How Paco Rabanne Got Its Groove Back
“For [Rabanne], he was dressing women for now — his ‘now’ — and, for me, it’s about making the past present,” says creative director Julien Dossena.
The Tiffany Club. Depending on your interests and inclinations, that trio of words can evoke myriad things — highbrow, lowbrow, eyeshadow blues, baby blues…. For Paco Rabanne’s Julien Dossena, it telegraphs one: his childhood. The Tiffany Club is the name of a discothèque his father owned in their small town on the coast of Brittany, France, where Dossena spent much of his youth — “when they were cleaning, my sister and I would put music on and dance,” he recalls — and where, later, he worked as a bartender. It’s also the inspiration behind his knockout spring 2018 collection, a feisty line-up of fitted bodycon party dresses and jumpsuits, with trailing sleeves or hems seductively fluttering behind models as they stormed the runway.
For those who have been watching Dossena’s vision for the storied French brand since his arrival in 2013 at age 30, this marks the first time he’s added such a personal imprint on the collection. But it wasn’t the only first in this collection, he also took full-body plunge into evening wear, which he had been deliberately avoiding since he took over.
“I wanted to establish the brand first,” Dossena explains. “Now, I want to take the contrary of what I’ve done so far and find a balance between special occasion and day-to-day life.” The move is still curious when you know that Mr. Rabanne built his company on these special dress-up pieces and didn’t even enter the ready-to-wear game until later in his career. For Dossena, though, the reverse gambit paid off. He’s managed to do the miraculous (in fashion, anyways): reinvent a heritage brand for today, giving it a cool currency while capturing a new audience.
“A brand needs to have a strong code,” says Marina Larroudé, fashion director of Barneys New York, “When there is a strong code, a new designer can come on board and bring that aesthetic to today’s age. When there is no foundation, there is no place to start.”
To Larroudé’s point, few brands have as crystallized an identity as Paco Rabanne. Founded in the '60s, it was part of the Mod triumvirate along with Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges. Francisco Rabaneda Cuervo was born in the Basque region of Spain, and exploded onto the Paris couture scene with his first collection in 1964, dubbed “Twelve Experimental Dresses” — frocks made from plastic and steel discs that he strung together with wire, using a pair of pliers instead of a needle and thread. One skirt alone weighed over 70 pounds. Two years later, he presented his first couture show at the Hotel George V, “Twelve Unwearable Dresses,” on both black and white models dancing barefoot to pop music — quel scandale considering such presentations were typically solemn, you-could-hear-a-pin-drop affairs. This time, the dresses were also made from rubber and cardboard. In 1968, Rabanne gave us Jane Fonda’s molded and chain-linked outfits in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella.
His name now synonymous with the most cutting-edge materials, Rabanne occupied his own niche, pushing boundaries on what was the norm to new heights — while also garnering cool girl clients such as Françoise Hardy, Jane Birkin, and Brigitte Bardot. When Coco Chanel sniffed, “He's not a couturier. He's a metalworker,” Rabanne simply shrugged. "Who cares if no one can wear my dresses,” he said at the time, “They are statements." Besides, the Spaniard could be just as cutting in his remarks. "I don't want to do like John Galliano, who for the tenth time remakes a dress fit for a whore in a 1925-era bordello, even if it is beautifully done," he told The Los Angeles Times in 1999, "We've had our fill of that."
This DNA in innovative materials has fueled many of the company’s revamps through the years. After Rabanne retired and closed up shop in 1999, convinced a Russian space station would crash into and destroy Paris — more on that later* — Puig, the Barcelona-based fashion and fragrance firm that has owned the brand since 1969, installed numerous designers at the helm: Rosemary Rodriguez (2000), Patrick Robinson (2004), Manish Arora (2011), and Lydia Maurer (2012), each tasked with the tricky responsibility of navigating past and present. None quite resonated. Arora came the closest to the house founder’s style, even going so far as to use digital body scanners to recreate one of Rabanne’s iconic 1966 dresses one season; his similarly splashy sci-fi show pieces acquired fans in Lady Gaga, but begged the question: What about the everyday woman?
And that brings us back to our original query — perhaps there really is no magic formula. A successful reinvention consists of a cocktail of elements, some factors entirely out of one’s hands. “External factors are always a factor,” says Norma Kamali, who remembers the heyday of Paco Rabanne and the impact of his then-novel ideas. “There is always the economy, social movements, women's changing roles and needs and competition. Awareness of the conditions and connecting to why the changes exist feed the imagination to come up with strategies and new ideas."
“Reinvention is fun,” she adds. “It means thinking out of the box and loving it. If fear takes over, you lose the opportunity to be stimulated and excited by the opportunities that present themselves.” And maybe that’s part of the dilemma — too many designers clutching the guardrails of a brand too tightly.
Dossena was brought over to Paco Rabanne as a consultant during the Maurer years; a few months in, he was promoted to creative director. He shares that he was given carte blanche to rebuild the brand, and initially didn’t bother to dip into the archives. “I had total freedom,” he says. “We were considering it as a new brand.” Dossena adds that he was fortunate. The name Paco Rabanne had faded for the most part, more synonymous with its popular fragrances and aftershaves than fashion with a capital F. And unlike Yves Saint Laurent, who was peering over Tom Ford’s shoulder while he headed the house, generous with his critiques, Mr. Rabanne, while still alive, had faded from the public. Dossena has never met him.
“I was really lucky to have such freedom with such a beautiful and noble name,” continues Dossena. “When I came, there was no shop, no marketing. I was able to build a small team, choose the people I wanted to work with.” He set his sights on building a modern wardrobe for a modern woman — e.g. the perfect jacket, the perfect pant — “and not the couture dresses that were in line with what people thought Paco Rabanne should be. Because then you just sell party dresses and I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to be stuck in a time capsule.”
