Fadila el Gadi: The Middle East's Best Kept Secret

Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Sebastian Bottcher
On the rooftop of a private riad, Fadila el Gadi looks out onto the ancient port city of Sale in Morocco wearing a canary yellow kaftan of her own design.
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Sebastian Bottcher
Young students at Fadila's embroidery school in Sale.
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Sebastian Bottcher
The Moroccan designer at home in her ground floor design studio.
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Sebastian Bottcher
Fadila trying on a gold brocade jacket in her chic Rabat boutique.
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A best-kept secret and Saint Laurent protégée, Fadila el Gadi is on a mission to transform children’s lives while preserving her country’s unique heritage. Bazaar meets the Moroccan designer to find out how.

“I’ve always been curious to know how people find their way to me,” says the elegant and discreet Fadila el Gadi over tea on the terrace of her villa overlooking the rolling hills of her native Salé; an ancient port city in north-western Morocco on the banks of the Bou Regreg river opposite the capital Rabat. For close to two decades the Moroccan designer’s name has been whispered amongst the chic and powerful of New York, London, Paris and Riyadh. In addition to a discerning clientele of Saudi and Moroccan princesses, she has dressed a coterie of notable women and style icons such as Marisa Berenson, Paloma Picasso, Barbara Streisand, Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton. But don’t expect Fadila to divulge this roster of influential names, as she remains resolutely tight-lipped when it comes to her list of clients.

Today the heart of her mini-empire lies in her two-story Spanish-style villa, surrounded by a verdant garden nestled in the countryside beyond Salé’s borders. It’s in this bucolic setting that the globetrotting designer chose to set up her design studio on the villa’s ground floor, with her living quarters above. “I’m a lot like my father in that I’m a nomad who loves to travel, but I always return to Salé. It’s where my atelier, artisans and family are and the city continues to inspire me,” says Fadila, seated in her design studio where framed Ottoman era textiles hang on the wall.

Fadila in her flagship Rabat boutique, which she decorated with custom tiles and an antique chandelier she found in a Paris flea market.

Photographed by Sebastian Bottcher

“It’s a house that I built slowly over time, as it was always my dream to have a space to live and work in calm and solitude,” notes the designer, whose living space is an eclectic mélange of colorful art and souvenirs from her travels to Doha, Bali, Cairo, Panama, Beirut, Vietnam and Abu Dhabi to name a few. “I have a lot of artisanal objects that I’ve acquired during my travels, as I’m interested in learning about local crafts wherever I go. I will often find similarities with traditional Moroccan crafts, which shows that we’re not so different from each other after all,” says Fadila, who covered her walls with the work of Moroccan artist friends such as the Paris-based Chourouk Hriech, with whom she collaborated on textile designs for her line.

Fadila’s interest in fashion began as a 10-year-old in the early ‘80s, when her mother sent her to apprentice in Salé’s embroidery workshops hidden within the narrow streets of the medina. In 1990, she earned a scholarship to attend a small design school in Rabat. “Shortly after I graduated in 1992, I set up my own atelier and began designing small collections under my name, but I had to close my business a few months later,” says the designer, who put her career on hold when her father and eldest brother died tragically in a car accident. “Family is very important to me and I felt a responsibility to support my mother and eight siblings after my father and brother passed away,” says Fadila, who decided to open a boutique off the fashionable Place Pietri in Rabat, selling designer prêt-à-porter to a mostly western clientele.

Fadila in a modern kaftan of her own design standing in the Moorish splendour of a private riad.

Photographed by Sebastian Bottcher

It was during an evening at a friend’s house in Tangier that Fadila would meet Yves Saint Laurent in 1998; an encounter that would spark a lifelong friendship and reignite her passion for design. “I can’t explain why things happen at a certain moment, but when I met him I was at a point in my life when I was thinking about designing again,” she recalls of Saint Laurent, who initially asked her to model in his upcoming couture show. “I honestly thought he was joking at first, until someone from his team called me a few weeks later to arrange for me to visit his atelier on the Avenue Marceau. I hesitated because I had just returned from a trip to Cuba and put on a little weight, but he insisted I come to Paris to do some fittings,” says Fadila, who saw her place in the design studio and not on a runway. “Although he had created a dress for me to wear, I couldn’t fit into it in time for the show, but watching the master at work was the best learning experience for me. He was very much a mentor and encouraged me to continue designing and to persevere.”

