Fashion designer Norya Ayron on Morocco’s Red City and how rapper Mos Def helped her take a chance with independence.
Around three years ago, the first in a series of chance encounters led Norya Ayron to make a pivotal swerve in her career. The serendipitous story of the fashion designer and entrepreneur began in 2012. Having worked in Marrakech’s bustling party scene for nearly a decade, Norya was set to pack her bags and leave for new horizons. That’s when she met the proprietor of Le Jardin, a restaurant nestled deep in the winding streets of Marrakech’s old town. He proposed she take up his office space on the floor above the restaurant and make something of it. “He gave me the keys and I arrived at this magnificent place – an oasis in the middle of the medina.” On an impulse, she took up the challenge. “I couldn’t refuse. But I actually had no idea what I was going to do.”
Up to that point, Norya had never considered herself a designer, despite a long habit of tayloring clothes since childhood. “It’s incredible what can happen in life when you least expect it,” she muses. Within ten days she produced her first clothing collection, aided by the skilled craftsmanship of a handful of elderly women in the medina. It is from here, where her boutique still stands today, that the Norya Ayron brand grew to international acclaim within just a few years. Not to mention her long catalogue of A-list celebrity fans like Monica Bellucci and Juliette Binoche.
The first time I wore a pair of jeans, I was thirty years old.
Norya’s designs turn a fresh eye on North African and Arab traditional wear. Her most popular items involve the reimagining of long robe-like tunics, known as gandoras and abayas. Perhaps a nod to her mixed cultural background (Norya is French-born of Algerian origin), she modernises attire typically associated with traditional, often modest outfits. “My pieces are traditional but I use flashy colours and I add transparent elements to my abayas that can be very sexy on a woman.” Her works emit an offbeat elegance, placing great emphasis on textiles with bursts of hues and patterns which she mostly sources from Morocco. She exclusively produces limited-edition collections and unique pieces. Her next endeavour will be to produce her own fabrics.
Norya cites an early fixation with unconventionality as her motive to begin dressmaking. “Since childhood, it was my obsession not to conform,” she recounts. “The first time I wore a pair of jeans, I was thirty years old!” Later, working as a door girl at clubs in Cannes, she would spend her days obtaining fabrics and creating dresses at home using a stapler. “The nightlife is an environment that allows freedom,” she explains. “I could have fun with my clothes, but it was also an important part of the job.” Reluctant to work in the fashion industry, Norya opted to keep her love for styling a hobby for most of her life. “I don’t like the mentality of the fashion world. What we do is so ephemeral and yet I find designers can be big-headed about what they do. The way I see it, we only make clothes – we’re no lifesavers.”
A mere few months after opening the boutique, Norya had another fortuitously timed encounter. This time it was a brush with Yasiin Bey, the globally renowned rapper also known as Mos Def, at a nightclub in Marrakech. Intrigued by the abaya Norya wore, he sparked up a conversation. They became fast friends, and it was his encouragement that led Norya to pursue her craft seriously. “Mos Def is my good luck charm. When he told me ‘You will dress the whole world in your abayas,’ it really made me think it’s possible,” she says. “I could suddenly imagine everyone wearing abayas, with sneakers or heels – anything to give it a funky edge.”
Norya takes an uncompromising approach in her creative process: “I just create what I’d like to wear. All that stuff – ‘colour of the year’, what’s ‘in’ – it doesn’t concern me.“ Luckily, this single-mindedness works out well for her as she prepares for her first showroom and open workshop this year. Only a month after meeting Mos Def, yet another run-in – this time with actress Sharon Stone in a hotel lobby – earned her a new influential fan and friend. Stone has since been spotted numerous times by paparazzi in Norya Ayron designs, giving a new level of exposure to the young brand.
Aside from the usual struggles, being an independent woman in a culturally male-dominated society like Morocco can make the entrepreneurial journey that much more daunting. “It’s not always easy,” she confesses. “There are certain cultural codes, of course. I work with many conservative men but once you recognize their customs, it comes back in huge amounts of positivity. Everyone here treats me with great respect.” As her career continues to soar into higher dimensions, Norya insists on never leaving the city where it all started for her. “I think I’ll stay here for the rest of my days. It’s a magical place.“