As sportswear powerhouse Pigalle teams up with Nike for its latest collection, owner Stéphane Ashpool takes us on a tour of the cityNike x Pigalle
“Ten years ago, no one was happy to pass through Pigalle. It was only known for the prostitution and angry men at night.” So says Stéphane Ashpool, the 30-something-year-old behind streetwear powerhouse Pigalle, named after the area of northern Paris where he was born and raised. “It was always known as the red light district. There was nothing fancy, nothing that cool – but it was a diverse community, and that’s what has inspired me.”
Ashpool has made his mark on the community. His brand is uncompromisingly cool, thanks to its authentic reflection of the neighbourhood it was born out of. It has a presence at fashion week, and has been embraced by the streetwear community since opening its doors four and a half years ago. Located on Rue Duperré, the store sits opposite a basketball court converted from a car park in 2009 following a petition created by Ashpool.
Seven years ago, the neighbourhood was still a no-go area for many, and the local boys who now frequent it, known as the Pain O Chokolat crew, were growing up around drug and gang culture. Ashpool wanted to provide an alternative, using the only thing he knew. “I started playing basketball at the age of 16,” he says. “Everyone was into soccer. They had one basketball hoop on the recreation yard and I thought, ‘OK, I’m not going to run after a ball with 100 kids, I’m going to get my own ball and play on my terms.’”
Ashpool went on to play professionally in his teenage years (despite being “very small – I played point guard”) and hung out with his friends underneath the Eiffel Tower. It was a spot that was infamous for die-hard basketballers, but the travelling required to “just play ball” revealed the failings of Pigalle. “We were all dressing like basketball kids in Jordans and Nike Air Raids, but we had nowhere on our doorstep to play. I thought if I could make somewhere it would bring people together.”
He was right. The court was opened by LeBron James, and six years later his basketball crew is made up of a group of 14-18-year-old local boys, who have used the court as a way to shift focus from the social deprivation of their area. Two of them, 15-year-olds Thio and Tatouam, tell me that one of their brothers were involved with local gangs and, for them, Ashpool became a natural role model. Thio says, “If you speak to someone who doesn’t know about streetwear or fashion he’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s where the sex shops and prostitutes are.’ But it’s also a family, it’s a neighbourhood.”
Today, the boys are strutting in the Pigalle office over on 21 Rue Henri Monnier, keen to show off their corner of the world for the Dazed cameras. They’re wearing a combination of shiny tracksuits, silk boxing robes and black mesh from the new collection as they stroll out of the door and into the street. It’s a tour of the local area, and they’re showing me the walls they sit on, the Monoprix where they buy cans of Coke, and their homes where the bedroom walls are plastered with posters of A$AP Rocky, LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
It’s clear why Pigalle has the reputation it does. We pass the Moulin Rouge, and sex shops densely dotted around the streets. These are sandwiched alongside what the boys call ‘hipster’ additions: L’Isolé karaoke bar which plays 90s R&B, a popular bar called Le Mansart, and Mexican street food pop-ups. But the jewel in Pigalle’s streetwear scene is the Pigalle store. As they walk us down ‘their’ street, you get the sense that Pigalle has become a sort of makeshift youth club, and before the store opens, two of their friends are waiting outside, listening to Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” on their phones. The boys are attempting to breakdance in the street and striking gang poses in the middle of the road.
“We were all dressing like basketball kids in Jordans and Nike Air Reds, but we had nowhere on our doorstep to play. I thought if I could make somewhere it would bring people together” – Stéphane Ashpool
After a break, we suggest stopping for food. Ashpool suggests a nearby restaurant, but he’s outvoted by the boys, who start heading for McDonald’s. The photoshoot is forgotten for a brief moment as the boys descend on the tills, ordering milkshakes and Chicken McNuggets, before crowding around a booth and making spitballs out of straws as they wait for the food. When it arrives, they’re a mess of ketchup. The apparent disregard for the thousands of euros they’re collectively wearing as they squirt packets of ketchup at each other is a good reminder that these are unaffected teenagers.
What’s also apparent is that Ashpool has been successful in uncovering the existing talent in the area. The boys in the crew – Mamadou, Tatouam, Thio, Bouba, Max and Gogo – are all creatives in their own right, building on what they’ve learned from the DIY culture of basketball. The sport has enabled them to build a community on court, exploring music, fashion and modelling – and becoming local celebrities in the process. “Lots of people know us around here,” grins Thio. “In school, we’re popular – we all have girlfriends.”
Mamadou, a member of Pigalle’s African community, talks about how immigrant communities (predominantly Arab, African and Algerian) contribute to the rich cultural life of the area. “We’re all brothers,” he says. “When you look around, our races are mixed, and there’s less racism because we learn to live together. It’s different in the rest of Paris.” It’s a powerful statement to make in a post-Charlie Hebdo landscape, and Ashpool echoes the sentiment.
“I remember the day that happened,” he says. “It was on a Wednesday and we had training. We tried to talk about it, but I was very emotional. It was against what we are fighting for. Our neighbourhoods want to have conversations and learn about the differences between us.”
It makes sense that Ashpool and his team have become role models in the area. They are using the urban space as a way to make themselves heard, via the court. The collection was always going to be inspired by basketball, and soft clothes for the hard spaces that characterise that environment makes sense – these guys spend a lot of time sitting on walls and concrete. “You need strong colour,” says Ashpool. “It’s against the greys of the concrete and the city... People from Pigalle have a distinct style. The mix is a certain type of elegance, but they also look like they’re ready to play basketball.”
As the brand found favour with people on the street, it also caught the attention of Nike, who sounded Pigalle out about working on a collaboration. The resulting Nike x Pigalle collection is an explosive mix of colours and textures reflecting the two worlds that Ashpool and Nike know best: sports and fashion.
Later, we all get Ubers to a warehouse space in Aubervilliers, a north-eastern suburb of the city. We’ve come to shoot some short promo videos, featuring the boys for the new collection. Mamadou, Thio and Babou have taken charge of the music, rapping along to Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” and Biggie Smalls on repeat. Gogo, his hair sprayed electric blue in line with the collection, spins a basketball expertly in his hand in between mouthfuls of Haribo. Gogo is a little older than the other boys – he’s in his early 20s – and has become a star in his own right thanks to his successes as a model.
The crew is cooing over the black speckled high-tops that the boys will be wearing. Seeing their corner of the world reproduced in a hyper-slick and shiny new form is an exciting prospect. It sends a message that their culture has a place not only in their neighbourhood, but in France and beyond. Around us, make-up artists, stylists and cameramen are running about while Thio sits quietly playing NBA General Manager on his phone. I ask him if he could have ever imagined this a few years ago, and he pauses the game for a second. “Never,” he smiles. “But we are Pigalle! We always knew it was the coolest place. I guess now everyone else knows, too.”
Stay tuned for our full report on the Pigalle show. See the full collection here