Interior stylist Hilary Robertson’s Marrakech list, textile-focused journeys in Vietnam’s north, and airports with the best sunscreens
ARMCHAIR TRAVEL: MARRAKECH
I think I first became aware of the work of London-born, Brooklyn-based interior stylist Hilary Robertson a decade ago when I was at Martha Stewart. Her patinated, earth-toned tableaux for titles like Vogue Living and then everyone from ABC Carpet & Home to West Elm nudged tastes towards the lime-painted walls, rumpled linen, and sculptural ceramics that define her brand of perfectly textured minimalism. Hilary is super well-traveled, so I was excited to hear about her new book that draws on her global wanderings. In Nomad at Home, Hilary gets inside the homes of travelers with amazing design instincts—from artist Lisolette Watkins’ exuberant Rome apartment to architect Agnès Emery’s peacock-hued Marrakech riad—and names some of her favorite sources and small hotels, from Mexico to Morocco. Marrakech makes frequent appearances in its pages, so we asked Hilary to share some places that inspired her there, which she added to a list originally from her friend and design-centric riad owner, Valérie Barkowski of Dar Kawa. —A.P.
Marrakech is an amazing destination for design aficionados. There’s a bewildering range of high-concept places to stay, and every decorating fantasy or trend is realized here. The riads are often owned by French or Belgians like Valérie Barkowski (Dar Kawa) or Philomena Schurer Merckoll (Riad Mena), who fell in love with the city and made a home and a business here.
I rather greedily chose to stay in three places: Riad 42, Riad Dar K, as it’s known, and Riad Matham. I kept it simple, choosing the minimalist comfort and tranquility of Grégoire and Sarah’s Riad 42, where everything is reduced to its essentials: cool tadelaakt walls and floors, heavy woolen blankets, a monochrome palette. Riad Dar K is another deep-dive into all the possibilities of a black and white palette with primitive four poster beds strewn with Berber rugs and stylish seating areas arranged around the courtyard garden. I traveled there in late February when the days were a sunny and spring-like 65 degrees. We ate lunch on outdoor roof terraces shaded by rug canopies and dinners tucked into the Bhou, a sitting room open to the riad’s internal courtyard warmed by an open log fire. Romantic tented areas on rooftops are the ideal place to retreat to at the end of the evening and listen to the muezzin (call to prayer). Riad Matham is a 16th-century home with its own Hammam (steam room) and large terrace, with an extraordinary 360° view over the medina and the Atlas Mountains. If you are traveling with a family or group of friends, consider renting a whole riad (some offer 5 or more suites and smaller bedrooms). —Hilary Robertson
The YSL Museum is definitely the must see; don’t skip lunch or tea at the museum café.
Musée Tiskiwin, a tiny museum by Bert Flint, who collects pieces from the desert and Morocco in general. The place is a bit dusty, but all the pieces are high quality.
Medersa (Madrasa) Ben Youssef, the ancient school located in the heart of the medina, was just restored.
Cactus Thiemann, a huge cactus nursery, is a must.
A nice way to discover the city is by sidecar with Marrakesh Insiders. They have a great crew and access to special places that you cannot visit on your own.
Gallery 127, for contemporary photography.
Look for the basketry market near Jemaa El Fna square, entering Dabachi.
Behind Jemaa El Fna square, there’s a tiny market where olives, preserved lemons, harissa and fresh verbena is sold, which feels like an earlier era
+Michi in the medina, a boutique not far from Dar Bacha, has nice babouches and carved cutlery
For rugs, try Bazar des Palmiers, a small shop with a nice owner who has beautiful vintage pieces.
LRNCE. Belgian fashion designer Laurence Leenaert went to Marrakech with a sewing machine and $450 euros in her pocket. Somehow, by collaborating with local craftsmen, she created a now much-imitated brand with a fresh modern look and color palette; think Picasso-influenced ceramics, abstract textiles, and asymmetric sandals. She has a studio in Gueliz that you can visit by appointment if you are visiting, or you can buy from her online store which ships worldwide.
Breakfast and Sunday brunch at Bacha Coffee in the medina.
Villa des Orangers for good cuisine and their cosy bar in winter.
+61 in the new city.
Dinner outside Marrakech, 15 minutes from the medina, at Hotel les Deux Tours in the Palm Grove, which has a very nice garden.
The Asian restaurant at La Mamounia
El Fenn has good food and lunch is very pleasant on the terrace.
