Atelier Dore Retreat: Stories are an Empathy Machine

–Tracy McMillan

Knowledge and friendship were passed around like mint green tea, wrinkled olives and dusty almonds.

Above the city, a pin drop of pink mixed with the sky, giving it the palest-petal cast. A whisper of a breeze wove through us. Girl’s, girls, up on the roof. Dreams unfolding, and extending, undetected until there was a slight catch in the heart. Conversation with talking hands softly cupped upward as if taking communion, sweeping up through the middle of the breasts, opening and releasing the young sparkle inside. Stories of struggle, strength, sisterhood.

Riad El Fenn was the host for The Atelier Doré Marrakech Retreat. This monument to groovy, sophisticated style is owned by Vanessa Branson, Richard Branson’s sister. It is outrageous color, velvets, marble, heavy embroidery, yeseria (carved plasterwork), tile, centuries-old patinaed wood, palm fronds, mid-century modern chairs and tables, with dramatic photography, and a note of rock ‘n roll. Wherever the eye rests there are bright, open-air rooms to gather, a spot for two in a corner, verandas with dappled light, and soaring structure that is just shy of being massive. Going up, it’s segmented by plaster walls, fauna spilling over balconies, grand columns, delicate, iron-grilled windows, and ancient green curved tiles that lead up to the open sky. This was our sanctuary for the next five days.

Themed, The Art of Storytelling, Atelier Doré brought together 20 women from all over the world. We are long-time readers of Garance Doré’s decade-old blog. Some were there to connect with the woman and the spirit of her work, others for business inspiration, many to bind back to their creativity. They are business owners, a pharmacist, a lawyer, a software developer, advertising salesperson, e-commerce developers, bloggers, author, a stylist, a branding expert, a visual artist, event planner, a religious historian academic, property manager, food distributor. They came from San Fransisco, Houston, Vancouver, L.A., Portland, Toronto, New Jersey, New York, London, France, Istanbul, Lisbon. There have been many different cities, towns, villages along the way to where they reside now—and lots of travel. At first meeting there was the cover. Then pressing open the spine, there are the words on the page—curious, smart, good-hearted, learners, fun and vibrant, with fire for more.

The retreat was anchored by three speakers telling their stories around personal awareness, photography, and creating a business. Each woman’s journey formed the outline for their class, to help us find our own story. It wasn’t systems, and mechanics, it was heart and soul. But through the retelling, pointed recommendations emerged. Everyday we hear sugary, sound bites telling us to live our dreams, not let others stand in our way, just put one foot in front of the other, to do it our way. But here, the fluff was evidenced with solid form. Tracy McMillan, Garance Doré and Morgane Sézalory have created hugely successful brands around finding their way, stumble after stumble.

Tracy McMillan is a celebrated author, television writer and relationship expert. She has been a guest on Oprah. Doesn’t that say it all? Tracy became well-known in 2011 with a viral piece in the Huffington Post titled, “Why You’re Not Married.” The first speaker, she quickly broke down our barriers within, and with one another. There is an energy and warmth in Tracy that pulls her tough story to a light hand. Funny, and alive, her story has honor and she gives everyone in it grace.

Life wraps itself around whatever choice you make.

She took us through a guided meditation to meet our young selves. We envisioned what that little girl looked like. Where were we? What did she say back to her now-adult self? There was a real connectedness to that purity, and in the sharing, to the other women. Another exercise was to imagine writing a part for ourselves in a show. What would our character be like? What does she bring to the plot? What positives, and negatives make up this interesting woman?

What gets her up in the morning? What are the three obstacles that keep her from being who she is supposed to be?

The powerful ending to Tracy’s session was that a well-edited story can heal the wounds we pick up along the way. That having courage to go for it—regardless of teachably good or bad outcomes—makes for a far more interesting tale. She encouraged us to know that our dreams are personalized, so we are given the means to manifest them, or we wouldn’t be given those particular dreams.

Photo:  Vicki Archer @vickiarcher

The following day we met on the rooftop in a space just large enough to hold us. Easing into deep-seated cushions and striped Berber pillows, we circled old farmers’ tables under an awning of flowing burlap. It was time to hear the story of Garance Dore. I loved reading her New York Times Bestseller, Love x Style x Life. This was a more intimate telling of desires and hopes, struggle and resilience, and staying true to herself. A humble narrative, every now and then Garance let a success fall from the sky. Her life has wandered along with little planning, but the purpose at the start was clear. Be an artist and survive. Garance went from illustrations, to writing, to photography, finding that the medium could be dynamic, but that the creator was solidly within.

Art is about how we connect with ourselves,

not about what we do.

She has built her brand, now called Atelier Doré, by sticking to her essence, doing the next right thing, shifting with the times. There is an artistry to her business model that smudges freedom of expression over business practicality. The numbers, strategies and management go to her new business partner, Emily. Beginning as her Editorial Assistant, Emily has combined on-the-job experience, textbook learning and drive to share in Garance’s story. Love and trust make it work between the two.

Photography touchpoints occurred throughout Garance’s story. Like how two people shooting the same photo take it very differently, according to each ones personality. One might invite the subject in, while the other keeps it at a distance. The shots you choose can say just as much about you, as the subject. She suggested to be purposeful with the image you’re trying to capture—don’t run around snapping whatever you see. And respect people, but take the shot—don’t miss a great moment because of fear.

Don’t ever miss the opportunity to steal the photo–the emotion will never come twice.

We took photos on our own around El Fenn for about 20 minutes, then Garance critiqued them. She taught us the importance of a focal point, the light, dark and lines of shadow, what creates drama, that an image should create curiosity about the story.

We see Garance’s vulnerability and softness in her writing. It’s in the telling, in person, that her complement is revealed. She is a fighter—for connection, for value, for success on her own terms. These days, prosperity for Atelier Doré means work fitting into a beautiful life.


Part 2 later this week.

Photos: Dawn Bell Solich



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