Close relationships with a network of highly skilled artisans have become integral to the LRNCE brand, as well as to Laurence’s happiness in her adopted home. She’s warm and curious, and her enthusiasm quickly rubs off – it’s not a coincidence that people are keen to give her ideas a try. The techniques of the craftspeople she works with have defined the look of her products as much as her designs – it’s a collaborative process that requires a deep mutual understanding and shared belief in every piece. But it hasn’t always been easy. With a Flemish mother tongue, Laurence found conversing in Arabic or French challenging when she first arrived, meaning commissions were communicated by pen and paper. Sometimes Laurence also encountered a stubbornness to try something new. “There are a lot of people who are not very interesting to work with, you’ll give them a drawing and they’ll make something completely different, and tell you it’s far better like this,” she says. At the beginning for example, the fringing of her amusingly named Moustache sandals was continuously being cut short, as the leatherworker refused to believe anyone would want a sandal that hid the toes. “You need to find someone who respects what you want, but using their knowledge, can make it even better.”
I’m clinging to the back of a moped, as it whizzes down a sun-parched highway on the north-west outskirts of Marrakech. We weave between rusty cars, donkey carts piled precariously with fruit, and a pack of equally impatient motorbikes; I’m gripping so tightly my hands have gone porridge-grey. The person fearlessly negotiating us through the post-lunch traffic is designer Laurence Leenaert, who for the past three years has run her fashion and homewares brand LRNCE from this hectic Moroccan city. The entire collection, from the strangely anthropomorphic sandals to her naive ceramics daubed with joyful symbols, is made in Morocco in collaboration with local artisans. Laurence is currently taking me to meet three brothers based in Marrakech’s maze-like medina, who weave the cloth she uses for her oversized shirts, kimonos and kaftan-like gandora. Small and slight, Laurence is a demon behind the handlebars. We speed past pink-tinged housing blocks, faded factories and out of town supermarkets, and, as we pause at a junction just outside the walled marketplace that has made Marrakech a magnet for craft and trade for centuries, she turns to me. “Are you still breathing?” This is a part of my visit I will not be revealing to my insurance company, or my mum.
Spending time with Laurence, it’s clear that her mettle and eagerness is not exclusive to motorised vehicles. Her studio is filled with experiments in different materials and techniques – testament to her ability to persuade artisans to give the unorthodox a whirl. Even as a student she was restless to try the next thing; leaving her fashion degree at Kask in her native Belgium to intern with Berlin fashion label Bless, before ditching that to set up her own brand. Back then, in 2013, LRNCE was an accessories label selling graphic canvas and leather bags with unusual details like rope straps and spherical cork fastenings. But a holiday to Morocco with her sister changed the direction of the brand forever. “It bothered me that everyone in Belgium was doing the same thing, graduating, finding a job, all the time thinking about earning money,” Laurence says of the career conveyor belt when we chat at her studio, a light-drenched modern build in a dusty, industrial corner of Sidi Ghanem. “It sounds very clichéd but it didn't feel like me. Here there are people living in the desert. Nobody's telling them what to do. They just live to survive, people are relaxed and open. You can really breathe.”