are doing our utmost to remain focused.

CM: What has been the biggest milestone in the project so far?
BD: In a few days the general contractor will be delivering the finished building, which as you can imagine, is an important and emotional moment for us.

CM: What are the long-term goals for the museum?
BD: We want to become a preeminent museum in Morocco and worldwide, and an important social and cultural centre for the city of Marrakech and the Moroccan people. The Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech is part of a broader strategy undertaken by the Fondation Jardin Majorelle. The foundation is looking very much to the future. The establishment of this museum is an important milestone, but certainly not the last.

CM: What are the core values of the Fondation?
BD: A combination of values that both Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé have defended over the years. We are all doing our best to keep the YSL magic, sense of style and excellence alive. A respect for the people we work with and the people we welcome is vitally important too.

CM: What would you like to personally bring to the YSL Museum?
BD: The spirit of the couturier. To me, Yves Saint Laurent is the embodiment of modernity, liberty, audacity and style. This is what I’d like the visitors to feel when visiting the museum.