Tango’s Driss Lambaraa spent his teenage saturday afternoons in Casablanca, Morocco, dressed in French finery, dancing to a mono turntable. Grant Fell and Yasmine Ganley learn about his circuitous journey, via Tangiers, Paris, Slyt and Innsbruck to his revered vintage store in Little High Street, Auckland. Photo: Calypso Paoli.
Grant Fell and Yasmine Ganley: Hi Driss, let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from, where did you grow up?
Driss Lambaraa: Ah, I was born in Casablanca, in Morocco. Many years ago! (laughs)
YG: What was Casablanca like?
Casablanca was at the time, ah...ok now maybe you will know my age! It was the Fifties. It was an amazing, amazing city. It was also very fashionable at that time.
GF: Was it a Bohemian city?
Yeah, we were all really into fashion. As kids we would go to the harbour and wait for the big American ships loaded with French fashion – all the big French labels, all the clothes, and they would donating them to Morocco. We had this big passion for clothes and would help them unload them all, put them all into bags.
GF: Wow, there’s something romantic about that. Casablanca dockside, 1950’s, beautiful French fashion…
Yeah, that’s what we used to do. We would be helping them out and at the same time looking for pieces for us, we used to choose our own stuff in return for helping them out.
YG: So that hunting and collecting thing came quite early for you then! Where did you wear your clothes out?
We grew up with French, Jewish and Moroccan kids, so we were three different cultures. Every weekend we had a competition to see ‘who has the best clothes, who has the best stuff’ – we’d grab all of the fashion magazines like Paris Vogue. That was the time of Brigitte Bardot, Johnny Holiday, you know, it was very fashionable.
GF: Serge Gainsbourg?
Serge Gainsbourg, and Jane Birken, yeah. We admired them for their clothes, and would try to get the same look.
YG: Tell us more about the competition.
Every Saturday at 2 o’clock in the afternoon we used to have big, big parties, surprise parties, where the Moroccans, the French and the Jewish would get together, and we would have this competition. The French and the Jewish would go back to Paris with their family for their school holidays. They would come back with all these beautiful clothes, and we would be waiting for them to show up, because we were also dressed up in amazing clothes from the boat. We would also get clothes from the flea market in Casablanca.
GF: Was it a Bazaar!
Yes, the flea market is open seven days a week. We used to pick up Fifties Levi’s, cord Levi’s were just so cool.
GF: What labels were coming in from France on the boat?
Yves Saint Laurent we used to hunt, madly. Lanvin, Balmain, Balenciaga. In my free time I used to help a suit maker, just to gain experience. I was very skinny, so the suits that came in from America for example, were way too big and I learned how to resize them to fit my build.
GF: Did you learn about patternmaking and cutting?
Yeah, yeah I used to do it all for free…
GF: Do you still do that sort of stuff?
Yes, of course. A lot of Moroccans would also go to France with their family and would come back with a lot of stuff, which would end up in the flea market. We would be saving the last penny just to get a cool, cool blazer or a cool, cool jacket from Paris, or Denmark, to go to these surprise parties. I was the first one to turn up on a Saturday afternoon with a mono turntable!
My brother was working in Paris and he bought me back the first mono turntable. That meant that every Saturday at the surprise party, they needed me!
GF: DJ Driss, in the house, 2pm Sat afternoon, Casablanca, 1959!
Yeah at first, and I was also the best dancer! It was rock’n’roll! You know, Fifties, Sixties. There was a lot of rock’n ‘roll, very French too!
Yes, early Sixties, I was James Brown, mid-60s I moved on to Hendrix.
GF: Did you have a ‘fro!?