By 2000, she was creating two collections a year, which she would sell during trips to Italy. “It was around 2002 that I felt confident enough to close the store and focus full time again on designing,” says Fadila, who continued to slowly rebuild her business until she officially re-launched her label in 2006. “What really pushed me to succeed was my daughter Narjisse, who remains my ultimate muse,” confides the designer, whose label is now sold in her boutiques in Rabat, Tangiers, Marrakech and soon Casablanca, where she is preparing to open a new store later this year. “For the longest time, I wanted to create my own universe through my boutiques. A place where my clients could come and shop in a very intimate and Parisian setting,” says Fadila, as she walked through the door of her chic Rabat store at 120 Avenue Allal Ben Abdallah.

Fadila with her daughter and muse Narjisse sporting the designer's chic kaftans, while watching the setting sun on the rooftop of a private riad.

Photographed by Sebastian Bottcher

Not surprisingly, she also had a hand in the boutique’s design, down to sourcing its sculpted antique chandelier and doorknobs from a Paris flee market. “This is my favorite part,” says the designer, pointing towards the back of the boutique where a wood marquetry wall conceals a discreet changing room and hidden drawers displaying handcrafted accessories. Among her bestsellers are her coveted collection of espadrilles, which tell a unique cross-cultural story. “They were born out of a collaboration between my artisans in Salé, who embellish the canvas with delicate needlepoint embroideries. They were then assembled at one of the last espadrille workshops in southwest France, still practicing this craft using natural materials,” says Fadila, who divides her time between Morocco and Paris, where she also set up a showroom at 8 bis Avenue Percier in the 8th Arrondissement.

Despite all her achievements as a designer, Fadila’s most lasting legacy may be the embroidery school she opened in September 2016 in her hometown of Salé. “I was determined to realize this vision on my own,” says the designer, while driving towards her embroidery school, which is housed in a modern building located in a residential neighborhood. Inside, six girls and seven boys, ranging in age from 13-18, are busy practicing embroidery techniques under the watchful eye of sewing instructor Sandra Charteau. For Fadila, the school has a much larger mission, which goes beyond simply reviving Morocco’s traditional embroidery techniques. “It’s very much a place of hope and second chances for young people who dropped out of school or couldn’t function in the mainstream education system. My hope is that this kind of training gives them a sense of purpose and direction in their lives,” says the designer, whose school is all the more extraordinary for being free to those who join. In addition to spending several hours a day learning the traditional art of Moroccan embroidery, students also take academic and language courses as well as participate in cultural activities.

Fadila and Narjisse in the designer's eclectic home filled with objects and art from her travels.

Photographed by Sebastian Bottcher

“Most of these students will train with us for two years with the hope that they can move on to full-time jobs as artisans or start up small businesses of their own,” adds Fadila, pointing to 18-year-old Nadia, one her gifted students who has already begun making a little money outside of class. “There is a demand for these craftsmen and artisans, who for many years were on the brink of dying out because fewer young people wanted to pursue it as a career,” says the designer, who was constantly looking for trained staff to join her studio. “It’s a dream of mine to someday have enough funding to help these students set up their own workshops to supply couture houses with embroideries,” says Fadila, who is currently searching for long-term financial support and donations to maintain her school. “My biggest focus right now is ensuring its future, which could serve as a model for similar institutions across Morocco,” says the Moroccan designer, as she continues to harness the power of fashion to support young lives and give them a chance at a better future.

Read Alex Aubry’s full interview in the June issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, available on iPad and in-store now.

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Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Sebastian Bottcher
On the rooftop of a private riad, Fadila el Gadi looks out onto the ancient port city of Sale in Morocco wearing a canary yellow kaftan of her own design.
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Sebastian Bottcher
Young students at Fadila's embroidery school in Sale.
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Sebastian Bottcher
The Moroccan designer at home in her ground floor design studio.
Morocco, Kaftans, Chourouk Hriech, Yves Saint Laurent, Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, Fadila el Gadi
Sebastian Bottcher
Fadila trying on a gold brocade jacket in her chic Rabat boutique.