It is ever more rare to find high quality, real craftsmanship based on traditional routes either through apprenticeships or handmade in-house. One of the islands of skilled hope today remains in Marrakech, where traditional crafts still echo in the objects around. Buying into a human touch in handmade products is a mindful purchase of a coveted craft piece conveying a meaning. I spoke to the wonderful Rebecca Wilford, the Australian co-founder of Hamimi about the role of local women in her accessory and decoration design brand. Passionate about Moroccan art and crafts the design brain behind Hamimi reinvents them for the new millennium.
Rebecca Wilford: “Depth, integrity and honesty. This is where we start in our design.”
Showing me through her neat townhouse atelier cum showroom secluded far away from the buzz of the medina, Rebecca vividly embodies her work ethics: “We strive to do the best quality that is handmade with a human touch. You can feel that a person has made our bags.” Even though Morocco has a “Ministry of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development”, and a recent report by the World Bank observed that “Morocco displays today one of the most liberal and progressive legal frameworks in the MENA regions in terms of gender equality”, still, “women’s economic participation in Morocco—at 26 percent—is among the lowest in the world, and has not changed since 1990”. Further; “Active economic participation in turn also contributes to expand women’s agency and choice, increasing their voice and ability to influence society and challenge established norms that limit women’s rights and hinder economic and social development. Access to health services is particularly poor—and highly biased in terms of income—for women in rural areas.”
Nation-wide reforms and relevant law enforcement take time, therefore the private sector can play a life-changing role for women’s equality in Morocco. Rebecca highlights: “I wanted to work with women, local crafts, but to elevate them. Like the crochet lamps, inspired by the shape of a tajine pot, their skills of skullcap crocheting or the jewellery – it’s more design using crafts.” Hamimi not only provides work for women who would otherwise be locked in house works without a pay, but acknowledges their talent on their paper tags attached to each handmade product. Such an endorsement may also inspire other women to seek work. In an environment controlled by male decisions, public approval of female work might shift the entrenched stereotypical attitudes.
A family studio with integrity
In a country lacking child-care support facilities, working from home or in a small localised community is for uneducated women an excellent opportunity for their empowerment. “No creativity without freedom. The start of freedom is the end of ignorance”, adds the calligraphy abstract Moroccan artist and the husband of Rebecca Larbi Cherkaoui as we pass through his own creative space in the same building. Now, I had the opportunity to taste the Moroccan hospitality and witness how work and life can be perfectly balanced in this artistic family connected through the umbilical cord of love. Rebecca adds: “I love traveling, it makes me happy and I’m creating the freedom to do it.” The studio is where the couple nests their productivity and their son, glued on a Tv screen in a cosy, deep chair enjoys watching cartoons while they work. “He used to play around, loving it here, but now he is more entertained by that box”, says Rebecca. “Everything changes, including kids”, I say as my realism brings her motherly tenure in perspective of an outsider.
She is the design brain behind the handmade and sourced in Morocco brand. Since her Moroccan husband Larbi is an established Marrakeshi artist with a profound knowledge of local culture, his insights enrich our discussion. “In Morocco we say that if you can make something by hand you make a living. Once you bring geometry into handwork you start to produce, not craft.”
Born and living in Marrakech, Larbi wholeheartedly loves the Red City. His passion for the local generational inheritance of craftsmanship heats his voice and seems to feed his own zealous pursuit of art. One of the Marrakech galleries exhibiting his contemporary graphic canvases, the David Bloch Gallery wrote about his oeuvre: “Emotional writing emptied of all aestheticism, translated energetically into pure abstract forms”, as he “liberated the Arabic letter from its orthodoxy to make it a universal sign, inscribing it in an abstract optical space”. Personally, I see depth of darkness and an emphasis on texture in his recent works, some of which were painted on stretched goats skin (leather was used in calligraphy traditionally) that he treats to a desired size in uniform tone. Using either the animal skin, paper or old computer circuit boards, Larbi paints them with henna, that changes colour depending on how long it’s left on the surface before it’s washed, and he also uses an oil stick. His is a “gestural calligraphy on large canvas. It’s very physical”, says his wife. He collected old Arabic manuscripts in Marrakesh (some almost 500 years old), gluing them on his canvases painted over or around. Yet another form of plastic art.
The French have tapped the local talent, but many other foreigners were enchanted with the Moroccan bohemia. The majority of start up fashion and accessories brands founded by foreign entrepreneurs are based in and around Marrakech. Right upon touchdown Rebecca had fallen in love with the Red City and the tribal ancestry, the colours and crafts of which inspire the Hamimi design. The dessert, the ancient city walls, the earth are reflected in each handmade item. “I take the existing designs, often Berber, and make them more contemporary while being handmade. It’s a juxtaposition of ideas“, adds Rebecca.
At first re-designing local kaftans into more contemporary fashion, later with her Brisbane-based brother Alex they founded Hamimi. The duo complements each other since they “share the same sensibilities.” Originally an interior design brand exported to Australia. The challenges of shipping safely large pieces of furniture refined her focus on more lightweight, less fragile items.
Today, Hamimi design crochet lamps, bijouterie and handbags are embellished by women working from their homes just outside of the city. They sell globally, the only marketing being their gorgeous Instagram snaps (almost 12k followers). Unlike most of dishonest brands out there, Hamimi’s story is real and holistic for its social role in women’s empowerment. Their repertoire includes Tougana crochet jewellery, Enhass brass jewellery, colourful crochet disc tassel earrings, local earth hued Malika crochet lamps, hand-stitched repurposed carpet Baraka handbags, leather shoulder bags and belts embroidered with Sarma, while the Beni Mellal shoulder bag and Handira backpack are made with an authentic vintage Moroccan “handira” wedding blanket. Each bag is little unique because of this artisanal and repurposed nature. “You must work with an open mind, since they often don’t write, so I need to communicate with them in a visual way. Sometimes the mistake is the best bit of that, you just need to be open, not having a fixed mind is great for design.” Hamimi also engages traditional dyers in the souk, some using natural henna. Brass or silver compose the nickel-free jewellery, and for example the typically Moroccan handcrafted ‘sinsla’ chain that she is wearing on the photo I took is woven into earrings, chains, and bracelets.
From Marrakech through Dubai, Australia to LA, you can find Hamimi design at stores, online shops, and the interiors. The Malika Crochet Lights embellish the restaurant and bar at the Kimpton Rowen Palm Springs Hotel. I discovered their bags and lamps at the 33 Rue Majorelle concept store [pictured above] a few steps away from the new YSL Museum in Gueliz.
“I enjoy being involved in the whole process and seeing how each piece comes about”, so Rebecca paints the paper tags attached to each Hamimi item with watercolours. The postcard size drawings of the designs remind you of the creativity involved in making each item. You will get it with your purchase.
Hamimi business is a model for responsible fashion. By using local crafts, materials and dyes together with the packaging and fair wages, the lightweight Hamimi products have transparent production cycles, plus do not waste as much carbon as do most of the multi-country mass-produced one-offs that crowd our post WW wardrobes. Knowing the whole story, you will treasure the objects with that special mindset.