Biggest afro ever! We went from Casablanca to Tangier. Tangier was the Hippy place in the 1960’s. I lived there all summer, every summer, I was twelve or thirteen, I don’t know - my parents were mad! I was thirteen with a big afro, platforms (laughs), and the biggest flares that we used to make ourselves. It was ‘who has the biggest flare?’ Flares were good for clubbing, but the clubbing was in the afternoon, not a night thing like it is here. Tangier was really popular with people like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Cream, The Spencer Davis Group, those sorts of people. There was a coffee shop, the famous Cafe Baba up on the hill and we used to go there to smoke, of course we used to smoke, and the at same time I used to take all these people around - in return, you know, I was mad, I just wanted their jacket. I would show them where to go. Then I moved to Paris.
YG: How old were you then?
Mmm, 19yrs old. 1969, I moved to my mum’s side of the family,
GF: Was that the first time you’d left Morocco, left Casablanca or Tangier?
Yes, I went to Spain first. I went to Los Molinos, that was really famous in the late Sixties. It was a hippy place, a party place, it’s like Ibiza now, people would just come to party. From there, we would go back to Morocco, to Tangier, and come back again, because there were no borders. You could travel freely.
GF: When you eventually got to Paris what did you do there?
I went to Paris to finish school, then went to Switzerland. I attended Mozart, a hotel school for three years learning hotel management. I was mad into clothes and fashion and interiors, so I finished the hotel school but I didn’t like the suit-and-tie environment, the corporate thing, so I moved into the barman business. I started working as head barman, and did seasonal work in Switzerland, and in Biarritz, before moving to Austria. I started working winter seasons there and in the summer I started working in Germany, on an island, between Germany and Denmark called Sylt. It’s like Ibiza for very rich German businessmen. I worked for Gunter Sachs, he was the Helmut Newton of Germany. I worked for him for a few seasons on the island.
GF: Gunter Sachs! He was Brigitte Bardot’s ex husband, right? When you worked for him, what you were doing?
I was his barman, with all the fashion people coming from all over the world, they were all coming there and that’s why I took the job, the models, the whole scene was there!
We had a very good time, all day on the beach, in the water, and then from 8pm-2am I was in the bar. He owned a private club, a club with rich, rich people and with young girls (laughs).
GF: Sound’s like a terrible lifestyle for a young man from Morrocco, Driss!
It was amazing. We had an amazing time there, and also in the winter I worked at the Dracula Club. Then I moved back to Austria, and opened my bar, which was called ‘Casablanca’. That was in Innsbruck and it ran for nineteen years. That was also a party place for fashion people, models. I worked heaps with agencies, and I also modelled at that time, too.
GF: Which agency were you with?
Shaft. That’s also how I met my partner at the time. She was a Kiwi and she was a model, too. We had a daughter together and that is how I came to be here, in New Zealand. My daughter was born in Austria, and then we all came back to NZ.
YG: And she grew up here?
Yeah, she’s 23 now, she is starting interior design.
YG: Oh that makes sense!
GF: So during the time on Sylt and
in Innsbruck, were you continuing
All the time, everyday. In Austria I used to buy deceased estates, just to find stuff. Stuff I didn’t need I sold to antique dealers, the furniture I didn’t like. At that time I was very into Fifties and Sixties stuff! Heaps and heaps of clothes, the suits from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, I was collecting them. I had a lot of people coming into my bar that were mad about fashion. In the kitchen I had two big racks full of clothes, and people would come into the bar after they had finished work at 6pm. They would go into the kitchen, go through the stuff, change their clothes, and would stay until 6am in the morning! I was selling the clothes to them as well. Yeah, it was mad! It was like a retail outlet in a kitchen! (laughs)
GF: Assuming you had progressed beyond the mono turntable, what kind of music was playing at that time, disco?
Ah, yeah, a lot of Sixties, Seventies music; black and white, from rhythm & blues to jazz to rock, it was lounge bar so we had a DJ everyday. It was always extremely packed, even in the winter because when it was snowing we’d have people lining up outside, and our girls with 60-70 tequilas on a tray would go along the line, and then we would just write it down on the tab from inside, it was mad, it was mad. A lot of personalities were there, like the mayor’s son, and they all loved the clothes. That’s also how I met Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he is Austrian, so when we used to get celebrities like that we used to just shut the club, we would close the door, the club had to be empty, it was just for these people.
