Captivated by the organised terracotta chaos, that is Marrakech, Vanessa Branson’s love for the whirring city is completely understandable. It therefore isn’t difficult to imagine how it only took one conversation, over lunch, for her family and friends to persuade her into buying a home out there. What is a little harder to fathom, however, is the grandeur of what actually came from that humble luncheon.
Upon searching for properties to be the perfect Moroccan home for the family, Vanessa stumbled across crumbling palace ruins. She was captivated; and now fifteen years later Riad El Fenn, the 28 roomed boutique hotel of her dreams, sits in place of those very same ruins.
What is striking about Vanessa is her genuine interest in others. Enticed to Marrakech by the wonderful people she met in the city, her understanding of the place and its inhabitants inspired her to use her skills and gifts to make a positive change. Disheartened by the outbreak of the Iraq war, and the consequent division between Islamic countries and the west, she decided that she wanted to do something that instead brought different cultures together; and she did it in the best way that she knew how - through the arts.
In 2005 The Arts in Marrakech festival was born, igniting a contemporary art scene in Marrakech. The potential of the city, and of the interest in the festival then led to it taking on the term ‘Biennale’ in 2009, and is now recognised internationally. Its success has also seen Vanessa be awarded the Royal distinction of Officer of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite, for her contributions to Moroccan culture.
Seemingly motivated by other people’s happiness, Vanessa is incredible at creating spaces where she hopes to see people flourish, and these spaces have taken perfect form in her hotels which have proved to not just be a place for you to spend your holiday. The spaces she has created, from the most remote parts of Scotland, to the compacted chaos of Marrakech, are all cultural platforms that overflow into both their immediate communities and beyond, by providing an idyllic holiday setting whilst also making a way for new artists and designers to exhibit and sell their work. This week, Semaine is giving Vanessa space to inspire you with her story. Sit back, relax and find your happy place, all this week on Semaine.
Semaine: You have an obvious eye for interiors and art in general, where does this stem from? Did you have an artistic upbringing?
Vanessa: In the 1950’s and 60’s unless you were very aristocratic, or avant garde, there wasn’t much spare cash around for creative endeavours, you just sort of got on with what you had to get on with. They were quite austere times, the 50’s and 60’s. My parents weren’t super cultured, it was more English country pursuits than cultural pursuits, but then I studied history of art and got very interested in it. And then obviously with the Virgin story emerging beside me, there was a lot of youth culture around, and with the art and the music we became interested in culture in our generation, but not my parents’ generation.
Semaine: So how did your career in the arts begin?
Vanessa: I studied history of art and then was an apprentice picture framer in a central London picture framers, which meant I met all of the art dealers in the area through that. I put on exhibitions, borrowing work from the galleries and I learned so much, I was so young! Then I opened up my gallery, the Vanessa Devereux gallery, just off of Portobello road, and I showed some pretty good artists actually, my first sort of success was that I was the first to show an artist called William Kentridge, I had three shows for him, at my little gallery...
Semaine: Why did you decide to close the gallery?
Vanessa: I had three very young children, and actually they needed a bit more of my attention. Working with artists, I love working with artists, but they need nurturing and someone to look after them, but I had my kids at this point to actually nurture. We also went to live in LA around the same time which gave me an elegant excuse to shut up shop.
Semaine: When was your first trip to Marrakech?
Vanessa: The first time I came was with my boyfriend for a holiday, back in the eighties, but then ten, fifteen years later, my brother was trying to circumnavigate the world in a hot air balloon and he was taking off from Marrakech. Between 1995 and 1997 he made three attempts and each time he was waiting for the weather to be right, you’ve got to have the perfect weather window in order to do it. So we were all out here waiting to see him take off. I got to know some lovely people and it was really exciting, and just sort of formed a relationship with the country, and then I came back a few years later at then we bought El Fenn.
Semaine: What was it that made you fall in love with the country?
Vanessa: Well there’s a whole list of things that I absolutely love about it but I think it’s just that feeling here that anything is possible. You can have an idea and there’s a sort of willingness to make things work. Obviously, there’s complications, but there’s a freedom here that I’ve not experienced anywhere else, really. I don’t know if it’s because there’s such a diverse group of people here, or a willingness from the Moroccan people, but they give an incredible welcome, they’re very open to the whole cultural mix here.
It’s an extraordinary country because of that, also the weather’s wonderful and the food is incredible. The design and architecture is great and there’s a graciousness and a gentleness about the people, a lack of cynicism and I think that’s what I love about it.
Semaine: And how did you come across the palace that was to become El Fenn?
Vanessa: In 2002 Howell (her business partner) and I were here with my family, just on a holiday, and we’d had a few glasses of wine at lunchtime and someone just said “you should buy somewhere…what are you frightened of, it’ll be a really great adventure” and with that we went and looked at a house. Actually, Howell was coming out for a wedding a few weeks later so he looked at a few riads, and then we came out together and we had a sort of budget. We just wanted to buy two bedroom house, and then we walked into El Fenn, it was beautiful and way out of our budget, but we just bought it. We bought it there and then, we shook hands with the owner and what was really amazing is that we didn’t realise that it came with three other houses up the street. It was so much bigger than we ever dreamed of, so that’s why we had to turn it into a hotel.
Semaine: What was the history of the building?
Vanessa: It was a complete ruin, it had been broken up over the years, when we bought it we just bought the central courtyard. It belonged to a merchant family, a very wealthy merchant family, and I think they bought it in 1830 on ancient foundations, over the years, we started buying up riads from next door, and now we’re up to 28 rooms. It officially opened it’s doors in 2003.
Semaine: What is it like to have your hotel there especially?
