When I met with French fashion designer Stephane Ashpool last week in New York City, he was absolutely stoked. He’d just left the studio of the Miami-born, Brooklyn-based artist José Parlá, who is famous for his visually bright, heavily layered, and deeply textured works in painting and sculpture, and was feeling energized. He motioned towards Parlá’s new book, which he’d brought along with him: “It’s all about texture and color.”
And so, as a matter of fact, is Ashpool, the mind, spirit, and hands behind Pigalle, the nine-year-old Parisian brand once known for streetwear and now for high-end clothing. In creating his own pieces, he finds the most excitement and inspiration from bold color and versatile texture — passions he inherited from his mother, a former dancer, and father, a former sculptor.
Each Pigalle collection consists of movement-friendly menswear in rich, print and solid-heavy color palettes that each season, play with shade flawlessly. Every thread of the collection also keeps athleticism at the root of its inspiration. Basketball is an intrinsic part of Ashpool’s D.N.A., and in turn, that of Pigalle’s as well — three years ago, Ashpool opened up Pigalle Basketball, a second storefront dedicated to the brand’s athletic wares, and also collaborated with Nike to create a Pigalle basketball court for his neighborhood. Lately, Ashpool has continued to run his label and brand as an exclusive and hometown-based operation, plus expanding through collaborations with brands and designers like Nike, Missoni, and most recently, G-Shock, on two Pigalle watches.
At a table in a Madison Square Garden bar, I met with Ashpool (and his godfather and professional dancer Larry Vickers, featured in many a Pigalle campaign) ahead of G-Shock’s 35th anniversary celebration, at which he was a special guest. We spoke about how he’s bridging two sides of himself through Pigalle, being “real-life schooled” in fashion and the French designers who inspired him, and his recent trip to Japan with his youth basketball team.
Tell me a little bit about your neighborhood. How does it inform Pigalle's philosophy?
I'm born in Paris, and I've never moved from this area. My mom, when she came from Yugoslavia, one of her first jobs was working in Moulin Rouge. She had a connection to [Paris], and years after, I was born there. It's a nice place to be because it's a lot of crossover of people. It's like a village a little bit — from one street to another, you have a very different vibe, and good people, all in a few blocks. I'm still living there, all my friends are there, my mother and family around. I want to be the mayor of the area one day; that's my next dream a little bit further [down the line].
What did you do growing up? What were you into?
I have two different segments in my life when I was growing up, and I feel that they are joined now into my work. One side, I was a street kid, going outside, playing basketball — the environment outside at that time in Pigalle was quite grimey, so it was fun for a kid to go around. On the other side, I come from a mother who is a dancer. She was surrounded by a group of dancers like Larry [Vickers] and others. They brought different feelings — theater, style, exuberance. Me, I was this kid playing ball. Home and outside was a different vibe and aesthetic, and now that's what I try to put together during my shows and my collection.
How has this year stood out to you over the others? In terms of what you've accomplished, how has this year been different?
The ninth year is important, because the district where I'm based is number nine, and my number when I was a basketball player was number nine. I have an affiliation with the number nine, I'm born the 19th.
[The year is still in process] but I have to say the past year, I've done but a lot of stuff — shows, I won a fashion prize, I built up a new studio, [collaborated with Missoni]. I've climbed to the place I wanted to be, and I've almost touched the dream I had before I started, in terms of showing in different spaces. Every time I do a fashion show I try to do it in a place that has a link to the story I want to tell. I did a show in Opera Garnier which is an amazing place where very few can do something. Many theaters around Pigalle, in the street, in the church where I was passing when I was young. For me, being in all those places that defined who I am, that's one of the things I can say I reached. I'm very happy, now I'm in a good position because I have to think of building new dreams, which is a luxury for a young man.
In past interviews, you've talked a lot about basketball and sport having a big influence on Pigalle's design and aesthetic. But what about in fashion? Who are some designers you've looked up to?
Obviously basketball has a huge influence on me as a person, and I spread it all around constantly. But fashion, actually, It's from my mom, it's from all those people around who were working for dressing, by designers as Claude Montana, Paco Rabanne, Azzedine Alaia, Thierry Mugler, and all those high couture, all based and from France, Paris, which I was watching with the baby eyes. I don't know if that taught me something, but it sparked something, our French heritage.
