Jonathan Kirschstetter and Vilson Rocha in Bobigny. Photo Magali Delporte© for the Financial Times
Jonathan Kirschstetter (left) and Vilson Rocha in Bobigny © FT

In a suburb on the northern fringe of Paris, used as a base by the Islamist perpetrators of the November attacks, two gay hipsters are seeking to revive the lost soul of the French capital.

Why Jonathan Kirschstetter, 32 — with his mop of blond hair tied in a ponytail — and Vilson Rocha, 33 — with his perfectly trimmed dark beard — have landed in Bobigny — where unemployment is widespread, poverty the norm, crime pervasive and homophobia rampant — is anyone’s guess. Surrounded by the monumental apartment blocks that form the heart of the immigrant town, they are a strange sight in their neat designer overcoats and outsize plastic-framed glasses. I met them through a non-profit organisation that helps unemployed youngsters set up businesses. But they are clearly not from here. As I fight the bitter cold, buried in a down jacket, the couple — underdressed and unfazed — lay out their plan for a fashion brand: Saudade de Paris.

It will not be just a clothing line but a “lifestyle statement”, Mr Kirschstetter explains. “After the Paris terror attacks, we want to celebrate Paris, the Parisian soul.” Their goal is to “make people dream”— with a mixture of beauty and style that has an environmentally friendly twist. “We want to make everything locally,” says Mr Rocha, who was born in the eighth arrondissement of Paris to Cape Verdean parents.

They ended up in Bobigny by chance, they tell me as we take shelter in Paradis Street, a café that fills up with noisy high-schoolers on their lunch hour. For four years before moving here, they had been residents of the 11th arrondissement, not far from the Bataclan, the music hall where jihadis — including one born in Drancy, a town just north of Bobigny — shot concert goers on November 13.

Both men were working in the fashion industry: Mr Kirschstetter worked as artistic director for a French sport brand and Mr Rocha is a stylist. They were drawn to this part of the French capital: “It’s mixed, still a bit working class and original,” says Mr Kirschstetter. When the couple sought to buy an apartment, they looked north, where property is cheaper and where in some suburbs gentrification has begun.

Bobigny, however, seems far from gentrifying. Three-quarters of its residents live in subsidised, low-income flats. Half are born overseas or are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, and one in four are unemployed — a rate that rises to nearly half of those aged under 25.

But the banlieue has also provided unexpected opportunities for their new business: they found a reseller of unsold fabrics from the fashion industry in the nearby industrial zone. “No need to go to Bangladesh to find cheap textiles,” Mr Kirschstetter says.

The non-profit organisation helps the entrepreneurs with a business plan. This initiative is one of many — spontaneous and institutional — to restore some of the sparkle that Paris has lost since 130 people were murdered in bars and restaurants as they were having a drink or listening to music. The city has launched an international advertising campaign, designed to attract tourists and Parisians back into restaurants, bars and theatres. The slogan is “Paris est une fête” — literally “Paris is a party” and the title of the French version of Ernest Hemingway’s book about the city, A Moveable Feast, which shot up the best-sellers list after the attacks.

Much as I hate to admit it, Paris no longer feels quite like Paris. Cafés are half empty and there is a 40 per cent drop in attendance at plays. The murders in January last year of staff at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine, police officers and clients and employees of a kosher supermarket had been a shock. But many Parisians know, directly or indirectly, someone who died in the November attacks.

For many of us who lived in Paris in their twenties, the places that were targeted — Rue de Charonne, Oberkampf — were the backdrop to our nightlife. I lived near the Place de la République for 10 years and had dinner at Le Petit Cambodge, one of the restaurants hit by the Islamists, a few months before the attacks. Even Mr Kirschstetter and Mr Rocha, in their own way, are not sure “their” Paris will be back: in Portuguese, the language of Mr Rocha’s Verdean parents, saudade means nostalgia for something that may never return.

anne-sylvaine.chassany@ft.com

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