Vanessa: What happens with something like this is it becomes a love thing, you really develop a relationship with it and everyone involved. I became completely obsessed with it. I’d fly out with bags of lamps in my hand luggage, and paintings in my suitcase. I used to go to bed, or on any long car journey, wandering around the space in my mind, imagining it. We had a manager who was overseeing the building project called Frederic Scholl and he, Howell and myself just have this extraordinary creative partnership and we just worked so well together, we’d go into a store, see a piece of old junk and imagine it in exactly the same place, in the hotel. It was a lovely and amazing experience. You get really high on it, because you have your guests coming and they just can’t believe it. It’s a huge pleasure to create an environment that gives so much happiness.
Semaine: What was to become the Biennale was also birthed around the same time as El Fenn...
Vanessa: I thought that someone needs to start an art festival in Marrakech because there was no contemporary arts scene here, or there was no contemporary arts infrastructure at all, but then I realised that I was probably in as good a position as anybody to get it started. I had a partner at the beginning with the Biennale called Abdel Damoussi, and we just started it as a small arts festival. It was really using the arts as a platform to debate ideas and then it evolved into a Biennale of cultural excellence, and all the other things that come from that are great. It moved from having a political root, to a more cultural one. Art by it’s nature is political, you can’t get away from it! But it’s taken on a life of it’s own, keeping it going is quite hard work! But we’ll see, I’m ever hopeful that it’ll carry on, but it’s not a given.
Semaine: And El Fenn is also a place that you use to support these artists?
Vanessa: A hotel has to play a role in the community, and the arts is what I do, you know, by having a rolling exhibition program in our corridors here, three or four times a year it is nice that it changes shape all the time. And then the store’s doing really well in supporting young designers.
Semaine: Were there times where you thought that everything in Marrakech was too challenging? Semaine: With the biennale, that’s been a much more challenging in terms of financial stresses to be honest. El Fenn hasn’t always been easy, but it hasn’t always been that real stress when you feel you’re going to break. On the business side I haven’t felt like that, but on the biennale side I have.
Semaine: Has this affected your involvement now in the Biennale?
Vanessa: I’m keen to hand it over to another generation now to be honest, I’ve had a very good director who ran it last year and did a fantastic job, but because we don’t get any state funding, it’s hard to get it geared up year in year out. I think for 2018 we might re-model it a bit and just have a conference to discuss the role that the biennale plays, and get people in to discuss it, and then hopefully get the board strong enough so that we can have another one in 2020.
Semaine: What role have you seen the Biennale play since the beginning?
Vanessa: I think for young people to be able to live in a city that is known for having a cultural identity. Up until now it’s had a very strong heritage, a strong history, culture is a sort of living thing. It gives young people the feeling that they can express their ideas and gives outsiders an understanding that Marrakech is looking to the future, rather than looking back. There’s a number of artists moving into the city, not just visiting for a few weeks, but actually buying a place and studio space. It’s attracting a really interesting crowd, and you get into a cycle of what I like to call ‘creative positive thinking’. It might have happened without it, but I think the Biennale has played a major role in the city’s evolution. It’s so exciting. We can’t stop!
Semaine: What do you have planned for the future of El Fenn?
Vanessa: Nothing can remain static, everything needs to evolve, everything needs to grow, and we have so many plans that I’m excited about, but at this moment I’m not going to tell anyone about them because they’re just ideas, but we’re definitely going to do something more here, and we’ve got a couple of lovely options, so we’re excited and watch this space!
Semaine: How much time do you spend in Marrakech now?
Vanessa: It goes in spits and starts. Because of bringing my family up, I used to go out midweek and then I’d make sure I was at home for the weekends, for the kids. And now, because it’s working so well at the moment, and Will, our manager here is doing a very good job, I don’t need to be out here for day to day projects. So I come out to plan things for the Biennale, and now am trying to focus more on my place in Scotland, to try and get that energised, so I’m going up there a bit more. You have to be a bit like a lighthouse, your beam has to shine in one place, you can’t have your beam behind you all the time as well.
Semaine: And now your beam is shining a bit more towards Scotland...Eilean Shona…
Vanessa: I’ve just bought out my former partner, we’ve owned it for 22 years and it was our family fun place, now I own one hundred percent of it and there’s a sort of competitive nature in me that wants it to become really really amazing, it’s not my sweeter side. But I feel very competitive in wanting to prove that I can make it work, and it is fun. I’ve just come back from there, as we had an artist residency program up there, and it’s a really big challenge. It’s got to become self-sustaining, and you’ve got to invest in these places to make them work. It really is stunning. You’re just in the wilderness, but it needs managing. We’re defining it as nature reserve and want to use it to offer people the opportunity of staying in the wilderness, I think that pristine countryside is something people are going to want to seek out more and more as things become a bit more crazy. To have areas where you go offline is so important. The cottages haven’t got wifi, but there’s a little village hall where you can go and pick up your emails from and you can see people over the course of a week just relaxing and getting happier and happier and just connecting with the outside again, it’s lovely. I think there are very few places you can get away from that.
We’ve got three workshops up in Scotland in September which are going to be great, one is painting, one is writing and the other one is mindfulness, they’re all playing to the strength of being on an island.
Semaine: Finally, what is the best advice you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Vanessa: What instantly pops into my mind is that if you’re in a field of work that you enjoy the work is so easy and also passions come and go, and you want your business to evolve with them. You don’t have to do one thing all your life, don’t get stuck. And if you can have a business that moves and evolves with you, then that is fantastic. What I do have is a very genuine history and narrative, it’s evolved very organically. Your sense of who you are has got to tie in with what you’re working on. The defining characteristic for all successful entrepreneurs is the ability to make decisions, just make decisions and move on, don’t have any regrets. There are so many ways forward and so many different ways you can do things. Make decisions and move on.
By Kezia Navey for Semaine.