The youth of the French banlieue A.K.A the real France where the fun stuff happens, have long taken the Nike Air Max to their hearts, with France widely cited as one of the most important countries for Nike's visible air flagship. So, in order to mark Air Max Day on March 26th —Nike's global celebration of the birth of a footwear revolution—we look at how a new generation of French clubbers are embracing rather than ignoring the banlieue, forging a new way of life, and of course the Nikes they're wearing.
The young Parisians present at the clubs we talk about in this piece are dressing in a new way that better reflects the physical and cultural environment of the banlieues they now find themselves in. Forget blazers, classic French chic, muted colours and items bought from maison this or that and instead think Air Max BWs worn with hoodies, raver vests and shorts, lots of colour and bits of sports wear. Why the BW? Because the uptight doormen of central Paris and the city's old school hipsters and Bobos—think snooty middle-aged hipsters—hated them of course.
"To begin with, trying to convince people to go to an event past the Périphérique was a tough sell," says Julien Artigues, part of the Die Nacht collective. Built in the 1970s, the Boulevard Périphérique circles the outskirts of Paris, delimiting the center from its innermost suburbs. Only a few years previously, Parisians seemed unwilling to venture any further for a night out, now thousands are drawn to large-scale events in the communes that border the capital.
In 2010, both the New York Times and Le Monde were declaring the city's nightlife dead, the latter going as far to describe Paris as the "European capital of boredom". Reports which seem exaggerated even then. With the longstanding issues affecting Paris's nightlife unlikely to be resolved the clubbing scene instead found creative ways to circumvent them. In the center, Sunday parties like Concrete, hosted on a docked boat on the Seine, and Sundae offered a solution to the problem of noise restrictions and curfews. At the same time, promoters were looking further afield for spaces that could replace the circuit of clubs that had become all too familiar.
"It was difficult because there wasn't much of a precedent," says Artigues. Die Nacht, started by Artigues's friend Jeremie Feinblatt in 2008, were among the first organisers to throw parties in the suburbs. Their debut event was hosted in a former railway station on the outskirts of the city and since then they've moved to progressively larger venues to keep up with demand. With few venues able to accommodate thousands of clubbers in the city, Feinblatt scouted out unusual locations such as an abandoned swimming pool, a biscuit factory and even an airfield.
At first, events were largely word of mouth, which Artigues suggests gave nights a sense of communality. "I think people bonded over the journey because you'd meet people on the way." It's a ritual that seems to repeat itself in rave history. In the 90s, UK ravers similarly spent weekend nights driving around the M25 following a seemingly never-ending series of directions to secretly-located raves. That, however, is as far as the parallels go: in Paris, the locations are mostly former industrial buildings rather than green belt land. And the raves are legal.
Other groups have followed since, making original spaces harder to find. As a result, event organisers have found other ways to differentiate themselves. For Fabien Kratz, founder of OTTO10, creating an atmosphere is more important than the novelty of the venue. Frustrated with clubbers "just standing around looking at each other" in Paris' clubs, Kratz aimed to get people to loosen up by making OTTO10 parties more playful. "We wanted to have a total concept of partying, so we handed out costumes and transformed the locations we held our parties in," say Kratz. The gaudy and mismatched outfits that clubbers began wearing at OTTO10 stood in stark contrast to the humourlessness of some club nights in the capital. The move outwards has given promoters room to experiment in other ways: shaking up the clubbing formula by putting on daytime events and curating more eclectic lineups. "We don't want a party where it's always the same music in the same room," says Kratz.
Die Nacht and OTTO10, like most collectives, have largely operated in the city's Northern and Eastern suburbs. Here, communes like Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers are home to some of the poorest communities around the capital with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Their inhabitants are also are far more ethnically diverse than in the center of Paris – statistics are difficult to come by as France does not collect statistics on ethnicity in its census.
For the most part, one-off events in the suburbs are intended for clubbers coming from other parts of Paris rather than residents themselves. As Artigues admits "It wasn't our objective to be inclusive of those communities". Kratz, likewise, says that OTTO10 events in the suburbs do not draw a more diverse crowd but suggests that they've made clubbing more accessible. "Clubbing in Paris is expensive and parities [in the suburbs] are more affordable, meaning that younger people, many of whom are underpaid or unemployed, can participate."
