For many designers alike, their work is tightly scheduled, dedicating most of their time and energy to the big yearly spring and autumn fashion weeks. However, this is not the case for Marrakech (Morocco) designer Artsi Ifrah of Maison Artc. Being from the Northern region of Africa and being a self-taught designer offers him a certain kind of creative freedom rooted in the love of his culture.
Maison Artc’s design aesthetic can be described in one word: lively. That is because its core inspiration is indeed life. In fact, Ifrah is dedicated to showcasing the world he lives around through his unique, one-of-a-kind pieces. With powerful messages and symbols, grand silhouettes and vibrant colours and patterns, Maison Artc’s position within the fashion world is distinctive, just as is Ifrah’s opinions and takes on fashion.
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You were born in Israel and have moved around during your lifetime to Amsterdam and Paris, but eventually decided to settle in Marrakech (Morocco) to live and work. Why is that?
Because I am Moroccan and after all the travels that I did, I decided to go back to my own land, my country.
There’s no place like home.
Yes, there is no place like home. It's home in many ways. It's home in my heart, it's home of my feelings, it’s home of my work, it’s home of my creativity, it’s home of my language. It's just the right thing to do.
What are some of your favourite places in Morocco to draw inspiration from?
Morocco is made up of many cities, and each city has very a different significance. I'm the most drawn to Marrakech and Tangier. But all of Morocco is absolutely beautiful and inspiring. There is a lot of influence from many, many places. It's like you always find something new, which is super interesting.
Do you move around a lot between Marrakech and Tangier?
I move around everywhere. But the one place that I feel the most connected to will be Marrakech first and then Tangier because they are the ones that really inspire me the most.
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You were a ballet dancer for 20 years before starting your fashion design career. What prompted this transition? Do you still find inspiration from the dance world to create your designs?
The link between me as a dancer and as a creator is that identity is my work. I never actually work, I dance. And as long as I dance, I will do it. I feel when I'm working and when I'm creating, it’s effortless. And it's exactly how I felt when I was a dancer. So I think this is the most profound connection that I have with my work right now. The difference is that when I was a dancer, to show it all over again, I had to dance it all over again. And when I create and I have a piece or I create a photo, I can look at it in perspective and always go back to it and it will still be there. So I think it's just very wonderful. It was very nice moving from dancing to creativity. But still, it's in the same place because I always feel like I'm dancing.
Your designs could be described as full of life, making use of many vibrant colours and patterns, often adorned with floral pieces or writing. Where does this aesthetic stem from?
I'm creating one-of-a-kind pieces, so my freedom is not limited. I can do whatever I want, and I'm not thinking when I'm creating about who would like it. I think there are so many people around the world and each one has something that is inspiring to them. So as I create one-of-a-kind pieces, I think that is what makes them so special and so full of life. I always go for culture, which is very important for people. I always go for emotion and memories. It's not about creating products. It's about creating art, beauty and a fashion aesthetic in a way that will always be alive. I'm actually trying to make it come to life no matter what.
One of your recurring motifs is the eye, seen on many garments and at times alongside your brand logo. What is the story behind it?
Without the eyes, we cannot see my work. That is the story.
Your pieces are definitely eye-catching, with garments resembling sculptural pieces more so than clothing. They are often also decorated with powerful phrasings, such as: “In a society that profits from your doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.” Do you consider yourself more of an artist rather than a fashion designer?
I consider myself at this moment – and it's taken me a long time to understand – a cultural designer. I don't think I'm a fashion designer. I think it's a huge difference. It took me a long time to understand the idea behind it. The source of fashion is culture. It was always the case we just never really understood it. I try through my culture to bring the past to the present and to keep going onto the future in a way that will always be relevant, educational, important and sustainable. None of my garments are actually something that I create, it all already exists. I'm just creating it in a new way that will give it a new life and show things that we don't usually see, or don't pay attention to. I want us to put the spotlight on them in a way that makes you think “wait a minute, it's actually beautiful,” and not necessarily old or not relevant.
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All of your designs are one-of-a-kind pieces made out of vintage pieces or old fabrics passed down from big fashion houses. Can you tell me a little bit about your creative process? Does a design idea first come into your head or do you first look at the fabrics and then start designing based on what you have available?
I'm travelling a lot around the world and I'm going to a lot of flea markets, vintage shops, antique shops, dealers. First of all, I need to see what I have in front of me. So what I do is I collect it, buy it or I create it. Then I bring it to my atelier in Marrakesh. Then I open everything with the two beautiful women that are working with me, Fatiha and Samira. It's a very small house – in the end, that is what makes it so remarkable. I have only two people who create those pieces: I have Fatiha, who does all the handmade embroideries, and I have Samira, who does the pattern and actually stitches all the pieces.
We, all together, are like a very small tribe of a family. We sit together and we look at the vintage pieces. Then I have a mannequin and I start to play with it, with what the fabric allows me to do or what the story that I want to tell allows me. This is actually the process. It's very intuitive. I don't sketch my pieces because I want to stay open till the end of the process. So usually we start with the garment that I found or the pieces that I found, and then the story behind it, and then we create whatever comes from it, and, of course, I do the photography after this.
