By M. Angela Jansen
Visiting Scholar in the Research Department at the V&A
The main aim of the Moroccan Fashion project at the V&A is to establish a representative collection of Moroccan men and women’s urban fashion from the postcolonial period to the present. The 1960s and 70s especially have been a high priority area, because these garments are not (yet) considered historically important and are therefore rapidly disappearing. With no archives or historical records available, information is largely gathered through intensive field research and in particular collecting the life stories of elderly respondents.
This is how I came to meet a lady in 2013 who is today 94 years old and who was the first person to talk to me about the Moroccan fashion designer Naima Bennis (1940-2008). In thirteen years of research, I had never come across this designer and had it not been for this elderly lady, I might have never heard of her and she might have remained unknown forever.
Through this elderly lady I was able to locate Naima’s daughters , who were surprised by my interest in their mother after all these years but who were happy to pass on her legacy. Born in 1940 as the last of seven children, Naima Bennis managed to persuade her father to allow her to go to school and attended the Lycée des Jeunes Filles in Casablanca, which was run by French Catholic nuns. This is where she learned to make clothes, and in 1966 she opened her first boutique in the international Hilton Hotel in Rabat. Here she proposed her own designs of modern Moroccan fashion that she designed and created in the atelier behind the boutique. While she did all of her own designing and cutting, she employed a number of craftsmen and seamstresses to carry out the sewing and decorating.
Like her peers, she initially targeted the international clientèle of the Hotel as well as expats and diplomats stationed in Rabat. Her designs testified to an interesting play between tradition and innovation, between local and global – she took, for example, antique passementerie decorations from old caftans and applied them to new garments. Also, besides French haute couture fabrics, she would use characteristic Moroccan materials such as the fine woollen weave bzioui used in male garments and apply them to elegant female garments. She also became renowned for transforming the male cape bernous into an elegant outer garment for women. The black cape became her trademark design.
Following her success, she opened three more boutiques in the same Hilton Hotel selling garments, jewellery, crafts and perfume. According to her daughters, at some point she had up to ten employees and she even exported her designs to North America and Europe. She was also invited on several occasions to show her collections abroad, including in Tunisia and the Arabian Peninsula. Due to her international success, she was soon well-known amongst Moroccan high society, especially in Rabat and Casablanca.
In 1987, circumstances lead to the closing of her boutiques and she passed away in 2008. Most surprisingly, her daughters kept very little from their mother after her passing, except for one of the capes she was famous for, which they donated to the V&A (see ME.4-2015 above). The elderly lady who first told me about her was also generous enough to donate a number of garments by Naima, which have also become part of the V&A collection (see ME.16-2015 below). It is highly valuable to collect from people who are able to tell the stories behind the garments first-hand, and even have images to enrich these stories.
In Autumn 2014 the V&A was contacted by curators from the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, then planning their Global 1960s exhibition, and were subsequently asked to lend two pieces by Naima Bennis to feature in the exhibition as well as the catalogue. This exhibition opened in October 2015, with these two garments mounted and displayed to the public for the first time. Now Naima is again internationally recognised as a Moroccan fashion designer.
This illustrates how important it is to collect and document Moroccan fashion and to preserve this heritage, which might otherwise go unknown and lost forever.
Read more about the Moroccan Fashion project
Read a previous blog about this project