Photos by Mike Karlsson Lundgren © Ryland Peters & Small 2022
AIRPORT FIND: THE BEST SUNSCREENS
I’m a chronic overpacker, but with the nuttiness of the airport baggage system this summer, I actually took a carry-on when I was heading to the south of Italy last month. My biggest anxiety wasn’t the clothing I was going to miss–it was about figuring out my sunscreen situation once I got there. Clearly a 100 ml bottle isn’t going to cut it when you’re spending a lot of time in the sun for a week. My flight wound up getting canceled and rerouted through Madrid, and while initially I was very irritated about it, I remembered that my dermatologist had suggested this Spanish brand ISDIN for their very good sunscreen that rubs in easily and is highly protective. Once we landed in Madrid, I beelined for the airport pharmacy and bought several bottles–one for the face, a gel cream for the body, and an oil spray for my tanning family. The only downside is if you don’t use them all up and you don’t want to check on the return–but you could decant them like my friend Ann Mashburn, who puts sun lotion in old prescription bottles. The face cream is 100 ml so that is a no brainer and works very well just as a daily sunscreen. One of my favorite things about this face sunscreen is that it doesn’t irritate your eyes–while every other sunscreen (including the ones below), does. Another airport I love for its sunscreen is Copenhagen, which has a huge selection of P20, which promotes itself as a “once a day” sunscreen, lasting up to 10 hours. And finally, I love Daylong sunscreen, which is Swiss, so you can look for it in airports in Switzerland. P.S.—a friend also found the ISDIN in airports in Portugal. —Y.E.
Thao Phuong, founder of TextileSeekers
Tell us about you and your company.
At TextileSeekers, we have opened our doors to Vietnam's north, focusing on regional cities and traditional textiles and handicrafts, with future plans to launch our impact retreats beyond Vietnam. We’re committed to curating experiences for travelers seeking to discover indigenous textile practices, and highlighting the value of provenance in a fast-changing world.
For me, TextileSeekers represents a value I hold dear: the importance of coming together as a collective, which can bond over shared beliefs and the deep connections made with the communities we visit. My goal is a simple one: to share a journey that not only provides access to tribes who weave sustainable textile design into the fabric of everyday life, but also opens up possibilities for self-discovery. I want to sew the seeds of creative aspiration, which can be taken home and become a source of ongoing inspiration and change.
Originally raised in Melbourne, Australia, I worked in the fashion industry for close to 20 years and have lived abroad for 15 years, in over 7 cities around the globe - now Barcelona. My journey towards founding TextileSeekers began in 2018. I was invited to a “compassion home” in Lào Cai, Vietnam, where I met survivors of human trafficking. These girls and women had been lured into a world of crime in the hope of securing paid employment, and I learned that while previous generations had relied on handicrafts to make a living, young people had begun losing this ancestral connection to craftsmanship due to its laborious nature and limited financial returns. This realization convinced me that preserving traditions in mutually beneficial ways for all involved was nothing short of essential. I couldn’t return to my “normal” life and day job—I was transformed by the experience. From this, TextileSeekers began.
What’s the entry level to talk to you?
The impact retreats I create are all-inclusive and highlight the textile traditions in the country and region we visit. We focus on workshops and demonstrations with a manifesto based on slow and mindful traveling via a process with sincerity and respect at its heart.
We’re a women-led company, and as such, working with women in positive and transformative ways is fundamental to what we do. We seek to support and ignite each others’ inspirations and make a real difference to each other’s lives. This is attempted and achieved through our immersive retreats, which provide a holistic experience with each and every encounter. I also bring yoga and meditation into the daily itinerary of each trip; it’s a joy for me to create spaces which allow my fellow travelers to join me in a morning yoga session and meditative practices, and we ensure each day begins in the best possible way—together, in harmony, and with shared goals and aspirations.
Importantly, TextileSeekers is focused on inviting travelers into the homes and workshops of tribespeople—connecting with those local businesses directly and cutting out third parties in order to truly immerse ourselves in the culture. There’s a luxury element, too; the itineraries are set at a comfortable pace, and plenty of space is granted to allow for exploration, relaxation, and to be surrounded by astonishing natural beauty.
Our 2022 dates are set for the 5th of September and the retreat will last for 6 days. There will be a second retreat on the 21st of November for 6 days, and both retreats will follow the same itinerary, and are focused on developing our appreciation of indigenous culture and textiles in Vietnam, with immersive workshops and demonstrations throughout.
On the 17th of October, we’re hosting an 11-day Artists Retreat, which is open to all genders. This retreat allows creatives to travel with me, providing space to create and further learn from the indigenous tribes and their wonderful ancient textile traditions. We will also have the opportunity to connect with a local school to teach English, drawing and origami, and to help paint the wall of a kindergarten.
