These slippers are popping up on shelves everywhere from Zara to Prada—but until recently, they weren’t exactly a cool-kid staple in Marrakech.
A cross between house slippers and “mule” slip-ons, the Moroccan babouche is a simple leather shoe you can pair with just about anything—jeans and a T-shirt, a dress, shorts. They’re like Havianas are to Brazilians—the Moroccan version of flip-flops. In Marrakech, you typically see babouches being stitched together by aging artisans hunched over in corners of various foundouks, Morocco’s old, cheap hotels, along the Medina’s Rue Mouassine. Normally, you wouldn’t see them being designed for and created by Marrakech’s trendy young influencers—until recently.
It was surprising to find Amine Bendriouich—a sleek, dynamic Moroccan fashion designer with a Monopoly Man mustache—doing a three-day bespoke babouche event this past July at his pop-up shop in the ever-chic restaurant, Le Jardin, in the Medina. Amine is known around these parts for his unisex collections of cashmere sweaters and silk bomber jackets, but he plans to throw babouches into the mix more regularly once his permanent boutique opens here next month.
“It’s like the national shoe in this country,” says Bendriouich. “And yet, for us in Morocco, it wasn’t a matter of style until recently.” Twenty years ago, Morocco’s Andy Warhol-esque pop artist Hassan Hajjaj was the only one fashioning babouche slippers out of funky materials such as recycled flour bags and wax fabrics from Sub-Saharan Africa. But Bendriouich feels there’s been a shift over the past five years: “Young Moroccans today are more interested in their cultural identity. Now you see guys going out to clubs wearing babouches with their suits.”
Until recently, you’d be hard-pressed to find a young, hip Moroccan wearing babouches. “They associated the shoes with being poor,” explains Bendriouich. “If you were wearing babouches, it meant that you don’t have money to get real shoes. But today, more and more I think—everybody wears them.”
Bendriouich is particularly enthusiastic about a nascent babouche brand out of Casablanca. Zyne, which means “beauty” in phonetically spelled Arabic, opened its atelier in 2016. The designer is Zineb Britel, a 26-year-old who honed her footwear skills while interning at Dior and Sonia Rykiel in Paris. At first, Britel’s family thought her well-designed babouche idea was strange. However, Britel started noticing luxury brands like Céline and Balenciaga doing slippers, so it was game on.
Running the gambit from minimalist leather to furry velvet, every pair of Zyne babouches are handmade by artisans from local Casablanca co-operatives. Zyne went from working with three co-op ladies to 15. Britel takes great pride in her team of women, especially amid social and economic change in Morocco, highlighted by such things as the Sulaliyyates’ ongoing protests for gender equality. “This is the greatest thing in my work,” she says. “These artisan women are becoming more and more independent—they take home a salary each month now.”
Zyne’s best-selling shoes feature fresh, intricately beaded patterns and are now sold at 16 boutiques from New York to Moscow to Abu Dhabi. “I really wanted to sell handmade work by Moroccans but at the same time maintain a very high quality. Because in Morocco you have the style, but you don’t often have Dior-level quality. I want to change that.” Zyne also sells tons of shoes on its website, which itself is novel. “Not many people have e-shops in Morocco,” Britel explains.
While Britel was conjuring up her high-end babouches on mood boards in Casablanca, she knew foreigners would appreciate the handmade work and the story behind the shoe. But millennial Moroccans like herself were generally limiting their babouche usage to traditional events like weddings or just wore them around the house, so Britel assumed they wouldn’t be into Zyne: “Usually when something is made in Morocco, the youth here don’t want to buy it. They always want to buy something from Europe or the States.” They seem to have changed their minds. “I’m super happy now that the concept has been approved by my people.”
Look for Zyne’s new collection at NYC’s Bergdorf Goodman.