The movement of the clubbing scene has not been entirely outward, the inhabitants of the suburbs have also established their own events. Over in Palaiseau, far south of the city, Opération Maxi Puissance [Operation Max Power] is run by a group of twenty-somethings who grew up and live in the commune. They organise an annual festival, Aoutside, as well as host events throughout the year. As its name suggests, the collective are equally involved in activism around their hometown as they are putting on events. As the head of the organisation Matthieu Helbert explains, OMP's events are intended solely for his own community. "This is our city and we should have a stake in it as well. We aren't throwing parties to gain recognition but to make our area a more fun place to live," he says.
OMP's self-sufficiency is not due to remoteness – Paris is only a thirty minute train journey away – but a reaction to the capital's nightlife. "In Paris, when you do something you have to do it in a very fashionable, codified way. In the suburbs there are no such codes," says Helbert. For one there are no door policies to worry about. "You can dress badly if you want," laughs Helbert, "but that's not to say that we don't have any fashion sense." Comfort has become the imperative again with rave accoutrements like Air Max BWs and sweats, which might have barred you entry from some Paris clubs, becoming a possibility again.
Really this new clubbing landscape reflects the change happening to French culture. As more of France's wannabe musicians, artists and other assorted creatives are forced out of Paris by the increasing popularity of city living and the lack of viable clubbing spaces, there's a mixing of classes and races happening that you tend not to see so much inside the Périphérique, especially not in the clubs or reflected in the city's world famous fashion scene.
Those with funds are now pairing their Air Max BWs with a new generation of designers featured in magazines such as WAD, including the A$AP Rocky favoured Pigalle—the line's founder Stéphane Ashpool has said he wants Pigalle to 'make Paris synonymous with multiculturalism,'—Andrea Crews and Paris Nord who all draw on the new French streetwear ethic. It seems the relative freedoms of Paris's suburbs are waking-up the city's tastes in fashion as much as they are the its taste in nightlife.
This isn't to say that regulations don't affect the suburbs. One of the most popular venues in town, Le Ferry, was recently closed by the authorities. Formerly a primary school, it was given tacit approval to be used as a community space in 2013. "The moment it became popular [the mayor's office] realised it wasn't what they wanted because they had no control over the events – so they closed it," says Louise Calzada, a member of OPM and lead singer of local band, Le Vasco. The decision ignited a campaign to save the venue, forcing the administration to make an embarrassing U-turn.
In Saint-Denis, north of Paris, the clubbing scene has similarly found a home in another disused building. Le 6b, a former office block, was used as squat for many years before architect Julien Beller convinced the landlord to let local volunteer groups use the space in 2008. Seven years on, almost every floor has been filled by the 170 organisations that operate from the building. Beller, who now heads the council that looks after the running of the space, says that "the 6b is for people from the neighbourhood, the vast majority of the 300 people that work here live in Saint-Denis." Many of those housed in the 6b are social workers that serve the communities that live in the nearby social housing. Exhibitions in the building are programmed together with residents and its vast event space is made freely available for community hire.
The 6b is also a popular location for dance music events, with many promoters – OTTO10 among them – using the space. Teller believes that the number of events taking place in the suburbs is having a positive effect: "Clubbing is becoming more democratic as more people are gaining access to the scene, that's why you have more diversity at events." Although he cautions that organisers still have a role to play with the makeup of audiences varying greatly from event to event.
Situated right in the middle of a proposed residential development, the future of the 6b seems uncertain. For the developers, the community space has been a boon, attracting prospective occupants to the neighbourhood. Whether they will continue to tolerate the building once the newcomers have moved in, however, is difficult to say. Teller remains sanguine about the 6b's prospects. "Even if it goes ahead the community will always be represented in our building," he says.
The changes already underway in Saint-Denis have anticipated forthcoming reforms to Paris's suburbs. From next year, the commune will be one of many annexed into Le Grand Paris, expanding the capital to its adjoining departments. The scheme should, if it works, redistribute resources and provide better transport links to those living in poverty and isolation at the fringes of the city. It might also bring down the invisible wall the Périphérique has established between Parisians and the segregated population living outside it. Somewhat inadvertently, the city's nightlife has led the way, although its legacy thus far is mixed. At best, residents have gained a stake in Paris's clubbing scene, at worst it's been merely a harbinger of gentrification - not unlike that seen in London and Berlin before it. Only time will tell which.
Read more in this series:
Photographer - Alex de Mora
Creative Director and Stylist - Kylie Griffiths
Assistants - Ellie, Sian, and Thomas
Production Assistant - Tabitha Martin
Hair - Johnnie/Morocaan Oil
Hair Stylist Assistant - Kumiko
Make Up- Lucy Wearing/MAC Cosmetics
Make Up Assistants - Lydia Harding and Celia Evans.
Models - Poppy, Romane and Roberto