The youngest of 9 children to a Beninese father and Togolese/Brazilian mother, Steves Hounkponou was always very different to his brothers. Though he inherited their action figures and toy cars, it was his sister’s Barbie doll that caught his interest. Not satisfied with her wardrobe, he even designed a new line of clothing specifically for her! These early signs of creativity would later develop and lead to Steves launching his own brand, Blackhats Paris. But before then, Steves’ resilience and character would be greatly challenged. Only once we understand his journey, can we begin to realise the significance of Steves’ achievement.
At the age of 14 your life changed, what happened?
I was in Paris with my family at the time and playing football with my friends, when someone tackled me and I fell on my ankle. Three days later the swelling hadn’t gone so my parents arranged a doctor’s appointment. The doctors ran a few tests and a week later the results came in. They discovered that I was HLA B27 positive and had a rheumatic disorder.
What does that mean?
HLA B27 is a gene that causes a higher risk of certain rheumatic diseases such as Ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis and juvenile spondyloarthropathies. It affects the joints and causes rheumatic pains. My family were already aware of the disease. Rheumatism is fairly common in the coastal regions of Benin, including my grandfather’s town Bopa. When my father was 18, he physically tried to escape it, walking 2 days from Bopa to Cotonou. He reached his destination, my birth town, but didn’t escape the disease, and neither did I.
I was admitted to hospital, La Pitié Salpêtrière, and stayed there for a year. I had an operation and a functional rehabilitation in order to walk, with a hip prosthesis for my right leg. It was a difficult time to endure, both physically and mentally, particularly when my parents, who had obligations back in Benin, had to leave. They left me in the good hands of my sister Corinne, but it was not easy to say goodbye.
That must be hard for anyone, but particularly for a 14-year-old. Was everything OK during your year in hospital?
It was. My parents, despite being far away, gave me courage. They called every day and I felt closer than ever to them. The problem was actually myself. I was 14 going on 15, impatient and eager to recover. Against my doctor’s advice, I started pushing my limits by walking my room, the hospital corridors and forcing myself to stand for an hour a day, so I could quickly walk again. I should have listened, but I was young. I broke my prosthesis and this is why I walked with a limp for the next few years and still do even today in cold weather.
Presumably after a telling-off and fixing the prosthesis, the rest is history?
Nearly, but not quite. At the age of 17 when I was preparing for the Baccalauréat (A’ Levels), I went for a routine check-up and my doctor, Dr Roland, (who coincidently was also the doctor for my favorite footballer at the time, Brazilian Ronaldo) discovered that there had been unexpected developments and I would need a second hip prosthesis. I was admitted to hospital where I spent another year. Unfortunately, this meant I wouldn’t be able to sit my exams.
A second year in hospital? Was it easier this time?
It was during this second period of my hospitalized life that I found inspiration. When you’re in hospital for another year, you can either progress or regress. I began watching fashion shows on the television. Yves Saint Laurent was my inspiration and that creativity from my childhood ignited. I swore to myself that as soon as I left the hospital I’d follow my passion, my calling. When I checked out at 18, I re-enrolled at school and got my ‘Bac’. With my qualifications in hand, fashion became my focus.
Thank you for sharing this defining moment of your life. You’ve had another, can you tell us about it?
In 2015 I went into a small store in Le Marais with my friend, photographer and now business partner Alexandre Isaac to buy a hat. I instantly fell in love with a broad brimmed model, turned up at the back. It looked a bit like a rabbi’s hat. I tried my luck with the sales clerk to get a discount. She told me there were no discounts, but said “This hat will change your life”. Alexandre turned to me and said “Steves, change your life!” Something as simple as a hat was promised to change my life, how was this possible? I wasn’t dissatisfied with my life but if it could be improved for 395 euros surely it was worth the investment? I bought the hat in the hope that the sales clerk was right. And she was!
I had spent a large part of my childhood in hospital, I walked with a limp which instigated bullying at school, and you could say I had developed into my own shell. But this hat opened a new world, a new person, a world of possibility. I went to a party and everyone wanted to wear my hat. Everyone wanted to talk to me. I experienced something I had never experienced before, a positive type of attention.
A few days later Alexandre and I took sunrise photos at the Eiffel Tower. We took some beautiful photos that morning but it was one spontaneous photo in particular, taken by Alexandre, that would prove to be my transformative moment. We were in a café and he took a quick snap of me with the hat and posted it on Instagram. Instantly people connected with the photo. People started following and commenting. They were focused on the hat and I grew in self-confidence. This hat has changed me, my weakness became a strength.
So why are people connecting with the hat and you?
They say a picture tells a thousand words and it really does. People started telling me that they can see themselves in my photos and started asking me where they can buy the hat. I went back to the store and designed my own.
How was that first creation?
I used some wax material, my mother had given to me when I was 14 years old at the hospital. She told me “When you are afraid or sad, this will protect you and you will feel my presence by your side”. The design had a broad brim, the back was raised, and its hollow was more pronounced in the middle than other hats. This hollow signified the hollow in my hip, for my prosthesis, which has become my strength.
You’ve had a remarkable journey, where are you at the moment?
Today I’m proud to be an entrepreneur and designer of handbags, hats and ‘pochettes’, leatherwear and wax-based items, using the Parisian “savoir faire” and sourcing the wax from Benin.
Tell us about your designs.
The tote bag represents Parisian life with quality leather selected in the best French ‘tanneries’ and handmade work carried out for days in the same workshops as used by historical French luxury brands. The pockets and clutches are made with a leather support and leather details to sublimate and magnify the sleeve. They are elegant, for both men and women, but with a real history. I could have stayed for 50 years in my job, but it is important to live one’s passion.
Your Benin heritage is important in your designs…
Yes, it’s important to have the authenticity. Actually my mother sells fabrics in Africa. Her company is the leader in Benin. Black Hats Paris is a unisex brand, I want all powerful households to have at least one model of my bag. The gentleman can carry it as an i-pad or day pocket, the woman as an evening bag. They can exchange the hats I create. I want to sublimate the fabrics my mother sells.
Moving forward, what can we expect to see?
I have registered the company Black Hats in Paris in June 2017 and the brand will officially open in September 2017. I’m currently in discussions with various boutiques so you can expect to see my hats and accessories in stock very soon. I want the brand to be THE reference for wax. We have chosen the highest quality despite the cost, as our customers deserve the best.
Your story is both thought-provoking and inspiring. What advice can you give someone who is presented with a challenge?
You can fail 8 times but that 9th attempt could be the only extra effort needed to succeed. We are all born with a gift, whatever gift you’ve been given, use it. If you don’t know what that gift is yet, put your hand on your heart – your heart is your second brain – and you’ll find it. Many people focus on their mistakes, but it’s imperative to realign your focus on what you’ve already achieved! If doubt creeps in, inspire yourself by remembering your greatest achievements in life, remember those achievements were made by you!