GF: Who else came to Casablanca in Innsbruck?
The Supremes, MC Hammer!
GF: Did Hammer have his big baggy pants on?
Yes! He was an amazing dancer! Really fast!
GF: Awesome. So you came back here to Aotearoa in the Nineties?
Yes. When I first came here, we opened a shop at the waterfront, you know, where the Whitbread yacht race was held. We used to sell all European brands; Katherine Hamnett, Gaultier…
GF: Was that all vintage?
New. All new stuff. We used to be there until 2am in the morning, selling, and playing music very loud.
GF: I remember that, down by the ferry building...
And then I had a restaurant that was very hard to get into called Cafe Jazz. It is still there in Remuera but it is not the same. When I opened that place it was pumping, we had people, amazing people coming through; big spenders - we had big fun, big, big fun. I had problems with my partner and I had to leave him and that business. Sorry, earlier than that, when I first came to NZ, I had a bar on K. Rd called Purple Rain. I opened it with Mark Hotchin. We became good friends at that time. Purple Rain was upstairs in The Kase - there were five bars. There were three of us including a girl called Vanessa Green and we specialised in VIP people, opening from midnight until 10 o’clock in the morning. The doorman we had was a famous kickboxer at the time called Ray Sefo and the three of us lived in a huge warehouse on Cross Street owned at that time by Murray Rose. He was a good friend of mine too.
GF: Yeah, we used to have our offices up there, a company
called V8 Communications.
We used to go out a lot at that time, every night. K.Rd was pumping. I thought at that time, Auckland was amazing for the population! Even that bar, the strip club (laughs) it was a mad, mad time. But then I began to settle, you know, you can’t keep that up.
GF: And you were still collecting?
Always, always. You know that’s a part of me, it doesn’t matter where I go. To houses, to friend’s places, it’s just me, you know, I want it! You have to be like that, when you have a business like mine, you have to be. You know people would bring you things, but you don’t really want people to bring you things because you want to find them yourself, that’s the whole idea, that’s the joy in finding that one piece.
GF: So in 1992 when you came to NZ, did you ship all of your collections from Europe
back in a container?
Yeah, but what happened to me…the whole container was full of my beautiful furniture, all of the beautiful clothes from Africa, expensive leather jackets, a lot of Forties leather stuff - I started working down at the waterfront and when I was at work they took they whole lot.
Burglars. The whole lot! We had a Thirties house, beautifully set up. They cleared the whole house, everything! Then a week later I went to Hunters and Collectors, someone told me they knew them and that they deal with leather jackets so I gave them a list of my missing stuff. Some of them did turn up there and I knew them after that very well. Mike Zero, I met Mike before I came to NZ. I used to see him at the Camden Markets in the Eighties. I would think, ‘who’s this guy?’ clearing the whole lot out? They loved him because he was a very good customer. I know him very well, right up until maybe last week (laughs). I had to go back and collect from Europe again. I would go back once, twice a year, all the time, I had to. I had to go to Paris, because of family there, I knew the resources there, so Paris, Brussels is very good, Germany is amazing for vintage, if a little expensive. Austria, Switzerland also has some amazing things.
Italy, you have to dig privately. You don’t find good stuff at the markets. It’s more about furniture, beautiful interiors, but to find a Chanel piece or YSL piece, it’s not so good. More France, more Germany. I continued to find lots of amazing designer garments in Morocco, in Casablanca.
GF: So when did you start Tango, Driss?
I started on KRd. I was in St Kevins Arcarde for six years in the late Nineties. And then I’ve been down here off Little High Street for fifteen years. In this same spot. When I first came here I had to change this shop. You see there (pointing to shelves) they were at the top of the building from 1917. They belonged to the old music shop that used to be here on Queen St,
GF: I remember it! I think it was called Lewis Eady.
