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The Parisian Label That Grapples with Race, Class, and Gentrification

Pigalle Paris, a brand beloved by everyone from Rihanna to Chanel’s president of fashion, addresses the racial and social frictions in the capital.

It’s last Sunday night, and the Pigalle Paris menswear show is taking place at the National Conservatory of Paris for Music and Dance. Located in the far-flung northeastern corner of the capital, bourgeois Parisians seldom come here, doing so mostly either for the conservatory or the recently moved Paris Philharmonic. Hipsters come for the nearby Buttes-Chaumont Park or the art at Cent Quatre. And, pressed up against the banlieues (the city’s less desirable suburbs), the area is an entry point for immigrants from North Africa, who often live in those poorer areas that surround the capital. 

Pigalle Paris, the brand founded in 2008 by Stéphane Ashpool, takes from all of these worlds. Pigalle, a northern Parisian neighborhood once synonymous with sex and seediness, is now assuredly bourgeois-bohemian, or hipster. The strip clubs have become cocktail bars; the brothels have become five-star hotels.

Ashpool was born and raised in 1980s Pigalle, and he saw firsthand the porno theaters, sex shops, and massage parlors that defined the area until just a few years ago. While the neighborhood was once dotted with fully nude strip clubs and covert brothels, Ashpool references the 1980s and 90s iterations of the neighborhood and situates them in a modern context, employing, for instance, the red velvet of Pigalle’s exotic dancing clubs for his jackets and the latex of sex shops for his bow ties. The result is provocative luxury, at once upscale in quality and creativity while still sordid. “It’s all about using traditional clothing codes and making them fit my neighborhood’s taste,” he told Sleek magazine.

The choice to have his latest show at a dance conservatory was particularly personal. Ashpool’s mother, a Serbian named Doushka, was a ballerina, who once worked at the Moulin Rouge and taught fashion models how to walk. Now in her mid-seventies, she works at her son’s flagship shop, which, situated on the rue Henry Monnier, faces the basketball courts where Ashpool played as a teenager. Although it might just seem like it was chosen for its novelty, Ashpool’s other decision—to hold the show in the rather remote nineteenth arrondissement, which takes nearly forty-five minutes to get to by métro from the city’s center—suggests his investment in fostering a dialogue around the racial divides in France, especially in Paris, where white people tend to live in the center of the city, pushing immigrant populations—who are often non-white—to live on the outskirts.

“In a nation—and a continent—riven by otherness and suspicion,” Ashpool told Vogue, “Pigalle translates conscious aestheticism and tolerantly expressive masculinity.” 

He calls the spirit of his brand “mixity,” and he has tapped into both a sense of bohemianism and basketball culture to gain the support of Nike and global celebrities like Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, while also attracting the praise of the established fashion elite, including Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, who has been mentoring the thirty-five-year-old designer. The result is a mass of super-fans who run across the fashion spectrum, from streetwear fanatics to high-fashion devotees.

After pushing through a self-consciously cool crowd waiting in the rain outside—purple tracksuits, silver high heels, chunky glasses, DHL hats—I see a young man in front of me, wearing the brand’s signature sweatshirt with the word “PIGALLE” on a solid-colored background and bordered by a white rectangle, grabbed hard by security. He has a gun tucked into the waistband of his trousers. He laughs. He looks no older than eighteen. The security guards inspect it at a glance—it’s fake: silver, with an orange tip. He continues through.

Read the rest of the essay at Garage.

Photo from Mind the Hype.

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