The new grassroots economy: Maison Château Rouge

For Youssouf Fofana, creating a streetwear business that had meaningful impact meant setting up in an area of Paris often demonised as a ‘no-go zone’. But the move paid off.

The area of Château Rouge in Paris’ 18th arrondissement isn’t where you’d typically find a high-end fashion and lifestyle brand – most tend to base themselves in Le Marais, Pigalle and Oberkampf: places that are part of a traditional narrative of Parisian cool. But that’s the point.

For Youssouf Fofana, co-founder of Maison Château Rouge, opening his shop in the predominantly African neighbourhood and borrowing its name for his label is about social initiative, shifting the conversation and shining a spotlight on his heritage and community. In that sense, the English word ‘business’ isn’t totally adequate for what Youssouf does, because it’s not entirely about profit; the French ‘métier’, which suggests a craft, a calling, is more appropriate.

‘It was imperative that we put the shop in Château Rouge. What’s important for me is authenticity, and telling a story that’s true,’ says Youssouf. ‘The name is a bit comic, because we’re in Paris – the capital of fashion! Yet we’ve put together ‘maison’ – which traditionally refers to Chanel, Dior and so forth – and Château Rouge – the working-class African neighbourhood. And it’s worked a charm, because it’s very recognisable: every Parisian knows Château Rouge. People don’t come here just to buy a product – you can do that online. Instead, they want to immerse themselves into a world, and our advantage is that the neighbourhood is an extension of our brand. We have clients from Japan, from the States, who typically go to shops like Bon Marché. They would never have set foot here otherwise, yet they come to the shop and discover the neighbourhood, which is one of our goals: to help develop and rebrand Château Rouge as a quartier.’

Youssouf, who is the child of Senegalese immigrants who moved to Paris in the 1970s and 1980s, speaks excitedly about his work. He designed or co-designed everything in the Maison Château Rouge collection: from cushions, backpacks and T-shirts to hibiscus tea and Air Jordans from a recent Nike collaboration. The raw materials, such as the wax for the T-shirts, are all sourced from sub-Saharan Africa. They are typical of the region, as are the bright, kaleidoscopic patterns; paired with a strong streetwear influence, the brand is popular among young Parisians.

This is part of Youssouf’s vision of an authentic African brand that empowers artisans on the continent and spreads its aesthetics abroad. ‘We’ve grounded our look in African popular art. There are a lot of people who make luxury goods out there, which I understand, because there are a lot of artisans in Africa, but I wanted a brand that’s for everyone. Why do people buy products from Japan, Scandinavia and America but not Africa? Because it’s not something that’s been democratised and made accessible. So we’re working to create an African “high-style”.’

The motivation behind Maison Château Rouge goes back to the 2008 financial crisis and Youssouf growing up in a banlieu (suburb) of Seine-SaintDenis: a part of greater Paris known colloquially as ‘the 93’, after its administrative number. The area was developed in the 1960s to house a growing postwar population and an influx of immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, who continue to make up a large chunk of the residents. It is one the most economically hard-hit parts not just of Paris but France, with higher-than-average levels of crime.

‘Growing up in a Parisian banlieu, you’re made to understand early on that you’re different. The level of unemployment is very high – certainly the highest on the Île-de-France. But equally, in human terms, it’s hyper-enriching because people have real, deep values and love for one another that makes you forget about your precarious situation.’ Both his parents worked office jobs, and Youssouf followed their footsteps, taking a diploma and then a job in banking – what he calls an orthodox signal of success where he came from. But the financial world, made uglier by the 2008 crash, didn’t appeal for long.

‘The whole banking sector, all the “credit revolving” that was going on – it pushes people to live off loans just to survive, and there was no sense in that. It didn’t resonate with my values.’ So he took a business degree at Paris’ INSEEC Business School and switched to working for a digital workplace startup, where conversations with young entrepreneurs and self-starters got him thinking about his own ambitions.

‘Listening to their pitches, their stories, it became clear that I’m no less capable than them, even if they did go to prestigious schools. I thought about what project I could launch. At the beginning, naturally, I imitated those around me, because that was the symbol of success. Until I realised that for me to do something that feels natural, and that I can do well, it has to be an authentic reflection of who I am. So with my brother [Mamadou] we built an association called Les Oiseaux Migrateurs [The Migratory Birds].’

Les Oiseaux Migrateurs is the podium that launched Maison Château Rouge. The association, which the Fofana brothers set up in 2014, works with manufacturers and artisans in sub-Saharan Africa to produce traditional regional goods that are then sold in Europe. Most importantly, it keeps as much of the production chain as possible in Africa, so as to generate maximal work there. The point was to develop a long-standing relationship between the diaspora and the continent. ‘Since I’ve been of a working age – like any young person from a diaspora – I’ve put aside money to send back to Senegal, so that people there could buy food, medicine, school books. But the local population is very dependent on us. And for real social and economic development in Africa, you need to develop businesses there, which in turn makes people autonomous – this is what we do now, instead of simply sending money.’

The first product was bissap, a juice made from hibiscus, which is still part of Maison Château Rouge’s collection today. From the raw ingredients – the hibiscus flower – to the bottling, the drink is entirely made in Africa. ‘There are a lot of companies who buy the raw ingredients, ship it to France,’ says Youssouf, ‘and then process and package it here, which doesn’t bring any meaningful business to the country of origin, because it’s the processing, the packaging and everything after that generates profit.’ As the collection has expanded and diversified, certain final stages of manufacturing now have to be done in Paris, but most of the production chain remains in Africa.

In 2015, the Fofana brothers coined the label Maison Château Rouge as a platform for the association’s wares, selling initially through Instagram and online. A year later, they opened their brick-and-mortar space at 40 Rue Myrha, going on to garner widespread attention and several big-name collaborations with the likes of fashion giant Monoprix. Far from diluting the brand’s ethos, Youssouf uses the opportunity to introduce his network of manufacturers and craftspeople to big clients, further putting African design on the global map. This year he’s also working on a project called La Fédération Africaine des Métiers d’Art, which will build a transparent and accessible co-operative of artisans, each with their own speciality.

Despite having so much on his plate, Youssouf makes sure to spend time in the shop and plays an active part in the brand’s day-to-day running, rather than fade into macro-management and admin. ‘Normally people will chat to us, we’ll give them some tips on where to go in Château Rouge, and they spend the day exploring and meditating on where they are. It’s all an experience.’

Discover more businesses part of the emerging ‘grassroots economy’ who are putting their social missions before profit.

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