c.2014 New York Times News Service
c.2014 New York Times News Service
PARIS — It rained on the June day that Pigalle staged a fashion presentation on the outdoor basketball court opposite its store in the Ninth Arrondissement. Although attendants with umbrellas kept the models dry, and the small boutique (the second Pigalle shop, and still technically in preview) was crowded to capacity, Stéphane Ashpool was ruing the fact that the weather kept the packed presentation from becoming a true blowout.
“If the weather was sunny, we would have had a lot of ghetto kids there,” he said the next day over a burger at Le Dépanneur, a local restaurant. “At the same time, we have very posh or eccentric Korean buyers coming.”
That mix — what Ashpool, in his idiomatic, imperfect English calls “mixity” — defines Pigalle, the streetwear brand that has expanded from a neighborhood uniform into a global phenomenon, endorsed by Nike, fashion bellwethers and retailers worldwide. (It is, proverbially but also literally, big in Japan.) At the presentation, journalists and buyers from Harvey Nichols competed for Ashpool’s attention with French-speaking kids from the neighborhood, clearly used to regarding the court (and Ashpool) as their own.
Ashpool, who will say only that he is in his 30s, is a product of Pigalle, the neighborhood where he was born, established his stores and for which he named the line. Pigalle, once a gritty red-light district, has in recent years begun to smooth its rougher edges, becoming — slowly, as is the Paris way, but decisively — a hip enclave of boutique hotels and brunch spots. Ashpool, its self-appointed mascot, has witnessed the change from street level.
“I’m one of the strong factors who make the area,” he said between bites of burger, which he salted liberally and insalubriously. “My dream is to be mayor. I think it could happen.”
“Mayor of the neighborhood” is a hoary cliché, but to walk through Pigalle in his company is to believe it possible (not least because in Paris, each arrondissement does have a mayor). Neighborhood kids swarm Ashpool on the basketball court, where he played as a child and which he has now taken over to set up his Pigalle Basketball League. At the fashion show, he took picture after picture with them, and they stuck around as the proceedings wrapped up to pocket the extra sodas. Meals are put on his tab. His cellphone rings regularly with people looking for a favor, a few bucks or just to hang out.
It’s not hard to find him. He has had a headquarters here since 2008, when he opened the first Pigalle shop in a former concierge’s apartment on Rue Henry Monnier, a space he took even before he had anything to sell in it. He had spent a few years working on fashion show production with his mother, Doushka Langhofer, an émigré from Belgrade and a former dancer, and had some knowledge of fashion, but no training. The first Pigalle items were simple, direct: T-shirts, sweats and hats with the square brand-name logo.
“He could never do school,” said Langhofer, who now works at the store. “But he’s very clever. He did this.”
Comparisons to other from-the-streets success stories abound. “It’s our French Supreme!” said André Saraiva, a Pigalle resident and proprietor of the neighborhood’s Hotel Amour, where Ashpool lives. For Ashpool, though, Pigalle is less a label than a culture.
“We’re not just a box logo,” he said. “We’re not just a brand. We’re a movement.”
That movement’s unofficial synod goes by the name Pain O ChoKolat, a loose fraternity of 10 friends, many of whom connected originally through basketball, who organize parties around the world. Mutual support is part of the package. When Charaf Tajer, whom Ashpool has called his “partner in crime,” opened a club, Le Pompon, in 2010, “he had the support of all the guys, we were all playing,” Ashpool said, “for the ambience, to make sure our crowds came. The same thing that happened to Pigalle.” (Le Pompon closed in 2013; according to Pigalle’s spokesman, a new Le Pompon is scheduled to open before men’s Fashion Week in January.)
Before long, Pigalle’s appeal transcended the neighborhood. When rapper ASAP Rocky, the lodestar of fashion streetwear labels, began sporting the Pigalle logo, demand exploded. And although Ashpool has since increased the fashion quotient of the label, which now includes jackets hand-dyed in Bali and basketball shorts and jerseys in oxblood-colored ombré leather, its logo is still its chief selling point, with a cachet of its own. (Even the more basic items, however, come with a fashion price tag. A Pigalle cap costs 60 euros, about $76.)
