Interview


Valérie Barkowski


Marrakech - 3 December 2014

03

Valérie Barkowski is a strategic consultant and creative director for lifestyle brands. She’s got a passion for artisans from all over the world and has been in love with Marrakech for over two decades. Who else could have been more adequate to interview?

On your career

How did it all begin and what steps did you take to get to where you are now?

I studied at Saint Luke’s in Ghent, Belgium (I am Belgian) where I studied Fine Art for three years followed by Interior Design. I did not complete my studies because I found the system restrictive. I then began to travel.

I started with Italy, 3 months, Canarian Islands (6 months), India (3 months), than I seetled in Belgium for a few years and finally discovered Morocco in 1992 when I spent several weeks in a pottery workshop at Safi. I painted unique dishes there. Russia followed where I began to make bed linen embroidered by babushkas from Moscow’s countryside out of necessity. And then I returned to Morocco and then went to India…

 

Have you ever had any role models or mentors?

I consider Line Vautrin, Isabelle Eberhardt and the works of Ayn Rand to be my greatest influences which also remain a point of reference for me. These three individuals are completely different but have significant similarities which include: a liberal mind-set, integrity and independence.

 

On creating brands for others

How did that come about and what are you currently engaged in?

I myself previously created two brands in Morocco in 1997 One of them was Mia Zia which involved fashion accessories while the other was V. Barkowski which involved household linen. The two brands employed the same key words: Handmade – colour – voyage – quality. Both brands enjoyed immediate success with a few hundred retailers and nine franchises worldwide purchasing their products, hundreds of workers and embroiderers in Morocco and productions in workshops in India. As a result of not managing my development effectively I first entered into partnership with a Belgian entrepreneur before quitting Mia Zia in 2007 and I slowed down with my household linen collection, V. Barkowski.

A year later I was entrusted with the task of creating a new, high range, household linen brand by Sunita Najmoshi the Indian owner of Synergy Lifestyles, an established textile business. Creating this brand meant a clean slate with full control including the choice of name, the message behind the brand, the design of its collections, its visual identity and its show room. It took three years of work with an integrated team during which I spent considerable stretches of time in India. Once the brand was launched I was contacted by Anuj Kothari, another Indian entrepreneur who had been impressed by my work, and who wanted me to collaborate with him to open a concept store in Mumbai. I first of all carried out some consulting work for him, which included an analysis of the project and a reformulation. He then entrusted the project to me in its entirety which involved creating the brand from scratch with the authority to oversee the entire process. Once again I had to find a suitable name for the brand, establish its tenets, its product lines in place, its visual identity, strategy and communication content. This time I spent less time in India due to the fact that I now possessed sufficient understanding of the artisans and their technical capabilities and hence no longer needed to be physically present.

However I do more than just creating brands.

My agency engages in consultancy work and creative direction in various domains of application (visual identity, web presence, product collections, strategy and communication content, concept for collections, stores etc.).

Recently I took charge of the artistic direction for a young Belgian singer, Sarah Carlier. It was my first foray into the music industry.

I am also currently working on another project which is a bed linen collection for a French group which is due in Spring 2015.

 

On working with artisans in Morocco, India and Vietnam

You love working with artisans. Is there a particular reason for this?

This part is certainly the closest to my heart and is a constant in my life.

I have worked with artisans for over 20 years and I realize that my first impulse whenever I need anything is to have it made rather than buying it in a shop. I consider myself really fortunate to live in a country where artisans are still very much a part of daily life. It is a place where it is possible to conceive an item and have it made. In Morocco, I have continued to make limited lines: unique items for my household linen brand V. Barkowski and leather bags. They are both distributed in a highly confidential manner. On one hand, it is because I do not wish to find myself in charge of a business that produces collections twice a year according to the needs of the market and because, on the other hand, I do not have a lot of time. I have maintained this relationship I have with artisans because I need to. I enjoy spending time in their workshops surrounded by fabrics, threads, sewing teams and embroidery. I love following the work and seeing a design developed. An entire process requiring humility and patience…

Whether in India, Morocco or Vietnam, which I discovered last year, the process is always the same. It is necessary to forget who you are, your culture and your methods of operating. You must adapt to the other, to their rhythm and their notion of time.

