If Paris is an oyster then Pigalle has long been its grit. From Toulouse-Lautrec via Josephine Baker to the Moulin Rouge, this sliver of the 9th arrondissement has spent decades synonymous with vice. Growing up there “was sometimes a little scary,” says Stéphane Ashpool, a lifelong resident.
Over the past few years, the neighbourhood has become somewhat hipsterfied. It’s easier to get a flat white than into a fight these days. Strip clubs have been converted into modish cocktail bars. And thanks to Ashpool, a new generation thinks Pigalle has little to do with the pursuit of dissolute living and everything to do with desirable clothing.
That’s because Pigalle is also the name of the shop and fashion label Ashpool founded in 2008 with a €50,000 ($56,400) bank loan and, more importantly, the support of friends from the neighbourhood: on its first day of business the little store on Rue Monnier had 500 visitors.
Ashpool’s brand has since found fame thanks to his basketball-themed sportswear collections for Nike and the custom of stars such as Rihanna and A$AP Rocky. When both performers were pictured wearing his Pigalle-logo T-shirts, says Ashpool, “I enjoyed a boom, but I was a bit trapped too. Everyone wanted to have that logo because it is easy to recognise and sell – fast money. However I was working towards something else, which is to try and become a proper designer.”
Pigalle’s fashion shows, presented during the Paris menswear collections, are unlike anything else in the city. Instead of professional models, they feature Ashpool’s friends and family; regulars include his two younger half-brothers, members of the kids basketball team Ashpool coaches, artists, actors and DJs from Pigalle, and even his godfather Larry, who has the swagger of Cab Calloway about him. Instead of an anonymous catwalk, the shows are always presented against an archetypal Parisian backdrop and there is an element of performance. For this autumn’s collection, entitled “Eros”, Ashpool’s men preened and primped themselves – not a little narcissistically – on stage in a Pigalle theatre while wearing sensually textured soft tailoring and sportswear in pastel colours. For next spring’s collection, “The Wedding”, held in the gardens of the Musée de Montmartre, Ashpool’s regulars crunched down a gravel path in pastel-accented but overwhelmingly white variations of the Pigalle wardrobe. It climaxed with the marriage (non-binding) of Ashpool to his girlfriend of two years, Marissa Seraphin.
This emphasis on performance, says Ashpool, is the product of a childhood spent watching his Serbian mother, Doushka, perform as a ballet dancer. Now 74 and a regular staffer in Pigalle’s store, she has also worked as dancer at the Moulin Rouge and as an instructor to fashion models on the art of the sinuous walk. In Ashpool’s clothing, the emphasis on texture is informed by the work of his father, John, a Canadian artist “currently somewhere in a forest in Quebec” who met Ashpool’s mother when working on the costumes for a production she was dancing in. “I love to put people on the stage,” says Ashpool. “And every time I start a collection I try and think of a simple idea that will touch people, that they can relate to whoever they are. Whether it is Bruno or a kid of 16.”
That “Bruno” is Bruno Pavlovsky, the president of fashion at Chanel. In 2015 Pigalle was named winner of the ANDAM prize, an award whose chief trophy – €250,000 apart – has been the mentorship of the executive who oversees the business of France’s largest privately owned fashion house. Consequently the last two collections have seen a subtle Chanel-ification of Pigalle: tracksuits in the Wedding collection featured panels of lace hand-sewn in Chanel ateliers, while coats in the Eros love-athon were garnished with Chanel plissé. And with Pavlovsky’s encouragement, Ashpool has just taken possession of a former glass factory in La Chapelle which he intends to turn into a new atelier.
“This is the biggest project of my life,” he says. “As well as producing the clothes for Pigalle, we plan to find other young designers and help them start. And we want to bring young people into the business – I’m thinking about people like the kids I train in basketball – and show them that they can find careers working in fashion. Perhaps one day we can produce special items for Chanel? That would be amazing.”
Half entrepreneur, half flâneur, Ashpool is shaping a fashion label that reflects the ethnically diverse, sportswear-uniformed, rough-edged reality of the neighbourhood in which he was incubated. If he wasn’t determined to sell his clothes only from his own shops – he now has two in Paris and one in Tokyo – Pigalle would already be much bigger. “We need to be independent,” he insists. “I just want to have my own stores – my own bakery – from which I sell my stuff for the best possible price. At the end of the day all you need to find is the right amount of money that allows you to live, but without giving too much to the government!”
So Pigalle the brand will stay in Pigalle the neighbourhood. Both are changing fast, says Ashpool. “I am very happy with the development of the city. I certainly don’t miss the streets being full of fighting and prostitution. And we live our village life in Paris, just like always.”