Words: Amira Rasool

Photos: Benjamin Schmuck and Aymeric Tascon

The “Fearless Ones” celebrates a new generation of defiant, talented individuals. Click here for more stories about the cast.

When brothers Youssouf and Mamadou Fofana first launched Maison Château Rouge in 2015, their goal was simple⁠ yet powerful — to develop a socially-conscious fashion business that would contribute to Africa’s economic development and global image. Though they had no fashion design experience and barely any startup cash, they were driven by clear intentions and an important message, which led to the naming of their Paris-based brand. They hoped to shift perceptions of Château-Rouge, an African neighborhood in Paris, by reversing stigmas that have plagued the area.

Four years since it launched, Maison Château Rouge has a shop on Rue Myrha in Paris and is stocked by prominent retailers around the world. The colorful assortment of contemporary, hand-made and African-inspired fashion and lifestyle products are enjoyed by a growing list of customers (including celebrities), who see MCR as a symbol of a new renaissance in African fashion. Certain pieces, for example, combine contemporary European styles with traditional African prints and fabrics sourced from their elders’ closets.

Despite the obstacles they’ve faced, Youssouf and Mamadou are continuing to make waves. Here, Youssouf tells their story and talks about MCR’s new Air Jordan I collaboration.

Youssouf Fofana of Maison Château Rouge

Why did you want to start Maison Château Rouge?

Maison Château Rouge started with the aim of funding an organization called Les Oiseaux Migrateurs, which I established in 2014 with my brother, Mamadou. The project aims to collaboratively address Africa’s new challenges and foster the development of local production and exportation of finished products.

In a globalized world, our final objective is to enable African businesses to compete in the international market. In a broader sense, this means showing the world a new image of Africa, while remaining authentic. We wanted to take action in three areas, in particular: food, fashion and crafts. Understanding a culture doesn’t only involve learning about traditional dress and customs. It’s also about taking an interest in culinary traditions!

Can you explain how you got the name, Maison Château Rouge?

Château-Rouge is the African neighborhood of Paris. For many years, it didn’t have a positive image in the media, amongst Parisians and in France, as a whole. Maison Château Rouge is driven by a desire to display the evolution of our culture, enabled by a new generation of people who, like us, are re-envisioning it.

The idea is to help reinvent African culture by sharing it with the rest of the world. We also want to pay tribute to the Château-Rouge’s historic traders, who sold African fabrics long before it became trendy.  That’s why we chose them as our direct suppliers. They have been keen to join us in our goal of developing local businesses and enhancing the neighborhood. We started by producing 100 tops and sold them on the Internet to finance Les Oiseaux Migrateurs’s first project, a bissap juice produced in Senegal.

Youssouf with friends of MCR: Pierrot, Palmyre and Uele

What was it like to first get into the fashion industry and start a brand?

After graduating from business school, I worked in the IT department of a bank for 3 years. It didn’t have much to do with fashion! I had no contacts in the fashion industry and very little money. It all happened very instinctively, but I was sure that my story was strong, and that it would resonate. So I created a website and used the power of social media to reach the public. In fact, our first orders on the website came from Japan and the United States. Our fashion offerings were met with almost instant success.

Soon after, starting in March 2016, we successively got our pieces into Merci, Le Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette. Leading international retailers in Japan, Korea, United States, Scandinavian countries, Australia, China and elsewhere quickly incorporated the brand. We then decided to transform Les Oiseaux Migrateurs into a more structured social enterprise with the support of Fédération Française du Prêt à Porter Féminin.

What is your design process like? Do you start with a sketch or the pattern?

I usually start by sketching the garment, as this guides me towards the choice of pattern. For the choice of cuts, I do some research, and then I pick up some pieces in second-hand shops. I sketch and add the improvements I want to make, and then I send the sketches to the workshop. That’s the way we’ve been working since the beginning, and it works rather well!

For choosing fabrics, I do research in my mother’s wardrobe. I go through it to find traditional fabrics. Then, based on the colors and materials, I try to imagine which contemporary pieces might fit with the fabric. I look around the shops in Château-Rouge to find the fabrics, and then, together with the workshop, I make the samples. All fabrics are bought from shops in the neighborhood, and all production is carried out in Paris.

Pierrot, a friend of MCR, is a former track and field athlete. He currently models and is studying art direction.