Also I believe it is important for me to mention that an artisan can be part of the creative process because they have perfectly mastered their tools and their expertise and occasionally provide you with creative ideas.

 

On your core values and sources of inspiration

What motivates and inspires you?

The discovery of countries and cultures has always served as a source of inspiration and motivation for me. That is the absolute truth. The more I advance in age, the more I find myself fascinated to see that there are cultures which remained relatively unknown to each other due to a lack of communication, yet which shared identical symbols and ways of life. For example, the tattoos of the Berber women in Morocco and certain remote ethnic groups in India are virtually the same. And that is only one example but I find that fascinating. My greatest pleasure is being able to embark on the discovery of a country through my profession. It makes it possible for me to settle down and live in a country and participate in the daily life over there.

Contemporary art is another important part of my life. But I must admit that my attraction in this regard leans towards the West.

 

Could you tell us about what you are currently working on as well as future projects?

The nature of work I engage in makes it possible for me to have the freedom to work regardless of my location. That is certainly one of the things I find most attractive about my career. There is no need for me to ‘go to the office’ because ‘my office’ is wherever I happen to be at the time. After having completed the projects named Bandit Queen and No-Mad, I believe that I now need a bit of space (both physically and mentally). I realise that I gave 200% to these projects. I believe that I am a ‘surrogate mother’; I create something completely and when it is done, deliver it and it continues its existence. I finished overseeing Bandit-Queen a year ago and the brand has continued to fly with its own wings. I am still close to Anuj the owner of No-Mad and have continued to oversee its creative direction and guide it at a developmental level since the launch of the brand a year ago.

In recent months I have spent a lot of time at my home in Morocco. Because I had to travel quite a lot in recent years, I began to rent out my riad, ‘Dar Kawa’ discretely at first but now I have to manage it having seen its success. I am trying to further improve our services, with a particular focus on service, meals, and a spa is also being set up … I find looking after it somewhat relaxing … I find it pleasing too: it is a way for me to connect to ‘real life’. The work I do involves spending a lot of time on the internet, so spending time in the market, finding good products, studying menus, find new artisans to insert in our address book, rediscovering Morocco … is what I need right now.

Concerning the future, I am trying ensure that my role of consultant involves working on shorter projects. But that may not always be the case. I work intuitively and if an interesting project is offered to me, I will take it. When you are independent you can never tell what the future will bring…

For eleven months, I accompanied an NGO in Vietnam. I spent three months there at the end of last year working as a ‘volunteer’.

The NGO ‘Mekong +’ has been operational for many years in Vietnam. Its leader, Bernard Kervyn with his Vietnamese team, has developed many impressive social projects, there. The NGO supports thousands of Vietnamese families in different ways. One of its goals is to provide work to women who live in rural areas and who do not have great career opportunities, due to a lack of education on one hand and due to the remoteness of their location and the lack of professional opportunities in the region, on the other hand.

Using local expertise, Mekong+ has developed the production of handicrafts (bamboo, water hyacinth …) – and textiles using skills which are not local but applicable in the area, quilt work (patchwork quilts).

A few hundred women are being trained. A design team had also been set up but lacked artistic direction and methodology in terms of creating collections and products. I offered to volunteer for one year and coached the team of 6 designers, every day. I first spent two months there, with them and 9 months away, on a daily basis initially and weekly for a few months.

This experience taught me a great deal, it also taught me about professional and human issues that I was previously unaware of. We live in a world where mass consumption is practised and are surrounded by large multinationals that are continually enhancing their efforts in a bid to increase their visibility and achieve more sales. Their design departments are efficient and innovative…

Here the game is completely different. Stakeholders often lack qualitative training: designers often create mass products (plastic shoes, nylon t-shirts…). Their nation is an emerging country and all they are interested in is what is modern. ‘Handmade’ items are not valued.