So it’s a very hands-on process.
We are evolving, and I let the piece evolve while I'm working on it. I don't have any rules because I never studied fashion. It allows me also to be free no matter what. I think this is the most important part, the freedom of my creativity. Because I do one-of-a-kind pieces, it allows me to do whatever I want at any given time.
How does this work as a business model? Do you work on commission or is that something you are not so bothered with, preferring to invest your time and energy into distinctive pieces that tell a story?
I never work on commission. I don't think I ever will because I'm not a seamstress and I'm not a tailor. I'm a designer. What I'm offering to my client is my universe in a piece. I tried in the past to work on commission, but it didn't work out because it doesn't add up to the expectation of the client and me. It's something that I'm trying not to put into my work. So I create many, many pieces. They are available to my clients and my clients buy them as they are. And if they fit them, they can buy them. If it doesn't fit them and if there is a place to adjust it, we will but if there isn’t, it will have to be somebody else. That's why they are one-of-a-kind pieces, they belong to one person. But this is the process. This is how I would like to continue working.
Whoever was made to wear that piece will eventually find that piece.
Exactly, it will belong to them. I will always keep my universe as a designer because I think that's what people actually want from me. They want you, they want a part of your universe and this is actually what I'm offering them. I don't consider Maison Artc a business. It is a business, but I'm not considering it in my creative process as such. The money does not interfere with my creative process because it's not the idea behind it. The idea is to show that creativity has a value exactly like art. The more I grow, the more people really get it. It's really wonderful. Honestly, I'm super, super happy with it.
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You recently won the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize for evening wear, receiving financial support and special mentorship as well as having MatchesFashion stock your pieces. What does receiving this award mean to you?
First of all, it's a big honour, especially coming from the Middle East North Africa region because this is my place. It’s the place where I'm working, it's the place where my culture is, where my language is. I was not aiming to get any financial support or mentorship. I got there because I wanted the recognition for my work, and to see actually if what I'm doing is valuable enough.
It means to me that I got the stamp of this prize as my worth and that I'm actually doing something that is right, and it is the future of fashion. Part of my work is not only to create beautiful pieces that have to do with our culture and with the MENA region, but it is also to be educational. For a lot of people who want to become a designer, they don't want to be famous because of what they do, but they want to let the pieces that they're making and what they are doing be valuable enough for people to have it be educational, that is the dream itself. Everything is possible in life. I come from a place where I never studied anything. I taught myself everything. That is what elevates me to become that person. It’s a huge honour. I'm so overwhelmed by it, I didn't really expect it. I know that I do something different, but I didn't expect that I would get this kind of recognition because I have so much respect for the people who chose me. I am understanding that what I'm doing is not for nothing. It has just pushed me to create even more, which I'm super overwhelmed and happy about. So I'm very thrilled, honoured and speechless in many ways.
Your work was recently part of London’s Victoria & Albert museum’s exhibition Africa Fashion, a topic which has become more and more relevant in modern fashion discourses. How do you imagine the future of African fashion?
If the global scene would see us as equals, and allow us not to become a niche but become a part of global fashion, this will be our biggest achievement. What Africa does for fashion and the inspiration that it brings has to have global recognition. I think that is a great beginning. I believe that Africa and the MENA region are the future of everything because those regions are the ones whose culture doesn't stay in museums but is alive in the streets. This is super, super important for many creators, to continue being inspired. It looks like the best is yet to come regarding Africa. I'm super excited to not only be a part of it but also to be one of the people that influence this kind of change.
We're seeing a lot more African fashion designers breaking into the Western world and showing at London Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week. But hopefully one day there will be a Marrakech Fashion Week or a Cairo Fashion Week. Who knows.
I'm not sure about Fashion Weeks because I think fashion should not exist in weeks or months or years. I think it exists regardless of those things. What I think is valuable for Africa and what Africa can bring to the table is that Africa does not bring products, Africa brings culture. That makes the difference. It should be recognised and valued for that. This is what is missing in Western culture because we don't have a culture in the West. Of course, there is creativity. There is beautiful creativity, but it's always related to the market and to the branding and to the product, which Africa doesn't have. I think that's why Africa is also so interesting for so many people. Hopefully, it will stay the same and make a difference in the Western world.
You once said if you could dress anyone it would be God. What do you imagine creating for God? What would He be dressed in?
All the creative universes that everybody ever made in one piece.
Lastly, what are some of your goals for the future of Maison Artc?
Now that I got the recognition that I was hoping for so many years – and I'm very happy to get it – I think this is the beginning, the best is yet to come. My goal is to continue elevating my creativity to a higher level, hopefully, to be international, and make a difference in Africa and in the MENA region. To inspire many other creative people who come from there, and also to collaborate with more people, so we can actually all be a big tribe of creativity and future, in a very positive way. I'm actually very excited about my future. It seems like it's going into a place that I was really aiming for so long. So, of course, the only way is up. What can I tell you?
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