Hassan Hajjaj: The Fusion King of Colour

I’ve known Hass since the mid-80’s – an influential London figure in clubs, fashion and now art, and a beautiful man.

Hassan’s work is a distinctive blend of his Moroccan/London background, and shows a fresh view into the Moroccan culture through many different processes – clothing print and design, photography, styling and film as well as the design of the frames that became almost as integral to his work as the pictures themselves. 

1/7: Upbringing & Early Years

Hass, tell me a little bit about your early life. When did you first come to the UK, how did you and your family feel, and how and what did you do in school?

I was born in Larache, a small fishing port in Morocco and came to London in 1970 with my mum. My dad was already in London since 1966. It wasn’t a choice, I moved with my family, 7 of us living in one room in Copenhagen Street, just off Chapel Market. It wasn’t easy starting at a new school in the 2nd year with no English at all and no friends. I came out of school with zero qualifications, I don’t think that I even took exams. In the 70’s there were no other Moroccans, so my friends tended to be Jamaican, Caribbean, many different cultures, in the ‘melting pot’ that was London.

2/7: The RAP Years

Is RAP (Real Artistic People – Hassan’s original streetwear label launched in the 80’s, with a shop in Neal Street) still your first love or has it been superseded by your photography/artwork? It still has a very special place in my memory!

I think RAP was really my schooling in a sense, it started with me, Vanessa, and my sister. It was a time of expression in London. Having the store opened up so many doors for me, music, art, fashion. It was a great time in the 80’s and loads of fun and we were in the West End – Neal St was very different back then, we were the first clothing shop on that street. I was the second person selling 2nd hand 501 Levi’s in London, I’d mix them with old private school tracksuits and John Smedley knitwear and make it a London look for that time. There were also a few friends’ clothes that I put in there. Basically finding a new look with a street-wear vibe. While doing this, I started meeting new people, in fact you’re one of them. I didn’t even know what styling was until I started assisting you, probably 10 times, including Michiko Koshino, some shoots and a couple of shows in Paris. For me you were part of my schooling back in the day. I also had a great friend Zak Ove (son of Horace Ove) and he was shooting and directing music videos and I worked with him, learning all the way. Then I started to incorporate a gallery in the shop showing my friends’ work; I was selling tickets to clubs, and then I started selling Stussy, then John Galliano’s diffusion range, then Nick Coleman’s clothes and it gradually changed into a full-on fashion store. When I was designing, I can’t call myself a designer but I used to make a sketch of what I wanted, things like MA1 jackets in leather – all that influenced my photography – I’ve never been comfortable calling myself a photographer with so many incredible people already doing it so I’ve always said that I use photography as my medium to create.

3/7: The London Club Scene Influence

What was your most memorable club night? Either one of your own or any others.

4/7: The Design & Making Process & Collaborations

Tell us a little bit about your art process…. how you start a project and when you decide that you’re finished! Are they normally commission based or do you self-fund?

With all of my work they can start from a person, a textile or a backdrop. All the pictures I do, I do for myself at the beginning. Recently I’ve been doing a few commissions. All the influences we talked about before have been from RAP in the 80’s up to now – I had an idea to fuse textiles, characters and design. There is no beginning, middle or end – I would like to dress up most of the people that I shoot – but they all have a great sense of style and with some of them I just add sunglasses or a hat to finish off their look.

I know you have photographed global superstars like Will Smith and Madonna but you always do this sort of thing under your own rules, without their own team telling you what to do. Can you tell us any interesting/fun tales?

I’ve been very lucky to be able to shoot these people and have them come into my world – so I respect them and they respect me. With Will Smith he was over-generous and a lovely person – he came with a bunch of his friends, I did lunch for him at my Riyadh and asked to shoot him; he said yes – I had 4 days before shooting him, went out, found some fabric, took it to my tailor, he said he could make it in time – picked it up and then dressed him and his friends. These are global superstars and have so many pictures taken of them over the years and my work really isn’t about that – I really only take pictures of people that I really admire… the underdogs, the strivers, people that have something and I feel funny showing the superstar side of my work sometimes, but I do work in popular culture and as such they definitely have a place. I will give Will a copy and at some point I’m sure I’ll show it.

Cardi B, I got a call when in Dohar asking me to come to New York Cover magazine – I was in New York a couple of days later, they had a stylist who brought clothes to the shoot – Marc Jacobs, Fendi, LV, Tom Ford etc; I had my little rail of pieces as well. It was a job! I respected this and knew it would happen like this – we started shooting her stuff, but we were waiting on the day of the shoot as she was late and when she arrived she sat in her car for a while; I asked her team to bring her in, hair and make up etc takes a while – she kept turning around to her assistant shouting “Did you find my fucking watch”, this went on all day – at about 4pm I asked her what the watch thing was all about and she had lost her $150,000 watch and so much respect as she was actually very professional all things considered!! At the end of the day I had a chat with the stylist “Listen, can I say something to you (he wasn’t able to mix the brands that he had brought – could only shoot them in whole outfits) don’t take it the wrong way – you could have brought some young independent edgy designers and this could have been so much more fun.”