Prices and brochures are available on our website. The 2022 retreats are priced at US$1800 pp for 6 days and US$3200 pp for the 11 days Artists Retreat.
What is the sweet spot of your expertise?
It’s almost impossible to choose just one; every retreat brings surprises and delights that arise from the coming together of disparate but connected women. I would say, however, that the most precious experiences are always related to that sense of connection; not just between the travelers, but also with the women we meet in the tribal communities.
As we connect with artisans, they become part of our team. The craftspeople we spend time with showcase their skills through our curated workshops, and the amount of inspiration this provides our travelers is never less than astonishing. Furthermore, they head home inspired with the knowledge and compassion to make more considered choices in their day to day lives.
A favorite experience/trip you’ve planned that best represents your philosophy…
I’m deeply excited about our next retreat; it involves exploring a new region I’m not yet familiar with, and it’s been on my wish list for many, many years. While curating this particular retreat, I was focused on connecting deeply with the silk handicrafts of the Tay tribe, a community with a fascinating textile history that originates with the tribe’s roots in Thailand.
I knew Mai Chau would be the perfect choice for this retreat. It provides a truly blissful counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, offering breathtaking landscapes and a fabulous array of artisanal experiences for our travelers.
A favorite hotel/lodge/house you love and go back to again and again…
This would be a very difficult choice, as we move around a lot! For me, the main things to consider when designing the retreats is ensuring everything we do and everywhere we stay reflects our sustainable values. Homestays were originally an option, but I felt it was important to offer opportunities to retreat somewhere which balanced an essence of luxury with our values of sustainability, eco-consciousness, and a connection with culture and nature. Indeed, nature plays a huge role when choosing lodging for travelers, as it’s essential to benefit from a sense of place and understand the landscape which gave rise to the cultures we are exploring.
The most memorable moment you’ve had while traveling…
The Red Dao wedding I attended was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. We were invited by one of the tribeswomen we connected with, whose son was getting married during our retreat.
We set forth on a 2-hour journey, got caught up in roadworks, walked through endless rocky construction… and it all resulted in witnessing a beautiful moment and celebrating a time-honored set of traditions together.
Red Dao weddings are as fascinating as they are wondrous. They start early in the mornings (as it is believed, quite rightly, that all good things begin with the start of the day). The bride's family were playing music on flutes and drums, and we experienced the wedding ritual of escorting the bride through fire, following the footsteps of the musicians, and finally entering the family home of the groom. Amazing!
What is a place we should consider traveling to that could really use our dollars, and what is a place we should put on hold because it sees too many tourists?
To put it simply: anywhere you can connect with communities and give back whilst traveling, whether it be dining at a local restaurant, buying from local artisans, and or staying in a locally owned hotel. For my line of work, it’s vital to seek out communities that hold ancestral textile traditions, and to provide financial support where we can. I put a lot of research into the curation of TextileSeekers retreats; we avoid traveling into deeply remote locations where the presence of tourism could do more harm than good.
It’s a delicate balancing act, and one which requires us to make strong connections on the ground. Avoiding any third-party travel agencies—and having this as central to our policy—means we can partner with the communities directly and provide deeper experiences and more support to where it’s needed most.
We also support the NGO Restoring Vision and distribute glasses to remote areas we visit. Also, the NGO Pacific Links Foundation supports survivors of human trafficking, which is prevalent among tribal communities by raising awareness.
Underrated location, overrated location, personal favorite, recent discovery?
I’m not unusual in saying that my favorite places to visit are always the markets. It’s the quickest and easiest way to experience the heart and soul of a location and its people, and the perfect way to awaken your senses. As I always say, if you want to get a sense of what life in a new place feels like, head to the market!
What is something you wished we all knew or were better at as travelers?
Supporting local businesses. A lot of the communities we meet sustain a living from tourism, and in my line of work I see many products—especially souvenirs—that are now manufactured in factories and sold to tourists under the guise of artisan products. If travelers slow down, purchase their items more mindfully, or ask where to buy directly from artisans in order to support their craft and livelihood, we can create a circular economy; one in which the tribespeople will see a need in protecting their crafts for future generations.
What’s next for you and TextileSeekers?
I am working on a collaboration retreat, which is set to be an extension of TextileSeekers. I’ll be introducing friends & artisans to the platform and offering unique bespoke retreats that explore their cultural heritage; right now, I’m piecing together a retreat in Guadalajara, Mexico, which I’m very excited about!
How would you like people to reach out to you?