From artisans to fashionistas, the timeless elegance of babouche slippers are now more fashionable than ever. Radisson RED take an exclusive visit to an artisan of these classic Moroccan slippers that now grace the catwalks of the world.
They say that fashion always comes back around; that many of today’s trends and wardrobe must-haves owe their inspiration to styles from previous eras.
Well, that’s certainly true of the ‘Babouche’, the pointed-toe, flat-soled exotic slippers that fashion commentators have widely christened the ‘It’ shoe of 2016. At the beginning of the year, having seen the pre-fall collections of 2015, the fashion bible Vogue proclaimed that babouche-inspired footwear was the next hot thing. Designers such as Phoebe Philo have made the evocatively named shoes the trending ‘must-have’ for fashionable feet.
Admittedly this trend has taken a little longer than most to come back around; these slippers, (first created in Morocco) were big in Medieval times, so you won’t have any from the last time they were big news, but chances are if you’ve been to Marrakech on holiday you’ve ended up with a pair from a bohemian souk shopping trip. Time to get them out from the bottom of the wardrobe and wear with pride!
These evocative, pointed leather slippers, which have their backs folded down flat to the sole, are a ubiquitous sight on the stalls of Marrakech’s labyrinthine souks. Local and regional fashion have also played their part in influencing the direction of how the shoes have developed, with evermore elaborate materials, designs and decorative accessories. They seem to perfectly capture the spirit and flavour of the exotic world of 1001 Arabian Nights.
To find out more about these iconic shoes, I visited one of the few remaining artisans in Marrakech’s leather and shoe souk; a craftsman who continues to fashion beautiful babouche slippers by hand.
The magic of the medina
Within moments of walking into the medina, the bright sunshine is little more than a few shards of sunlight penetrating the makeshift roofing of the alleyways. I’m being led through the shaded streets of the ancient souk markets of Marrakech. Either side of the alleyways, barely wide enough for two people to pass side-by-side, are stalls and workshops.
At first I pass a small square, almost completely covered in basket ware; then I’m back into an alleyway, brushing up against stalls piled high with spices; and pyramids of olives. Then the doorways and arches get narrower before opening out into a small square of the ‘Naal’ souk. Here tanned animal skins are being put out onto the floor for the morning’s leather auction. Beyond are modest workshops, and that’s where we find Aboumalik, our babouche maker.
Aboumalik – The Babouche Maker
Sitting on a low wooden stool, and resting his back against the wall of his narrow workshop, Aboumalik is busy working on a pair of brightly coloured leather slippers. In front of him is his work bench, a three legged circular table with heavy top. I learn that the table and the wooden mallets and tools, worn smooth with use over many years, have been passed down to him by his father who was also a babouche maker. The colours of the leathers and the designs of the embroidery certainly look to have changed over the years, but the artisan shoe-making methods have remained the same for generations.
Factories in the Far East turn out thousands of babouche slippers a day for the North African, Middle East and Asian markets, so it’s sadly increasingly rare to see these historic shoes still made by hand in the country that first created them.
A genuine, high quality babouche has flat soles of leather, hand cut and sewn onto the uppers, together with a soft, padded leather inner sole. It is an intricate, time-consuming and at times punishing process that can take days to make just one pair. There is no glue used in the manufacture of these classic handmade slippers – everything is hand stitched.
Babouche slippers of this quality are much like any fine, handmade shoe; they are created with great skill and care; and if maintained with equal respect, can last the owner a lifetime. These artisan methods create a shoe of timeless elegance that has retained its identity for centuries.
High quality babouche slippers, with intricate silk embroidery are still a popular choice for weddings and formalwear. Aboumalik is skilled at all stages of the production from the purchase of the prepared and coloured leathers, to the cutting, embroidery and final construction and stitching.
His hands are dextrous and strong, and his attention focused on each step. At times there is just the gentle sound of the thread passing through the leather, once he has pierced the hide; but then there is the sudden thud of the mallet as he presses the pieces into place.
On the wall hang a couple of plastic bags; one filled with fresh bread and the other with bunches of mint for tea. At his side is a small gas canister and burner with a teapot resting on top. He pauses for a moment from his physically and mentally demanding work to offer me a tea; it’s no cliché that the Moroccans are very hospitable people.
After the privilege of meeting Aboumalik and seeing him at work in his small space, the concierge, my guide and I head back into the labyrinthine medina to share a late breakfast. On the engraved steel tray in front of me are placed three small, beautifully patterned bowls; one of delicious olive oil, the other of glossy olives and the third was ‘lakhliaa’ a snack of sun-dried meat (in this case beef) preserved in fat, rich in flavour from spices, garlic, salt and with a warm colour from saffron. Served with plenty of fresh, kesra bread and piping hot, aromatic sweet mint tea, it was a wonderful way to round off a fascinating morning in the medina.