I tried to make my own contribution by trying to teach them how to make ‘mood boards,’ to look elsewhere and at what is available, to search by setting their gaze higher and by looking at the right places. I tried to open their minds to show them other dimensions and also give them directions in terms of colours and fabrics selection

I also realized that three years of full time rather than one year of part time work were necessary in order to be actually able to accomplish substantive work.

The aim is for the team to become self-sufficient and capable of being managed locally, without the intervention of foreign volunteers.

The difficulty here is that in order to achieve positive business results it is necessary to communicate, to bring stores in line in terms of style etc… And the local team is young and ambitious but lack the experience that is required to do all that in the right way. They do not see the larger picture and they believe that when they create something new, it must “sell” right away. The concept of building a ‘brand ‘ is non-existent and it is hard to explain and implement in such a short time.

As a result of this experience I now wish to get to know even more artisans and I am currently working on different ways of doing so.

 

On restoring riads and your attachment to Marrakech

When did you arrive in Marrakech?

I first visited Marrakech in 1991 and immediately knew that I would live there one day. That moment came in 1996.

Why? Simply because I have loved this country since my first trip and wanted to live there.

 

What do you love about it?

I was won over by the kindness of people, by how welcoming they were. I was fascinated by the architecture of the riads and the art of living in these traditional houses. For me it was the riad and nothing else.

Today, 18 years later, not much has changed. Sometimes I have to scratch a little to find what I like but it is all still there… I find the country beautiful, with its seas, mountains and the desert. So many different landscapes, so many different ways of life … The landscapes are breath-taking. Every city is different. The culture is the same but the lifestyles vary.

It was on my arrival in Morocco that I met with artisans for the first time. I could stop and sit with a blacksmith, draw a small object on a piece of paper and pick it up two days later. I loved that from the first day. During my first year in Marrakech I constantly visited workshops and shopkeepers to chat, have a cup of tea and watch them work and create objects, embroideries … and architecture also. I also had the opportunity to visit more than 200 of them in 1996 when I began to search for a house of my own. I also had the opportunity to meet the architect, Quentin Wilbaux who is a specialist in the architecture of the medina of Marrakech with whom we renovated Dar Kawa as well as other riads. It was he who was responsible for the architecture while I handled the interior aspect.

 

What  aspects do you dislike and what do you wish would change?

I do not like people who come to settle here and act like settlers or conquerors, who believe themselves superior. Those who do not show any respect for the traditions and culture of the country. I find it detestable. I think we are visitors here and that respect and humility are required. On the other hand I also cannot stand individuals who I meet when working in Europe that move there and do not respect our culture and traditions.

 

How would you describe the people of Morocco?

The Moroccan people are a welcoming and peaceful people who are poetic in their own way. I will cite a recent example. I asked a Moroccan for an exhaustive list of Moroccan vegetables in season during October. He began by giving me examples of several types of potatoes including the Ksbia potato. And this is how he described it… “The ksbia potato is a rectangular one with several heads. It is surrounded by babies and comes from a distant land where there are kasbahs”. I find that wonderful and I think it sums up the spirit of Morocco in my opinion.

Morocco continues to make me think of stories. Oral tradition is always present. It was an important factor in the life of Moroccans. Its white and black magic. Its hidden face that is so full of finesse and such simple wisdom. But it is only visible to those who take the time to stop and listen. Morocco in truth is worth it.

 

What are your favourite tips for bargaining?

Well, that is a difficult chapter … Because there are certain shopkeepers, who though rare do exist, and will give you everything at the ‘real’ price. And then there are all the others … When they tell you, “I’m going to sell it at the cost price just for you” then you certainly have to bargain. And as a general rule you should compare the price being requested from you with the average price in Morocco and see if the price you are being asked to pay seems reasonable to you … And if you like the item and the price seems reasonable, take it. What matters is that you have a good time…

A writer spoke of a wooden box in his book that was sold by a merchant in the souk at a very high price. He did not understand why because there was nothing special about the box. The merchant replied that the box was indeed trivial but contained a wonderful story that was why its price was so high. That is the poetry of Morocco…

Valérie kindly shares with us her addresses on Marrakech. All our tips are from her: discover our Marrakech page.

Discover more about her in her profile in our “WE are” page or on her website