I’ve got a booklet of their’s from years and years ago. These rails were from the top of the building, they were really dirty, so I asked the workers upstairs - 6 people - to carry them down stairs for my shop. The manager he says to me ‘you’re crazy to be wanting these old things’. With a friend of mine we made the shelves here. And even the stairs are from 1913, from the old music shop, they were upstairs too - on the mezzanine floor.
GF: What was the Tango space itself, originally?
Nothing, they just cleared it into a space. It was a very mild space in the beginning. The customers we have are mostly aware about fashion but it has changed, it’s not the same as it used to be. I am a destination shop, which still gets me customers coming, at any time.
GF: Do you have a favourite brand, label?
If they are a modern designer I would say Balmain, Lanvin, Balenciaga, Gaultier is one of my favorites, John Paul Gaultier! NZ brands from the Forties and Fifties like Gus Fisher’s El Jay. From the new ones, Zambesi. I love Zambesi, it is amazing. I find her brilliant. She has a big passion for fabrics.
YG: What about the furniture side of things?
GF: Like these chairs (motions toward an egg chair) are very expensive aren’t they?
You should have seen it in the beginning, I had to take it to the panelbeater to get the whole thing repaired on the outside. And redo the inside. So it is completely different now, it is not how it used to be. I found it in a shed, a $5 chair! (laughs)
GF: They’re worth thousands now aren’t they?
Absolutely. I have sold one for $4500. It was the same but the inside was purple velvet. It’s called the Egg Chair. The thing with Tango is that we like a lot of different eras, I cant say which is my favourite. We love from 18th Century right up to the Nineties. From antique to new designers.
GF: What is the oldest piece in here?
The oldest piece, is an 1860 Edwardian garment. Heaps of 1900 - 1910 Victorian stuff, some Twenties garments and shoes, and they are all mixed up, European or NZ. That’s what we love. Nothing made in China.
GF: Driss, how would you describe Tango, what is Tango to you?
Tango is for me; a fashion store and an interior design store, for people with the knowledge. Of course they have to have the knowledge to appreciate the pieces more, to like them, to purchase them, too. Due to the variety of different eras we do, it’s good for the person with knowledge because we are not a second-hand store, we are not a recycle shop, they are all chosen garments, pieces and furniture - art and glass, interior lamps etc. That’s also why we have the film industry here all the time, wanting access to these eras we have here. For the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, this is the right place for them; the quantity, the style, and the quality.
YG: Does the film industry ask you to specifically source something for a specific project?
Yeah, sometimes they call. They just need to mention a certain era and I can put stuff together for them.
YG: How often now do you go overseas to shop?
Now, once a year.
GF: Do you go shopping around New Zealand?
I used to heaps, I used to go to the South Island, to Timaru, but I just find it has changed a lot. I don’t find any stuff anymore.
GF: A bit cleared out?
Yeah, plus a lot of people sell online now, you know, Trade Me, so there are no bargains because of the demand now. That’s why when some people walk into the shop here, they think it’s like in the olden days, that you can find stuff for $5; a beautiful coat, beautiful dress, but we don’t find them any more so people have to pay bigger money. Vintage clothing is like antique furniture, a beautiful dress from 1920 doesn’t cost $5 anymore, you have to pay $2000. I have a friend in Paris who owns a store and she is a multi-millionaire because of the prices she can charge.
YG: And I guess in somewhere like Europe they have so much more of a history there, so the appreciation is there, and they can ask that price.
Yeah, so something from the early 1900’s is like ‘Wow!’
YG: Exactly, whereas here, we are a younger country so it probably doesn’t really resonate so much with us yet.
Some people overseas will hang a beautiful garment instead of buying a painting. That’s what they do. They buy a mannequin and they keep that garment on show. When people walk through the shop and they say ‘What a lovely op shop’, well that’s an insult to me! It’s like, ‘Excuse me!!!!?” “What did you just call this!” This is not thrown out stuff. Tango is not an Op Shop…
Tango, off Little High Street, 55 High Street, Auckland City, NZ. Ph: (09) 300 7165