Usually, when I write up a guide to ethical and sustainable shopping in a city or small country, I simply list conscious fashion stores that curate a selection of designers that are working to preserve traditional craft and use more sustainable materials.
But, Morocco is different from most other countries.
Take the coffee shop culture… or lack thereof. Out of every single one of the 25 (mostly developing) countries we visited around the world, Morocco was the only one that hadn’t been invaded by Brooklyn or Australian-style Third Wave coffee shops, with their marble countertops, subway tile and palms. Maybe it’s because Morocco’s traditional decor is eminently Instagrammable just on its own merit, without needing to slap pink neon signs up on white walls and provide latté art. So they don’t feel the pressure that literally every other culture does to conform to internet aesthetics. Maybe Marrakesh hasn’t yet landed on the digital nomad circuit, the way Chiang Mai and Medellin has.
There’s probably some crucial cultural or governmental factor I’m missing here. But what was clear to me is that Morocco is proudly Moroccan through and through. You arrive, and the food options available to you are fish tajine and chicken tajine and fruit tajine for dessert. And if you ask for olive oil with your traditional bread at dinner they will say they don’t have it, with zero apologies.
So it’s no surprise that this ethos and deep cultural pride extends to the shopping in Morocco. Morocco proudly sells Morocco fashion, but on their own terms. I looked for a neatly organized shop showcasing local artisan brands, like the ones I found in Peru or Prague. But there were none that I could find. So instead, I’m going to give you some guidelines so that you can navigate the confusing and exhilarating shopping experience in this magnificent country.
Stay away from Western-owned and oriented shops.
Every store that was recommended to me by influencers and the internet turned out to be filled with imported interpretations of Moroccan vacation style: viscose kimonos, polyester caftans, and brightly colored accessories made in China. I found one pair of supposedly locally-made earrings in a store near the Yves Saint Laurent museum, but the rest of the two floors of the shop was filled with the kind of stuff you could find in one of those mid-range boutiques in Charleston. Other shops were filled with wildly overpriced ($1,500) designer silk caftans.
If you are going to visit a store, make sure it’s the Welcome to the Kingdom concept shop by local designer Amine Bendriouich. Or you could pop in LRNCE. It is owned by a Belgian designer, but she works with local artisans to slightly tweak traditional sandal and pottery making techniques to bring you a modern interpretation.
I suggest skipping all of the other trendy spots. If you want to really get the best stuff, you need to take a deep breath and…
Do your shopping in the souks.
There is no shortage of Moroccan-made objects for you to find. This country actually has an incredibly vibrant artisan craft culture for everything from home decor to fashion, kitchen tools and musical instruments, as well as large professional factories that can turn out thousands of t-shirts. It’s a mecca of locally-made.
And where you’ll find all of it is inside the dense markets called souks, with twisting and turning covered alleyways where tiny shops burst with product, old men lead donkeys laden down with water jugs, and young men on motorbikes whizz through while you flatten yourself against the wall.
It can be overwhelming – if you find a city like New York City to be too much for your senses, then I suggest you stay away from the souks. (And perhaps try Ensemble Artisanal instead, which has fixed prices and less pressure.) But if you like some adventure and one of the most thrilling, authentic shopping experiences of your life, you should absolutely go.
Pro tip: download the Maps.Me app for your phone, which is more precise within the medina and souks, so you can find your way out again!
Don’t rush it.
Shopping is an experience in Morocco, not a task. So take your time. You could set aside a whole day and be completely satisfied with how you spent it. Walk the souk from end to end and side to side to see everything that is available. You’ll find that many shops are selling the same thing, so don’t ever buy the first thing you see. For more expensive items like rugs, expect to spend at least an hour inside each shop. Touch everything. Talk to the shop owner. Ask questions. Go to lunch or dinner and come back the next day after giving it some thought. That’s the only way not to overspend and get things that you truly love.
Hire a local to help you shop.
I can tell you right now: unless you live for bargaining and/or you grew up in a non-Western culture, you will be massively outperformed by the shop owners, who aggressively ply their trade, cajoling and bargaining and acting out a whole Greek tragedy of emotions during the process. Plus, the souks are a maze, and if you see a product you like, it can be hard to know whether it is truly unique, or if there’s five more shops around the corner selling the exact same thing for a quarter of the price.
In Marrakesh, I recommend you hire Youssef, a wonderful local tour guide. He comes off as short in his emails, but in person, he is a perfect gentleman and full of smiles. He knows everyone, pausing to say hello every few feet when you walk with him through the souk. He offers general cultural tours around Marrakesh, but also shopping trips! Tell him what you’re looking for, and he’ll find it for you and then help you bargain with the shop owner.
Learn about Moroccan fashion.
Everyone likes to visit the Yves Saint Laurent museum and Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh. And yes, they’re both stunning. (Though, the “borrowing” from other cultures in the Yves Saint Laurent back catalog might make you uncomfortable.) But inside the Jardin resides the less well known Berber Museum, whose quiet interior showcases the traditional craft and fashion of the native Berber people of the Sahara. Do not miss it! Then stop by the new MACAAL contemporary art museum, maybe take an hour to look inside the Heritage Museum, which is full of artifacts and traditional objects from the mix of cultures that collide in Morocco, and pop in the newly opened Women’s Museum, which showcases the life and history of Moroccan women. All these places will add to your understanding of traditional fashion in Morocco, and make you a more savvy shopper.