Unfortunately I’ve only seen one or two knit [pieces] of [my father’s clothing design] work, and one day I'm going to [wear it out]. I never knew it at the time I was born, [Larry] knew my dad before, and I barely only saw one thing he was [designing and making]. [It was] knitwear, and he was good at doing texture, and tried to transfer that to knitwear. I would lie if I say that [the clothes my father made] were an inspiration for me. My father's inspiration was in that he was a sculptor, touching the fabric, and I love color and fabric so much. He was not using color, but the texture in general. That's why I'm better at shapes and trends.
I do want to talk about basketball though. What initially drew you to basketball as a sport?
The school I was at, everyone was running after a soccer ball. But no one was playing basketball. One day, I just brought a little basketball and started shooting. And then, fast-forward, and I ended up playing for PSG, which is the biggest Parisian basketball team. I played there at the highest level until I was twenty. I was playing outdoor, indoor — it's my life. It built me as a man, putting people together, having a fighting spirit, accepting when you lose, but just be there as an animal to win. I am happy to be in Madison Square Garden today, obviously.
Did you look up to any players growing up? Who embodied the kind of player you wanted to be, maybe on and off the court?
Jason Williams, Nick Van Axel, Pete Maravich, guys from a small size playing at my position back then. I played point guard at that time because I was small. Later, I coached. For seven years I stopped, but then I restarted three years ago. [Coaching] was my first way to make money.
Having not studied design formally, you had to learn a lot on your own. What kinds of skills did you acquire over time? And how?
I had to learn everything to build a garment itself. The first workshop that I worked with was based in the north of France, and one was near Paris, and run by an old Yugoslavian woman. She was crafting for us, and she was always an open door, so I was spending time [with her] and watching, and while I’d watch I'd do things myself. When I made mistakes, she was like, "do it like this." The basics of producing a garment, I knew almost nothing about, this was around 2007. I was young and in another mood, but I was very curious. I take a lot of notes. I was real-life schooled, which I think is cool with Pigalle. For me, if you take it back to the beginning, you see a proper story. It's not like I arrived with money in the bank; you can see the proper progression. Building from the ground up. You make mistakes, but those mistakes open your eyes to people.
I'm still in the process, but last year I felt like I had my "diploma" in a way, real-life knowing how to do the garment itself. It's not easy, it's a process, but it's happening because I'm now having my own workshop, and I'm very lucky because Chanel gave me all the machinery that we're going to have there. The most consistent machine of all time, for all the different stitching that we'd need. I'm excited to move forward, but learning never ends!
Are there any skills you have in mind that you would still like to learn?
I have trouble with my eyes, seeing up close. It makes me be less precise when I draw, but I would love to manage and draw more, and better than just sketches. I have a team with me that understands me and my raw sketches, and puts it into shapes and movements. But, that's a skill I'd love to approve on.
How did the G-Shock collaboration come about? And your watch with them?
Very naturally. Team G-Shock France came to me. I don't like to do a lot of collaborations, but I remember I was wearing a G-Shock when I was younger, a yellow one I got for Christmas when I was eight or nine years old. We met, and the time schedule was nice, and they were open to my ideas. They gave me the "carte blanche."
You recently took your youth basketball team to Japan. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, thanks to G-Shock. It's the same kids from time. They're all from the same neighborhood; they are the same guys as I was when I was young. They're all like a big family, and I'm like their coach and big brother. They have their own lives, but we try to protect them. It's difficult for me to talk about it but you have to be there in person to understand the connection there. Everytime I do something, it's always a pleasure to share, and it's an occasion to show my youth different places, and through this G-Shock/Casio team in France, they presented my idea to Japan. We took a select group of kids — we asked the youth of the area to each present a project of their own, so one came with his instrument and played a song that he made. Another came with a painting, another came with a movie scene, and we picked 15 of the guys from my neighborhood. We provoked them to do something outside of the box. G-Shock allowed me to come out and bring the kids to Japan and do an exchange there, see how school works. I'm sure two or three of the kids will go back to Asia, and I'm sure one of them is going to live in Japan — out of a little thing like this instead of using money to market too much. I don’t want to do things that are useless.