Few brands have as powerful a place in popular culture as Paco Rabanne. Founded by the Spanish designer in 1965, and acquired by the Spanish luxury group Puig in 1968, the brand embodied the aesthetic of the era: Jane Fonda, silvery and resplendent, in a Barbarella chainmail minidress, or the French singer Françoise Hardy, bare legged and ethereal, in similar attire. With its shiny optimism and techno-tastic party dresses, Paco Rabanne captured the spirit of the age: it was short, it was sexy, it was delightfully spacey. We are familiar, too, with its punchy scents, the bestselling fragrances on which the house built its fortune, such as 1973’s Pour Homme, with its distinctive bottle-green flacon, or Invictus, the blockbuster scent of 2013.
Paco Rabanne, now 84, delivered some of the most striking sartorial moments of the 20th century. And when he retired, in 1999, the fashion label floundered. For years it bumped along under a succession of designers, so by the time Julien Dossena was made creative director of womenswear in 2013, Paco Rabanne’s offering was a pale simulacrum of its former self.
Nevertheless, over the course of five years, and alongside a new managing director, Bastien Daguzan, who joined in 2017, Dossena has transformed the house from a beloved relic of 1960s radicalism into a modern proposition. In September, he delivered a dazzling spring collection of bohemian printed separates, slip dresses, tie-dye T-shirts and crystal strewn chain-link dresses that stopped critics in their tracks. Colourful, intricate and quietly feminine, it was hailed as a show of the season.
Dossena’s star is in the ascendancy. “When I arrived at Paco Rabanne, it had been through a lot of trials already,” says the designer. “But I always had a good feeling about it. As a French guy, I’ve known the brand since childhood; the singers on television in the ‘80s; and the film Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? I discovered chainmail dresses when I worked at Versace [a brand that happily admits a debt to Rabanne’s most famous creation], so it’s a brand I’ve always known. It’s like a cultural binding that runs through fashion.”
The designer is sitting in the lounge of The Connaught hotel during a rare trip to London. A handsome 36-year-old who grew up in Plomeur, Brittany, he is wearing the modest uniform of most male creatives — dark jeans, crew-neck sweater and trainers.
Before his appointment, he worked alongside Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, where he helped create directional clothes with innovative cuts in highly technical fabrications. But his approach at Paco Rabanne has been one of careful reinvention rather than outright revolution. He didn’t arrive with a plan to reboot the label overnight. Nor was he awarded the budget to do so. In order to establish his new creative freedom, he had to rebuild the brand from within.
From the start, Dossena was anxious not to offer a nostalgic retread of Paco favourites, or start making endless shiny evening dresses. “It was a bit of a Va-Va-Voom brand, and that’s not my way of working,” he says. “My sense was that women were going into Paco Rabanne and buying one chainmail dress that they were going to wear once on New Year’s Eve. And that was okay, but to build the brand in a healthy way we had to work on the wardrobe. I resisted chain mail for a long time, yes. But then last year it felt like the right time to do it, because we were strong enough in terms of people’s perception.”
Dossena’s references to the brand’s heritage are drawn from its more insouciant moments. “I always think about Françoise Hardy with a chainmail tank top, jeans and flat shoes going to buy the bread in Paris,” he says. “That is the feeling I want, and not the . . . ” He pauses. “I love Cher, but not the Cher effect . . . ”
The current collection is a balance of three categories: sportswear (where a sports bra costs from £70), daywear, and the more extravagant eveningwear. Chainmail dresses can cost thousands of pounds and require specialist manufacture — in many cases, by a last surviving expert called Christophe. The classic “1969” evening bag (£945) remains a bestseller — Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo bought hers as a student in the 1970s and still uses it — and Dossena is fast developing the footwear line.
“I try to balance everything,” says Dossena. Even if that means sacrificing faster growth. The sportswear, for example, “was a really easy product that allowed me to tap into a global customer, but it was something I wanted to keep in check. At one point it was doing 30 to 35 per cent of our business,” says Dossena. “The sales were growing fast. But I knocked it back to 20 per cent.”
His patience is paying off. The brand now has 200 points of sale (double the number of 2017), two standalone stores in Paris, and has entered new partnerships with, among others, YNAP, Selfridges, Bergdorf Goodman, Dover Street Market and Nordstrom.
Natalie Kingham, the Matchesfashion.com buying director of womenswear, picked up the brand last year. “We’d been to see Paco six or seven times over the seasons,” says Kingham. “There were elements I liked but there was something I felt wouldn’t resonate with our customers. At one point I wanted to invest in the bags and chainmail pieces, but it didn’t make sense not to support the whole story. Then Bastien joined and there was this whole relaxed feel, leggings, crop tops, which we loved. And then Kendall Jenner wore the chainmail and it suddenly made sense. This woman works out during the day and looks knockout in the evening. I knew it would work as it was about the whole lifestyle.”
She adds: “It’s sold well across the board, but with this last runway show I feel it’s really turned a corner. It feels like the zeitgeist is right.”
The spring collection, which will start arriving in stores next month, was a watershed moment, and delivering a fully realised brand vision. “I’ve built those pillars,” says Dossena. “And now I feel super, super free.” The financial results have been positive. “It’s double-digit growth, for sure,” he says.
And yet trying to transform a house whose main business is in fragrance has been at times frustrating. In April, the Puig group reported €1.9bn in net revenues for 2017, an increase of 28 per cent over the past three years. But 90 per cent of its business still derives from fragrance and cosmetics. This year, the group bought a majority stake in Dries Van Noten, a sign of its growing interest in ready-to-wear, but fashion remains a secondary concern.
“Paco Rabanne has its own life on the perfume side,” says Dossena of the gulf between the brand’s cosmetic and fashion offerings. “Also, there’s the fact I only do womenswear, which is a strange contradiction when it is largely for the men’s fragrances — that image of the 1970s playboy — that the label is well known. So you have to deal with the fact that the fragrance image must exist in parallel with the brand’s fashion image.”
Dossena hopes to launch a house fragrance that reflects his own point of view in the near future. But right now he’s busy with the ready-to-wear. “First I have to work on creating the fashion, letting it grow, and then at some point I’ll get the call. It’s in the pipes,” he says, “but it takes a little bit of time.”
For now, he’s more concerned with bringing “novelty” to the brand. “Paco Rabanne invented so many things; he was an artist and he liberated women. I’m working out how to give back that novelty but also to work hard on the clothes to make them super relevant and respectful — things that you believe in.” And should you be in need of a knockout New Year’s party dress — you know just where to find it.
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