Hanging out in Casablanca with soulful rebel Amine Bendriouich, one of the stars of the upcoming Fashion Cities Africa exhibition

Travelling around Casablanca with Amine Bendriouich is not an exercise in haste. At every store, café, bar and street corner, he is greeted by friendly faces and open arms. Moreish banter ensues. Cigarettes are smoked. There’s laughing. Then the day takes an unexpected turn as someone suggests drinks. As one of Morocco’s most recognisable and revolutionary designers, and always cutting a dash in one of his signature androgynous outfits paired with a Dali-esque moustache, Bendriouich has a magnetic personality that attracts attention wherever we go. 

He is gracefully hosting me in his city for Fashion Cities Africa, the upcoming exhibition at Brighton Museum, and accompanying book (read more here). Over the course of a week he’s introduced me to every mover and shaker in the creative scene, from established designers Said Marouf, Zineb Joundy and Zhor Raïs, to up and comers Yassine Morabite, Ghitta Laskrouif and Jnoun, to fashion journalist Mouna Belgrini and craft couturier Amina Agueznay – all of which now help to make up the FCA Casablanca focus. But arguably, it’s Bendriouich who is shaking things up more than most.

Born in the mid 1980s, he grew up in Marrakech, studied fashion at École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode (ESMOD) in Tunisia and moved to Casablanca in 2007, where he started out as part of a collective selling T-shirts at the Boulevard Festival. One design took the popular slang word hmar (meaning jackass) and turned it into a tongue in cheek motif reminiscent of the Puma logo. It became hugely sought after and he was offered his first catwalk show at FestiMode Casablanca Fashion Week soon after. “Instead of models, I cast punks and rappers – anyone alien or marginal - and made an anti-trends statement with a collection made in the city’s slums.” 

He launched the nonchalantly titled Amine Bendriouich Couture & Bullshit (AB-CB) the following year. At the same time he set up Contemporary Moroccan Roots, a multi-disciplinary event fusing fashion, art, film and music that brought together a diverse crowd for the first time in Casablanca and grew into an influential happening. In 2009 he won the Goethe-Institut CreateEurope award to work in Berlin for a year and has been living between Casablanca and Berlin ever since. He’s shown in Amsterdam, New York, Niger, Dubai, London, Tunis and Lagos (where he and I first met in 2011 for Arise Magazine Fashion Week – within five minutes of greeting we were downing shots – but that’s another story). He’s sat for a painting by Kehinde Wiley and in front of the lens of his mentor Hassan Hajjaj. He’s dressed Keziah Jones, Skrillex and Massive Attack and collaborated with Jonathan Mannion, Ebon Heath and Elyas Khan. He’s even tried his hand at teaching at Casa Moda academy in Casablanca.

And lest we forget the clothes. AB-CB is less of a brand and more a way of life. “It’s an attitude in fabrics and comes from the stimulus I see on the streets. A uniform for non-conformists,” he explains. “It doesn’t follow trends or seasons. AB-CB believes in rock & roll – the music, courage and urban heroes. Bob, Jim, Janis, James and Michael.” The aesthetic is unisex and simple, taking its cues as much from Moroccan traditions as global counter culture tribes. He might mix sarouls and djellebas with wax print blazers and baseball caps. "My work questions identity. I’m African, Arab, Berber, Tuareg and Moroccan. I belong to people around the world and them to me. I address historical and contemporary Moroccan society, but also relate on a universal level."

Previous collections have referenced everything from the colourful plumes of Ghanaian birds to the irony of doing winter collections for African consumers in hot climates. Last year’s Ich Bin Ein Berberliner (a play on JFK’s famous speech) stemmed from a trip to the Sahara desert with the soul musician Oum to art direct her album. “I felt this cool energy being near where my ancestors are from. I sought out the local craftswomen, who made carpets and embroideries, and spent several weeks working with them.” The clothes imagine a Berber tribe being teleported to Berlin. Minimal black silhouettes are covered with imperfect embroideries in neon brights.

"My work questions identity. I’m African,
Arab, Berber, Tuareg and Moroccan. I belong
to people around the world and them to me"

More recently his collection In Go(l)d We Trust saw him through to the final of the Style.com Arabia DDFC Fashion Prize 2015. His sporty shirt dresses covered in bullion prints and shot through with black silk were a comment on “today’s biggest religion, money. It’s a reflection constructed around one of the stereotypes that represent Arab culture - oil, petro dollars and gold.” And currently he’s developing his NUJU (No Underwear, Just Underground) concept. “It’s a free and open project that started in Berlin and will move to London and New York to work with people, music and art that inspires me.  It’s not about the rules or a fixed plan, it’s about the purpose and what we love.”

Currently hosting a pop up store in London and curating the suitably-titled Dance Or Fuck Off party at Sketch on 23 April, Bendriouich keeps his DIY spirit very much alive despite his growing acclaim. “When I started out in Morocco there was no market for my work. All the doors were closed. So I made my own door and one day people will be queuing in front of it,” he proclaims. “Already I can see my influence on Moroccan society. I took a stand against the clichés of camels, teacups and caftans.  People thought I was crazy. Now there’s been an evolution. I’m on national TV and there is a contemporary fashion scene. If this progress keeps going we’ll have brands from Morocco recognised for their excellence internationally. This is my hope.” As-Salaam-Alaikum.

Amine Bendriouich’s pop-up store is at 35 Shepherd Street, Mayfair, London, until 23 April 2016. Dance or Fuck Off in collaboration with Playground is at Sketch Parlour on 23 April 2016 with Habibi Funk, Jon Rau of BBE Music and gnawa master Simo Lagnaoui

Fashion Cities Africa is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery from 30 April 2016 to 8 January 2017

Photography Deborah Benzaquen
Words Helen Jennings

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