Try to shop outside of Marrakesh.
Look, the souk in Marrakesh is great. But you should know that, as the tourist capital, the prices will be higher there and the selection more repetitive and predictable. Marrakesh shop owners have an idea of what the average tourist likes, so they buy lots of that and ignore the riskier (more unique) products. Plus, you won’t interface with the artisans here.
Fez is actually the trade center, where Marrakesh shop owners go to buy their wares. It’s less expensive and more ripe for discoveries. That’s where I found some of our favorite things, like a gold-and-cream beaded caftan fit for an empress, and my husband’s drop-crotch pants. The shop owners were more relaxed and helpful as well.
You could get argan oil products at Apia or Les Sens de Marrakech, but if you plan on driving through the Atlas Mountains or to Essaouira, skip those shops and look for women’s cooperatives right on the side of the road – the more rural and less trafficked by tourists, the better – which sell Ecocert, USDA organic, and EU bio-certified argan oil that is ethically sourced. Here are more tips on finding authentic argan oil cooperatives.
Safi on the coast is for pottery. The mountains are for green glazed tile. And Ourzouzate near the Sahara has artisan rugs and will let you try your hand at weaving. You get the point: get out of the city and get exploring!
Do NOT shop at the tannery in Fez.
This is my exception to my advice of going to the source. The famous Fez tannery looks great in photos, but it’s a toxic mess. And it is kept alive by gullible tourist shoppers. The shop owners and tour guides will tell you that it’s all-natural, non-toxic tanning, but that’s not true. Workers stand knee-deep in vats filled with carcinogenic heavy metals, and – unlike modern tanneries that have tight controls – the effluent is dumped straight into the Fez River, contaminating the food and water supply of locals.
Look, the pictures have been taken before a million times, the shop owners are pushy, the products are exploitative and polluting, and it smells awful. You can skip it, I promise, and you will be better off. If you buy your leather elsewhere, and it’s more likely to come from a modern, environmentally-friendly tannery. So do that.
Beware of Chinese knock-offs.
I wanted one of those famous Moroccan woven purses with the leather strap and buckle closure. I picked one up and looked at it, but noticed the thin weaving was already coming loose at an edge. When I found one at another shop, the weaving was twice as thick, and expertly finished on the edges. The buckle was heavier and higher quality, and the leather was too. The difference in quality was stark.
As the Chinese are wont to do all over the world, they have built their own factories in Morocco, and are now making cheap knock-offs of traditional Moroccan items. Technically, they are made in Morocco, but they’re definitely not the same as the real thing made by Moroccan craftspeople.
If you find something you like in a shop, carefully examine it. Check the seams, feel the textile for its weight and texture. Shake it and see how it holds up, if anything rattles or shakes loose. Then, hand it back and keep shopping. Look and see if you find more versions of it elsewhere (you probably will) and compare the quality. Pretty quickly you’ll be able to see the difference between an authentic and forgery and make a confident decision.
Don’t be afraid to bargain.
Look, I’m not usually one to bargain with artisans over their wares. I think they’re often massively undercharging, and what’s $5 more to me? But in the souk, you’re not going to find doe-eyed marginalized women sitting on the floor trying to sell you something they spend two weeks handcrafting. You’re going to find experienced businessmen who will skillfully manipulate your Western guilt in order to squeeze as much cash as they can out of every sale.
If you give up on bargaining, you’re just putting more money in the pockets of these middlemen between you and the artisan. It does the artisan no good. Plus, the first price they quote you is at least three times higher than what they could charge and still make a good profit margin. Though they will rant and rave and ask you how you expect them to feed their family with such a low low price, they expect you to bargain. It’s part of the experience, it’s part of the fun. It’s part of the culture!
And I’m not talking $5 more dollars. If you’re on a serious shopping trip – for rugs, poufs, caftans, shoes, musical instruments, tea sets – failing to bargain can add hundreds of dollars to your bill that you could have saved for another cultural tour or a nice meal.
- Aim for a third of the price they originally quote you.
- Walk away. They will call out increasingly lower numbers after you. That’s how you can find the lowest price they’re willing to give you.
We did stop at an artisan rug cooperative on our way back from the Sahara, and we even bargained there too a bit. My mom wanted to buy two rugs. The elderly woman named her price and looked at my mom with a twinkle in her eye. It was astronomical. Our tour guide had told us to bargain on the way in, but my mom looked massively uncomfortable, so I stepped in and used my schoolgirl French to start the bargaining process. After some immense sighs undergirded by a faint smile and then laughter from both sides, we settled on a price. It was still too high, but I was bad at the game. She earned it! (Full disclosure: when the rugs arrived to my mom’s house in Arizona, they were two completely different shades of blue. So they got the last laugh anyway.)
Ask them to throw in free tailoring.
In the U.S. this is something you’ll only get at the highest quality brands. But here it’s easy to get done. Try on the fashion, and if there’s anything off, just ask if they can tailor it. I got my caftan shortened, and my husband had zippers added to the pocket of his shorts so his phone won’t fall out. They were thrilled to accommodate – they want that sale! And it’s also a great opportunity to forge a deeper connection with the person who’s selling you your item: laugh, chat, ask about their family, sip some mint tea, and walk away with something that fits you perfectly.