“I’ve been really surprised how they managed to make this Pigalle logo and suddenly everyone wanted to have their sweatshirts and T-shirts,” said Caroline de Maigret, a neighborhood resident, an author of a new guidebook to Parisian style and, like ASAP Rocky, a magnet for trend-spotters and street-style photographers. “Americans recognize it, and Japanese stop me as well.”
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Small as the Pigalle label is, its reach has not gone unnoticed by bigger fish.
“I saw how connected they were with quite a few influential people around the world,” said Fraser Cooke, Nike’s marketing director, who has overseen the brand’s partnerships with fashion labels like APC and Undercover. “They have good connections everywhere — fashion connections, street-level connections. They definitely embody what’s going on right now.”
Through his intercession, Nike supported Ashpool’s renovation of the Pigalle basketball court and, eventually, commissioned a series of Nike-Pigalle collaborations. (Technically, the collaboration’s imprimatur is Nike x PPP, for Pain O ChoKolat, Pigalle and Pompon.) In April, the first collection arrived and quickly sold out. The second collection was prominently displayed at the second Pigalle store on Rue Duperré, which opened officially during women’s Fashion Week in September.
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For many, the ideal location for a second store might be farther than 500 meters from the first one. But it is an emblem of Ashpool’s commitment to the area that he is retrenching rather than spreading out. Although the collection is available at retailers internationally, including Selfridges, Colette and American Rag, it is very much a local outfitter. For much of the label’s existence, Ashpool even resisted selling on the Internet. For a time, a Pigalle T-shirt required a trip to Pigalle.
But the neighborhood Ashpool champions is not the same as the one he inherited, and its metamorphosis mirrors the label’s rise to prominence. Pigalle, in the northeast of central Paris, has a history of both art and sin. Nearby Montmartre was home to the Moulin Rouge, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, its most famous chronicler-in-oils, kept a studio on Avenue Frochot in Pigalle. During Ashpool’s youth, the neighborhood remained rough and red-lit: a known prostitutes’ row, still lined with strip clubs.
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“The hooker was completely allowed everywhere,” Ashpool said. “There was always tension. When we were 10, 12, it was a bit heavy for a young guy.”
The neighborhood’s evolution has been well documented — and in some corners, lamented. An 2013 essay in The New York Times opinion pages, published under the headline “How Hipsters Ruined Paris,” decried the entrance of cashmere swaddle blankets and a luxury rum bar. (Maligned hipsters fired back with a retort on HipstersinParis.com.)
Ashpool does not brook nostalgia. “To be nostalgic for what — to see a hooker or someone beat up?” he said. “That’s fake. I prefer now, 10 times.”
As de Maigret conceded, “It became very trendy.”
But, she added: “I don’t get annoyed in the streets anymore at night. It became safe.”
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That gentrification is both the cause and effect of the new wave of cafes, bars and restaurants that have sprung up in the area, attracting notice both at home and abroad. Jody Williams opened Buvette, an extension of her French bistro in New York, in 2013. “We didn’t know the French were going to wait in line for brunch,” she said. They do.
Fashion has lagged somewhat further behind, but that, too, looks primed to change. French label Maison Kitsuné is to open a store and cafe on nearby Rue Condorcet early next year. As a testament to the neighborhood’s growing profile, rumors (even those as yet unfounded) circulate of further openings. Ashpool related one that Dover Street Market, the Comme des Garçons-affiliated store, was looking for space in the area.
“We’re not considering opening a DSM anywhere in Paris at the moment,” a spokeswoman for the store said in an email.
Change as it might, Pigalle will always have Pigalle, Ashpool said.
“I did what I dreamed,” he said. “You can have simple dreams. I never wanted to be Michael Jackson. Just wanted to live this village life, work with my friends, have my family near, be surrounded by kids. I will not move nowhere.”