HOW IT BEGAN
El Fenn is all about a home from home experience and it springs from the fact that the two original owners didn’t plan on opening a hotel at all. In 2002, Howell James and Vanessa Branson were hunting for a holiday house in Marrakech. At the end of a long day, the close friends walked into what was then a near derelict riad. By the time they left an hour later, they were on the way to owning not just one Marrakech home – but several. Unknown to them, the main building (today centred on the courtyard that houses our reception) was being sold with a string of smaller properties – some with only one or two rooms. It was only when Howell, a former permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office who has also held senior positions at the BBC and Christie’s, and Vanessa – an art collector, gallerist and patron - signed the sale papers that they realised just how much house they were getting. They took a leap of faith and decided to open a small guesthouse.
Vanessa and Howell’s original vision was to use the large scale rooms as a backdrop for strong colours, the abundant artisan skills found in Morocco, deep baths, powerful showers, handmade beds, luxury linen, and delicious, simple food. Mixed in would be serious contemporary art and striking mid-century modern furniture. El Fenn opened its doors in 2004 with six bedrooms, soon gained a cult following and expanded into neighbouring properties.
The next phase of El Fenn’s life came in 2011 when our managing partner Willem Smit arrived to run the hotel - and kick start a refurbishment that built on the original look and feel. In 2020, he also oversaw our expansion into neighbouring properties with the addition of rooms, a new roof top pool and ground floor bar & restaurant. El Fenn’s drama and decorative abundance has earned it a reputation as one of Marrakech’s most beautiful hotels – with Architectural Digest calling it ‘Instagram gold’ – and today we employ ninety staff and stretch over a site occupying an entire acre of the medina. It’s a constant process because nothing stays the same for too long at El Fenn. Paintings, colours, fabrics, furniture and spaces are constantly being repositioned, reinvigorated or reinvented so that each time you come back, you'll find something new.
In 2018, El Fenn’s newest partners joined the team and a new era began. Painter turned designer Madeline Weinrib ran her eponymous textile brand for more than 20 years blending the beauty of traditional crafts with her own unique aesthetic. She worked with artisans across the world: block printers in India, weavers in Uzbekistan and rug makers in Morocco. You can now find Madeline's rugs in the Cristina Grajales gallery in New York.
Now, in addition to creating truly bespoke pieces for private clients in New York, Madeline is bringing her eye, aesthetic and experience to El Fenn. She’s joined by her husband Graham Head, president and vice chairman of the iconic New York store abc carpet and home, who has spent the last 30 years scouring the world for rugs and textiles that have changed the home furnishing world.
A NEW ERA FOR TRAVEL
In 2020, El Fenn is undergoing its latest phase of expansion as we expand into a neighbouring property and add new rooms plus a large roof top pool and ground floor kitchen, bar & private dining room. But despite all this growth and change, the core of El Fenn remains: connection and community - to other guests, our wonderful team and the rich culture of Morocco. This, we believe, is the future of travel.
Just a 5-minute stroll from Jemaa El Fna or take a taxi direct to our door, we are perfectly situated wherever you may be in the city. If you want to drop in for drinks or a bite to eat, get in touch to book a table.