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Medina to Prada: An Arranged Marriage

This past Sunday morning I was in Morocco, in Fez for the World Sacred Music Festival taking photographs along the way.

The next day, Monday morning, I was in New York, a stop-over between flights, walking with my camera.

Today, Tuesday, now, I am back home in Los Angeles, joining images together, thinking I’d be writing a framing paragraph of straightforward information about the origins of these jolts of color.

I thought that this was going to be a comparison about fashion, maybe even a snarky one: a comparison between the authentic Medina quarter of Fez — a maze of shops and residences, mosques and fountains, artisans and palaces — and the Dover Street Market which I came upon on 30th and Lexington, where I pressed 5 and the glass elevator glided up past art installations and merchandise, here collapsed into one, delivering me to Prada.

I thought I’d compare the Arabian Nights fantasy clothing of Prada — radical unnecessaries for First World consumers — to the actual life lived in the Medina. Of course, that would be foolish of me: what do I know of that ‘actual life?’ For that matter, what do I know of Prada, on a top floor way higher than my means? What can I say to criticize the sublime Rei Kawakubo, whose concept Dover Street is: “I want to create a kind of market where various creators from various fields gather together and encounter each other in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos – the mixing up and coming together of different kindred souls who all share a strong personal vision.”

In truth ‘beautiful chaos’ is also a wonderful description of the Medina in Fez.

I do know something about markets, though. Wherever I go, in whatever city, markets are what I first search out. And that is what the Medina is, as much as Dover Street. Even as residents were out and about buying food, that most radical of necessaries, I was being brandished to buy — as a tourist, of course — but then again my guide stopped at a hole in the wall (literally) to pick up his own object of desire, a pair of new baboush shoes, those custom-made yellow backless flats with upcurling pointed toes, custom made for him.

Market to market, consumer to consumer: differences there are, but snark won’t cut it.

Nor can I use appropriation of turban-and-veil by Prada as a sign of First World decadence. Appropriation is always how style travels, turning into something new as it goes along. Several years ago walking through a Mayan Highlands village, a textile expert told me how much he enjoys going back week after week to see how traditional clothing is always changing, incorporating some new piece of contemporary global design.

And it’s not just ‘contemporary,’ not just ‘global; The Silk Road isn’t called SILK for nothing. Trade makes fashion exchanges possible, sparking the imagination again and again. Merchants in the souks of Fez — and everywhere else — have always called out to caravans entering their city walls: “What new thing are you bringing me?”

Images too carry accretions; they can never be explained by straightforward information. Joined together they also stand solo in the space between introduction and union, mysterious as an arranged marriage.

All photographs © Janet Sternburg



  1. Another fascinating essay by Sternburg, and what photos!

  2. Amy Brook Snider says:

    Looking at these lush photos I was reminded of E. M. Forster’s line from Howard’s End, “Only Connect!”
    What a great “arranged marriage” Janet has provided here!

  3. Original, insightful and a delight to read and look! As usual. Colors, textiles, fashion, markets, foreign lands, the stuff we always talk about, but I don’t know if arranged marriage would be that much fun. Food next time?

  4. Lewin Wertheimer says:

    Janet’s comparisons and contrasts once again make for provocative reading. I too have enjoyed the markets of Morocco since I was twelve and now need to start my Prada shopping experience or at least window shopping experience. Thank you again.

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