Why is it important for you to incorporate African heritage into your designs?

Maison Château Rouge was born from a desire to share African culture, open it up and make it accessible through fashion. We design clothing that symbolizes the meeting of African and European cultures. You have to travel to promote and discover a country or continent, but in Paris, Africa is Château-Rouge! So we wanted to pay tribute to this famous district in the 18th arrondissement that best illustrates the meeting point of these two cultures.

Why is the Made In Africa movement so important, and how does your brand, and this collaboration in particular, help promote it?

A quick survey of the economic relationships between African countries and the rest of the world outlines a major problem. It is a simple equation. On one hand, the export rate for raw materials is high, and on the other, the industrial processing rate of products is not well-developed. We are convinced that exporting your natural resources without processing them actually amounts to exporting your wealth and jobs.

Our objective with the Les Oiseaux Migrateurs association is to foster the development of local economic actors and support them in processing their raw products. Like our first project, BANA-BANA, we want to bring our expertise to the areas of logistics and marketing that make a final product “ready to consume” in the countries to which it is exported.

Palmyre, a friend of MCR, modeled the brand’s first campaigns before signing with an agency. She currently walks catwalks for other big-name brands.

What do you like about the Air Jordan I, in terms of its design and history?

First, we like the AJI for its design. It’s a legendary pair worn by the greatest players! For many collectors, it’s the first pair they had — or at least the pair that sparked their addiction to sneakers! I was initially focused on the design because, like a lot of young people, we had hardly ever seen Michael Jordan play. But once you delve deeper and find out more about the history of this pair, it becomes even more powerful. It’s not just an ordinary shoe. It’s a statement, a message, a commitment, a symbol. That’s what makes it legendary. I like it when there is substance as well as form. That’s what I try to do when I create a piece with Maison Château Rouge.

How did the collaboration with Jordan Brand officially start?

We first met the Parisian team two years ago. They liked the brand, our project and our values. During the Quai 54 event in 2017, they came to our shop with Victor Oladipo, and we dressed him for a shoot. It was our first experience with Jordan Brand, and we soon decided that we wanted to tell a story together. We then met the global teams several times, but we didn’t imagine that they would one day ask us to design an Air Jordan I. Can you imagine? Air Jordan is an institution for all young people who share our history.

“Air Jordan is an institution for all young people who share our history.”

Can you explain why you chose the five different patchwork color designs on your Air Jordan I collaboration? What do they symbolize?

For me, patchwork represents the brand’s first mission, which is to symbolize the meeting of various cultures. That’s why I wanted to create a mixture of colors and patterns that represent the richness and cultural diversity found in the Château Rouge neighborhood.

Though colors represent a lot of different moments and distinctions across African culture, these shoes are not based on colors with any particular meaning in African culture. Rather, I wanted to tell a new story and connect heritage with modernity. I wanted to reinterpret the famous Air Jordan I Retro OG “UNC” and give it warmer colors. So I kept the blue and added some brown, which represents Africa for me. I then added touches of yellow, which is the color of the Maison Château Rouge brand. Finally, I replaced white with ecru for an element of softness. There are also small red details and visible seams. These are a way for me to pay tribute to the expertise of both African artisans and Parisian couturiers.

Outside of color, which other special design elements on the shoe are important to you?

We created inlaid and embossed designs for the AJI, because I wanted to add a modern touch, rather than simply applying prints. The inlaid designs reference scarification. In Africa, scarification is a way of expressing identity, belonging to a community, passing into adulthood or connecting to a spiritual group. On the AJI, they are purely aesthetic, though anyone is free to give them any meaning they choose.

(Left) Uele, a friend of MCR, has been helping the brand since its early days and is a music composer and orchestra conductor.

What does a major collaboration like this mean to you and your journey with Maison Château Rouge?

A major collaboration like this provides a wider audience for the message we want to convey with Maison Château Rouge. It’s an opportunity for a young brand. The rules are changing.

Young and old, we have to unite to change the world — now more than ever. As long as we have the same values, and we want to go in the same direction, we can write history together.

Finally, it proves that anything is possible if you put the right energy into it! It’s a great achievement. We are proud to help promote Parisian and African fashion around the world.

The Air Jordan I Mid SE Fearless ‘Maison Château Rouge’ is available starting November 30 on Jordan.com, SNKRS and at select retailers.

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