Madonna – she had bought 3 of my pieces from a gallery in New York in 2004, she was having her 60th birthday at a friend’s house in Marrakech and I got a call. I sent an e-mail to her assistant asking if Madonna was up for coming to my place for a shoot, I didn’t think I’d get a response – the next morning I got “Wow, amazing – let’s make it happen” as a reply. I ended up helping her book some musicians for her birthday party and on the day of the shoot I told her I normally don’t have a stylist or make up artist – I like it being artist to artist as much a possible – “No pressure just dress up and play, have fun” – they accepted. I went out and bought fabric, also had your Immortal glasses on the shoot, so she turned up with friends and entourage and I shot a few of them – she was totally cool. After that there were the contracts, percentages worked out, 3 editions per image etc. She is a brand and you have to respect that.

5/7: Inspiration & Admired Artists

What camera do you use? And being self-taught do you find technology at all intimidating?

I learnt on an old camera that I bought from Zak Ove in 1989 – a Pentax MX, he showed me how to use it along with Richard Gordon, Blaize and other friends. I miss shooting on film, all manual, you have to really think when working with this camera, 36 shots you don’t see them immediately like now. When digital came I tried to fight it as long as possible, it’s a different vibe – like playing vinyl on your record player versus cd or pressing the button on your laptop. Digital world can fuck up your head a little bit as there are so many options – but as I only really shoot in daylight I simplify as much as I can – hardly ever flash, all my shoots are in the street as much as possible. Because I’m not a technical ‘photographer’ it’s really not about having the biggest, most expensive camera; if I can make an image that can touch a person that’s more important than the technical side. If I hear a song that was recorded in the most crude way it can still touch me. My images are about the whole pictures and frame and visual – but the idea is simple – the person and me.

How do you feel about your ‘Andy Warhol of Marrakech’ tag?

I understand why – I’m working in popular culture using lots of popular products – this started in the 90’s; in 2001 a friend of mine Rachid Taha (who sadly passed away very recently, he did a fantastic version of Rock the Casbah by The Clash – listen at end of question 5) was a very important singer from North Africa, he was rock n roll. I got to know him a bit and in 2000 I was having some food with him in Goldbourne Road (West London) and I showed him some postcards of my work and he smiled and said “Andy Warhol”; I said you know that everyone says that and he looked at me again and said “Andy Wahloo” which in North African means ‘I have nothing!’ I said “Rachid, I’m taking that name.” Then I opened the bar in Paris for Mourad (Momo’s and Sketch in London) we named it Andy Wahloo. Everything was recycled, all made from nothing, you can look at it in a different way though – because I’m Moroccan do I need to be tagged in a Western way? I really don’t mind.

6/7: Brand Collaborations & The Gucci Connection

Tell me about your relationships with the massive brands whose branding you appropriate for your artworks, Gucci, Nike, etc. – while discussing looking at a scooter covered in LV branding, slippers with Gucci logo etc, anyone else that did this would be sued!

It started back in the 80’s when I was doing RAP, we were young kids that aspired to wear these brands which were a bit too expensive and didn’t design the type of clothing that we wanted to wear so at that point we used to buy the fabric and sew it into clothes – you remember Barnzley doing the Chanel 5 stuff? Coming from this background of counterfeit kids – so when I started doing pictures it just happened naturally.

I had a mural that I did in East London outside a Moroccan restaurant of a girl wearing an LV veil, it was there for 10 years and never got any graffiti!

I had one problem with Louis Vuitton when I had a show in 2007 in Dubai; one of my images was on the cover of a french magazine and they put pressure on the gallery and subpoena’d my work – I just added a piece of paper (saying it was not real Louis Vuitton) to the exhibition under each artwork. In 2010 I got a letter inviting me to Paris saying they were followers of my work (the V&A had just bought 1 of my prints for their collection at that time) and that they support artists and could I come and have a meeting – I went there and I was in their counterfeit room talking with them. In conversation with their lawyer we were trying to find a way of making it work but they really wanted me to use their own original fabrics, scarves etc… they also wanted me to do a campaign as they were opening a store in Morocco. I couldn’t agree to this as my work is not fashion and so nothing has yet been resolved – but I am not selling their (fake) products, I am using them for my artwork only. But big changes are at foot now with designers such as Virgil Abloh and their prestigious appointments – these guys grew up like us! He’ll understand what I am doing….

7/7: The Future & The Karima Feature Film Project

Did you enjoy making your first feature length film ‘Karima: a day in life of a henna girl’ and is this something you will continue? With Karima did you story-board your ideas or was it much more off the cuff and improvised?  How long was the process? I know you had showings at the British Museum and some incredibly important places around the world…

It was a weird piece of film, I never thought it would be offered theatrical release. Karima has become a good friend; I met her when she was 15 – 25 years ago. Her grandma started working in the square as the Henna girl and so she is 3rd generation – and I’ve shot her in my work since 1998 – she was also in the Madonna pictures. It took 3 years from the idea to making the film, I wanted to take a character from my pictures and allow the audience to spend some time with her – she is the first of these. I know her family well, I knew what the beginning and end would be – her work and home and then set up some more stylised bits (I really wanted the end result to look like a cult B—movie)  like the girls on bikes. Shot the whole thing in a day and a half, I had 5 cameras, 2 go-pros a D5 and D7 and a flipback that gave me some great footage from tiebacks offices. The edit was hard, 2 months, Pete Stern edited for me, 1 month in Marrakech then I went to LA for a month with him – total crew was me, a runner, my friend, Stella and Omar. Blind faith and naivety and we ended up with something quite real that I’m very proud of.

Who would you like to play you in a movie about your life so far?

Rachid Taha (God bless him) or my son.