After spending two years without being able to walk, Steves Hounkponou was inspired by the fashion shows he watched during that time and promised himself he would one day launch his own label. After obtaining his Bachelors degree from Cambridge and studying Luxury Marketing and Finance, Steves began his career with world-renowned fashion brands Burberry and Cartier.

Years of hard work later, he is launching his own leather goods label, entirely made in France, BlackHats Paris. In order to create his own style, he mixes urban and ethnic influences, in honour of his mother, a ‘Nana Benz’ (wax connoisseur and trader) in Benin. His creations feature clean lines, allowing the wax fabric to perfectly match the leather finishing. Lys Mehou-Loko of Ayiba speaks with Steves about his brand BlackHats.

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How did you come up with the concept of BlackHats Paris? 
I came to France at age 14 for some try-outs to become a football player. Due to an accident, my plans changed. Actually, my accident led doctors to perform additional tests and that is when they detected a genetic disease named HLA B27, an ankylosing spondylitis. This is characterised by a chronic inflammation of the joints. So I said Adieu to football and underwent two operations for two hip prostheses. As a result, I was unable to walk for two years. During those years, I watched a lot of fashion shows from my hospital bed, particularly those of Yves Saint Laurent who was a source of inspiration. I promised myself I would design clothes for people, once I recovered.
After my operations, my gait was still affected, mainly because of temperature changes. The way some people would look at me bothered me. One day, I was in a shop with a friend and fell in love with a hat. I had to have it! But it was way too expensive for my modest budget. The saleswoman came to me and said: ‘Take this hat, it will change your life’. How could a hat be life-changing? My buddy added ‘change your life Steves, take the hat!’. So I took their advice and bought it. That evening, at the restaurant, everyone wanted to touch my hat and gave me compliments on it. It was the beginning of an incredible journey. On social media, my followership started to grow. There was an undeniable frenzy around my hat.
My followers asked me to create a hat brand. I did not want to limit myself to only my hat and preferred creating a full range of accessories. That is why I started my leather goods brand. Note that my mother is a wax fabric trader, she travels across Benin and West Africa to sell her textiles. Her sales expertise makes her a ‘Mama Benz’. It is only natural that I should pay homage to her, by incorporating wax fabrics and leather goods. A Parisian for over twenty years, I am still as impressed by the elegance of some of this city’s inhabitants. For my first collection, I wanted to marry Parisian elegance and Beninese quality wax.
What is the objective of BlackHats Paris? 
BlackHats Paris, (BHP), aims to inspire people and invites them to believe in themselves, be bold and live their dreams. Each piece has a story. For example, the pouch ‘The Resident’ is a reference to immigrants who use similar pouches to store their documents. The shape represents these documents, but in a more luxurious material. For a long time I was an immigrant myself, before becoming a French citizen. So this is a reference to that period and the long hours spent waiting at the city hall, with my pouch, to obtain my resident’s permit.
What does living in Paris mean to you? 
Paris, in my eyes, the most beautiful city in the world. Living in the world’s fashion capital is stimulating. I really love fashion, but am not necessarily a ‘fashion victim’. I usually say that I am an office of styles: I like to arrange clothes together. It could be something I found on the internet or a piece by a great designer. To me, what matters is beauty!
Paris also means riding your bike or small car to work, then meeting your friends, family or girlfriend in a bucolic place. It’s also the apéros on the quais de Seine, or museums on the weekend with a tote bag, an emblematic piece of the Parisian wardrobe.
How has your personal background influenced BlackHats Paris? 
Posting pictures on Instagram and encouraging people to challenge themselves have influenced BHP. My hat is my strength. We have to overcome our weaknesses and find our strengths within ourselves, and it allowed me to find my inner strength. Some people were moved by the positive message I was spreading, it even helped them overcome things. And others identified with me.
At BlackHats Paris, what is the most difficult aspect of your work? what is the most pleasant? 
Nothing is difficult, because I am lucky to do what I love. Granted, I get very little sleep and I love sleeping, but I’m learning every day, meeting extraordinary people every day. I appreciate this human adventure, it’s a pleasure to chat with people. I am also lucky to be surrounded by experts (accounting, communications, strategy…). So when I am facing an obstacle, I do not hesitate to reach out to them and get their advice on certain issues.
What is the first thing you do in the morning for BlackHats Paris? 
The first thing I do in the morning for BHP is to visit our e-shop which is not yet live, but will be available September 21, to check the number of visitors and subscribers to our newsletters. I just love seeing this grow every day with people signing up even though we are not even online. I am so grateful to them.
What were your key success factors? 
I am not the most talented person, but I am a workaholic. The key is to surround yourself well, and to train yourself. I spend my time reading and learning. In my field, I have a Bachelor’s degree from Cambridge, a Masters degree in Luxury Marketing, an MBA in Finance and 8 years of experience in retail. I also teach at HEC, but learn a lot from my students.
As an entrepreneur, I spent a year training in finance, accounting, and product development. mastering all the aspects of my field and having a 360 vision has helped me challenge myself and achieve extraordinary things.
This September 3, we will have a pop-up exposition at the Printemps du Louvre. Other beautiful surprises are in the works, and the brand will officially launch on September 21 at a Parisian concept store.
Except for ‘Being yourself’, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? 
Don’t ever give up. You can fall 8 times, the 9th time will be the one. As entrepreneurs, we make mistakes and that means that we are learning the tricks of the trade. You have to readjust and move forward. The key is to surround yourself well and not hesitate to learn and ask for help. You have to be willing to attend workshop, training courses, and work tirelessly towards your passion, to feel like you are not working at all.
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