The youngest of nine children of the Beninese father and Togolese/Brazilian mother, Steves Hounkponou was always very different from his brothers. Since childhood he was showing the strong interest in fashion. After studying marketing for the luxury industry at ISC Paris, as well as finance at ISG Paris, Steves Hounkponou started working for the Bon Marché as a retail specialist. Years later, after gaining experience by working for various premium brands such as Cartier, Burberry and Coach, he decided to start his own brand Blackhats Paris. Steves designed line of handbags, hats and “pochettes”, leatherwear and wax-based items, using the Parisian “savoir faire” and sourcing the wax from Benin. His first fashion collection was launched in September 2017.
What is BLACKHATS PARIS all about?
Blackhats Paris is a Parisian brand. It is an alliance between Africa and Europe; the heritage of black ancestry combined with French savoir-faire. Previously I was a retail concessions director for a luxury brand, but I decided to leave that job to launch my own label. On social media I inspired a community with a mysterious hat which traveled the world. My mantra is: Our weakness is our biggest strength. The BlackHats is a community that is afraid of nothing.
How did you become a “Hat guy”?
I am a carrier of a gene called HLA B27. As a child, I thought I was predestined to play football, but during a test session in Paris, they discovered I have this anomaly. I couldn’t walk for two years, and I would limp whenever the temperature changed. One day, I was walking in the Marais, looking for new designers, and I happened to see a quite special hat. I asked for a discount, but the assistant refused. She told me that she would not give me any discount, but that this hat will change my life. The friend who was with me said: “Go on, change your life!” So I bought it. I decided to keep that hat because it gave me an incredible self-confidence, more than a fetish object could. So I posted a photo of me with my hat on social media, and reactions were amazing. Since then, I have been creating a community that recognizes aspects of itself in me. I am very glad to inspire them.
Did your upbringing in Benin influence your perception of fashion and overall style?
When I was a child, I used to take off my sisters’ dolls clothes, so I could dress them up my way. I always had this creative touch. When I went back to Benin in April 2016, I was inspired by the kindness, the colors, the joyous African way of living. That encouraged me to launch my brand and pay homage to the continent.
How did Paris shape you?
Paris planted the fashion culture inside me, the taste for photography and desire to travel. While I couldn’t walk for two years, following my operations, it was Mr Saint Laurent and his fashion shows that inspired me. My work experience in the fashion houses like Cartier, Burberry and Bon Marché taught me the excellence of Parisian savoir-faire.
Are your designs connected to your Beninese heritage?
All my designs have a connection to Benin, Africa or France. My “Le Résident” clutch bag is a typical nod to the wallets that immigrants have when they go to ask for their permits to stay in France. I remember some days getting up at five when I had a wallet with a collection of documents. So I wanted to create this clutch and make it practical and modern.
“Lethnik Fleur de Lys” bag and “Le Résident” clutch
How did the companies and brands react at first to BLACKHATS PARIS and how do they react now?
The decision to position ourselves in the luxury segment fascinated several people. Quite often we had been told that wax is not compatible with luxury and every time we decided to remain in this sector, with quality raw materials.
You are also a stylist.
For years I have observed customer behavior, interviewed experts and followed training courses. Also, I have the fortunate ability of knowing how to combine clothing, accessories and colors, so I wanted to reproduce that for others and help them benefit from my experience.
Since you travel a lot, do you have a favorite place?
My favorite country is still Bénin, my country of birth. It is such a passionate country. Did you know that we have reserves in the north, where you can have a safari? The cotton fields are also surprising places. You can still find wax factories there, very colorful markets, and a joyful way of life. This country is working hard to be recognized. The food is succulent. Unfortunately, when I go to source wax materials in Bénin, I don’t have time to rest and enjoy all of that.
You have recently visited Marrakech. We know that your favorite designer Yves Saint Laurent had long relation with Morocco. What was your impression of the life and culture there?
I rediscovered myself in the Majorelle Gardens. It is always a pleasure to go there. Mr Saint Laurent did some amazing things. This country is great and the people are profoundly kind. What fascinates me about Morocco, are the changes of scenery. We went to Ait Ben-Haddou- a Moroccan Ksar that is featured on the UNESCO heritage list, to Ouarzazate, Marrakesh, Casablanca… Moroccans have a flair for hospitality and the food is delicious. You can let yourself be inspired by the mountains, the sea, the sounds, the spices, the deserts…It is out of the ordinary.
You always dress so well, what are your favorite brands and why?
Thanks for that. My preferred brand is, unsurprisingly, Saint Laurent and Maison Michel. Having said that, I can wear an accessible brand and associate it with a luxury one. I would say that style is more important than the brand.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging aspect of my job is having to do everything. Being an entrepreneur means thinking about everything. You have to think like a designer, commercial director, administration director, accountant… You have to gain experience in each area and at the same time find solutions. The difficulty is managing your time when you have to do everything.
Do you have a specific approach in making a hat for someone?
I have always been interested in accessories that sublimate people. The hats that are part of our collections are created in collaboration with different brands. We manufacture the accessories (clutches, tote bags…) in workshops in Paris. The name BLACKHATS PARIS is a nod to daring community who is afraid of nothing.
How do you see your future in hat making?
I made more accessories than hats. For the moment, the hats will be made in collaboration with the renown houses that have exceptional savoir-faire.
As an online digital entrepreneur what is the major advice you would like to give to people that are working in the same field?
You have to do things with passion, and be genuine with your community. I think that your history really interests people. Once you have built your community, orders will come because you have inspired them.
What do you wish someone had told you?
I surround myself with the best, so I am fortunate enough to have good advisors. What I would like to master next is a detail knowledge in technical design. You create plans, you change them, but above all you must remain focused and have a goal in your mind.
Can you tell us something about your upcoming projects and who would you like to work with in the future?
I would love to collaborate with Maison Michel. As far as future projects are concerned, my aim will always be to give some of the profits to the Kelina de Flora Coquerel association, which helps disadvantaged children in Bénin. And, my ultimate goal is to grow the BLACKHAT brand.
Vesna Filipovic for Fashionela
Translated from French: Karim Lakkimi