Instead of focusing on the broad strokes of what we remember as the brand’s legacy, Dossena focused on something more conceptual: Rabanne’s embrace of youth culture. After all, the Sixties was the era of the Youthquake movement, when a new generation shook free of formal bourgeois codes. For Dossena, the contemporary equivalent was injecting an element of athleticism into the clothes, giving his designs what he likes to call a “fast” appeal. “I wanted the new Paco Rabanne girl to be fast and comfortable,” he explains. “And I thought that sportiness could be a nice way to dig into it.” Dossena happened to capture the zeitgeist at just the right time; his spring 2014 debut coincided with the rise of athleisure.
In the seasons since, audiences have watched him loosen up, adding a relaxed ease to his signature sporty edge. “It came with maturity,” he quips. “But it’s true, there’s a lightness that I’ve been able to develop more freely than before. I allowed myself to express more what I thought.” He highlights the spring 2015 runway, featuring colorblocked, cut-out swimsuit-inspired dresses, as the big turning point. “The dresses hugged the body,” he explains. “There was a feminine sophistication that felt less sharp. I was having fun and expressing things in a more natural way. It was more joyful, let’s say.” Larroudé agrees, "[That’s when] he found his groove,” she notes. “He put his stamp on [the brand]. He modernized the mesh, he played with strong elements of the house and created outfits for the women of today.”
Dossena points out that sensuality was a big part of the Paco Rabanne identity, “There was a sensual charge to his designs, but at the same time they’re like armor, they protect you,” he says. “It’s a balance between seduction and strength. He was really the only one of his generation, compared to Courrèges and Cardin, to do something linked to the sexual revolution.”
Trace Dossena’s life and career and you find there’s some surprising overlap with the man whose name hangs over the door. Both he and Rabanne are from Brittany. Both studied architecture. And both worked at Balenciaga. Rabanne’s mother was an assistant to Cristóbal Balenciaga; to earn money while at school, Rabanne created fashion accessories — jewelry, belts, buttons — for a number of couture houses, such as Givenchy, Christian Dior and, yes, Balenciaga. Meanwhile, Dossena trained at the legendary house under Nicolas Ghesquière, himself no stranger to the transformative magic of brand reinvention. When Ghesquière left in 2012, Dossena did as well and co-founded Atto with Lion Blau that same year; the fledging company, which was named after Dossena’s father, was eventually put on hold so he could fully focus on Paco Rabanne. In another round of connect-the-dots: Dossena was recommended to the role by stylist Marie-Amélie Sauvé, who happens to be Ghesquière’s longtime right-hand woman.
“Everything about my job as a designer, I learned at Balenciaga,” Dossena says. “I watched Nicolas make that brand, which was also really retro, relevant — and still pleasing to the Balenciaga aficionados.” The greatest lesson learned? “Exigence and precision,” he says. “You never work enough on the product, you never work enough on the look, you always have to push. I apply that to Paco Rabanne. Every time, I ask myself: Is it rich enough, is it subtle enough, is it the precise expression of what you wanted?”
Ghesquière was known for his technical fabric innovations, and it’s knowledge Dossena carries over well. When thinking about the vinyl that Rabanne used, he mused, “What would be the vinyl of today?” and landed on a sport nylon. When he finally tackled the company’s signature assemblage technique, he incorporated silicone. His chainmail dresses feature lightweight aluminum specially crafted so “it’s almost like knitwear — super refined and super fluid.” Dossena notes that this backward glance at that Rabanne trademark came “three years after I arrived. The identity I built was set up and so it was a good time to explore the different sides of the brand.”
Much has been made about Dossena’s childhood love of sci-fi, and his appetite for the works of J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. “I loved that they asked the good questions about what could happen,” he says. “They invented a whole world and visual reality.” Which, when you think of it, is precisely what he’s doing at Paco Rabanne. And the current reality of a designer is more than just creating great clothes — Dossena’s hand is in everything from the marketing and advertising (his first campaign in 2016 featured no models, but clothes casually slung in a room) to stores (last year, he opened his first, on rue Cambon). He teases that there’s a fragrance project in the works — not quite his own scent but “something else that binds fashion and fragrance.”
People often like to describe Rabanne’s vision and designs as futuristic, all clean lines and aligned with the space-race Sixties, lumped together with peers Courrèges and Cardin. But he apparently bristled at the term, and considered himself wholly contemporary. “I’m of my period,” he told The Independent in 1993. “It is other people who are behind the times.” Even today, fashion writers quickly toss off the word “futuristic” as a byword for a certain streamlined aesthetic. “People saw Rabanne as futuristic because he was a modernist,” Dossena explains. “And what was modern then was an interest in the Space Age, so even though his vision was so strongly Sixties, we still think of it as the future. It’s all a question of time, right? For him, he was dressing women for now — his ‘now’ — and, for me, it’s about making the past present.”
*You didn’t think we forgot about that crashing space station, did you? As renowned as Rabanne was for his contributions to fashion, he was equally known for his unconventional beliefs. He talked frequently about his past lives (an Egyptian priest who killed Tutankhamen; an 18th Century courtesan) as well as astral projection — he says he was seven the first time it happened. He believed the Antichrist lived in London. Nicknamed Wacko Paco in the press, he wrote a number of books on these New Age subjects, some reaching the French bestseller lists. If you thought his blockbuster cologne XS was short for excess, think again — it has something to do with numerology, the Greek alphabet and the catacombs of Rome. “We still receive a lot of letters from people who read his books, asking him about his visions and things,” says Dossena. “There is a team who sends them to him.”