One slow stitch at a time

By Kylie McKenzie

HF chatted with Belgian designer, Valerie Barkowski, about how small, simple sustainable acts and mindful values are the catalysts that will transform conventional consumption.

Driven by a passion for ancestral craft traditions and the dialogue between global cultures culled from a lifetime of travel, Valerie is a 360° artistic director and designer who channels her creativity and interior design talent into an array of boutique projects, collaborations, concepts and trademark brands. She has been passionately creating sophisticated, timeless linens for over two decades.

Q) You’ve always faithfully designed and produced pieces that are impeccable and slow by nature. How did that come to be?

A) I’ve always looked for ways to infuse craftsmanship with sustainability and authenticity. I can literally spend hours watching an artist’s hands they’re mesmerizing. Nimble fingers stitching magic with just a needle and thread. Hypnotic hands kneading bread. Gifted hands gracefully transforming simple raw materials using timeless traditions.

Q) Keeping ancient skills alive is something you love to talk about. Is it true you fell in love with embroidery in Marrakech in the ‘90s?

A) When I arrived there in 1996, I was fascinated by stories of young brides hand-embellishing their trousseaux and naturally wanted my own embroidered bedding!

Sadly, I discovered this was all but an abandoned tradition. It proved impossible to find even the linen, much less the embroiderers, in the Marrakech souks. This is how it all began for me. In my quest to revive centuries-old techniques, I was soon scouring the far reaches of Morocco in search of the textiles and skilled women who were often hidden behind closed doors. Three years and immense patience and respect later, my first collection was born. In the process, it seems I revived their forgotten needlework traditions and gave them new breath.

Q) Is it true that your first pompom-festooned pieces that are steeped in tradition remain a key reference?

A) Absolutely. Two decades on, the original signature collection remains current and coveted by loyal clientele of both decorators and private collectors. I’ve always created products to stand the test of time—our throw-away culture is heartbreaking. Hopefully my linens will be passed on to the next generation, just as our families did in the past. I love when clients reminisce about their emotional connection to my linens … recalling their exceptional memories and the special occasions they represent.

Passementerie, tassels, hand-finishes and knitted textiles, boldly reinterpreted and thoroughly contemporary, yet overflowing with historical meaning have always been part of my work.

Q) Tell us why a designer shouldn’t be without skilled craftspeople?

A) I’ve always immersed myself in studying and understanding the creative process, but I never try to interfere with an artisan’s hand. Instead, I’ve harnessed the artistry of time-tested techniques and given them a daring contemporary twist and a fresh relevance.

Q) You’ve referred to yourself as a dreamer and a serial nomad. Is that how you get your ideas?

A) I’m fascinated by the dialogue between cultures and, as a 20-year-plus student and lover of art and design, I continue to comb the planet in search of inspiration. For me, travel is a vital, conceptual stimuli. It fuels my creativity with colour, new vibrations and sensorial experiences that invariably kindle a new story… a new concept.

Q) It seems that your textiles take us on a global journey too. Its not just Marrakech based is it?

A) I’m blessed with marvellous collaborations in India, Russia, Vietnam and Europe, not to mention our growing, exquisitely edited, Marrakech-based collection. We  have thoughtful connections across the globe.

I think of our textiles as infused with purity and authenticity. We follow an exacting design process for knitwear, custom-made linens, and weaving projects.

Q) You speak of staying at Dar Kawa?

A) Yes. It’s my original Marrakech bolthole and now a stylish Riad guesthouse, just minutes from both my atelier and boutique in the bustling heart of the Medina. It’s a whitewashed oasis—the perfect synthesis of traditional style and restrained modernity. Dar Kawa is the very DNA of the V.B. brand where we showcase, in equal aplomb, homewares collection, design flare and our “slow” sustainable, organic lifestyle.

Marrakech is a fantastic base, but my creativity needs constant refueling! I’ve had a lifetime of global adventures to infuse my creative spirit.

Q) Is most of your work made to order?

A) We opened an e-shop in early 2020, however, most of my collection is made to order. They’re essentially bespoke products made-to-measure in a wide choice of colours and finishes. As everything is handmade, the repertoire is endless.

Q) You say sustainability is a lifestyle for you. Could you explain how that is a litte bit more?

A) This pandemic has reinforced my concern to take my work and personal lifestyle decisions to the next level so that I can contribute every day to a better planet. I’m now focused on following alternative paths involving less travel to minimize my carbon footprint, yet still fuel my senses.

And I’m doubling my energy towards finding sustainable solutions that develop responsible products while preserving ancient craft traditions, both locally in Morocco and beyond. This centuries-old artisan savoir-faire constitutes a living legacy that must be preserved.

Q) Has making eco-conscious choices elsewhere like the grocery store and local restaurants become increasingly important to you?

A) Certainly. We’re bombarded by an onslaught of exotic edibles from all over the world… like air-freighted organic garlic from Argentina and Peruvian avocados. This causes a catastrophic environmental impact. On the other hand, I believe that buying a hand-woven yak hair scarf in Tibet, Chamba black ceramics from Colombia or hand-embroidered Moroccan bed linen is actually ethical shopping because it helps preserve so many
time-tested, millennia-old craft traditions while ensuring the livelihoods of the craftspeople.

Q) What’s your message then about the trend towards full-on globalization? After all, you are known as a  dedicated, long-term advocate of ethical living, truly sustainable manufacturing, as well as globalization.

A) Mine is a “shop smart” message that invites people to think globally and act locally. Buying local is essential for all of us today in every country and it will be even more paramount tomorrow, and in the future.  I believe each one of us  should be passionately advocating against and rejecting any type of fast consumption. We should also support those making handmade goods—even those from afar.

I started 20 years ago, instinctively making sustainable choices that made me an outsider, vehemently avoiding mass buying manufacturing, while turning away from fast fashion and successive assembly-line collections.
My craftspeople have always tried their best to be as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible in their practices.

From day one, I produced on-demand and on-order to minimize my risk of overproduction and embraced environmentally sensitive practices.

For me, direct personal dialogue with clients is essential; life is, after all, a compilation of a variety of human exchanges. Today, it’s rewarding knowing that my deliberate choices have ensured that my projects have always been consistently slow and sustainable, long before it was fashionable.

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