Paul McLauchlan speaks to Julien Dossena about his new collection with Paco Rabanne.
The amber and woody notes of Paco Rabanne ‘One Million’ perfume are one of the most recognisable.
In your mind, clothing might not be synonymous with Paco Rabanne in the way that fragrance is. The Paris-based label that rose to prominence in the 1960s lists ‘One Million’, ‘Invictus’, and ‘Pure’, as bestselling fragrances, sustaining the brand’s longevity throughout the 2000s.
In 2013, they welcomed Julien Dossena, the third designer in three years tasked with revamping the house’s clothing efforts, having spent four years working at another luxury label, Balenciaga.
For the first six years, Dossena focused solely on defining an identity for the women’s collections, an effort that garnered him critical acclaim.
Dossena, 37, is dressed in plain white t-shirts, blue jeans and white trainers, the quintessential insouciance one would expect from a Frenchman and the sort of self-effacing attire you might expect from a creative.
For him, his work does the talking. Now, he’s putting menswear on the map.
The Paco Rabanne man is really alive and joyful. It’s something that seems a little at odds with human sentiment at the moment, when talking about fashion doesn’t feel right. (This interview took place before the public health emergency had escalated.)
But it’s a reminder that beyond this alternate reality, there is a world waiting for us and there is a reason to channel the optimism of this clothing.
Introduced in September 2019 for spring/summer 2020, the menswear output is small but showed dexterity and flair.
Dossena infused the clothes with a 1970s psychedelic bent, a French adroitness that exercises a playful edge, as if they stepped out of a more sophisticated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood...
There were sharp, skinny suits enlivened with florid patterns, mismatched lightweight wool-blend knitwear and checkered and floral print trousers, double denim. He wanted the clothes to be ‘daring and cultivated. Confident but fun’.
It evoked the decadent spirit of the 1970s, doubtless inspired by Dossena’s upbringing in Le Pouldu, a fishing village in Brittany (a far cry from the gilded salons of Paris), where his father owned a nightclub and where he enjoyed film, literature, and art from the 1960s and 1970s.
When Dossena landed at Paco Rabanne, he arrived to a house without a persuasive design aesthetic. In the public consciousness, it had fallen away to fragrance. In the fashion industry, it was deferred to its chainmail output in the 1960s.
Presented with a veritable clean slate, Dossena considered his role with great responsibility. “I try to be as sincere and respectful of the brand as I can. It needs to be relevant to the present and at the same time, reflect the values of the brand. This is quite easy because those values are super modern and open.
“We started by defining the core values we wanted the Paco man to embody,” said Dossena. “Like the Paco Rabanne womenswear, there is that cold sensuality and daring dandyism which allows for the blending of gender references.”
His menswear is sexy, daring, and flirtatious. While his shapes are conventional, he imbues the clothes with a playfulness that is in touch with the more feminine side of the brand’s identity.
He makes a chainmail vest top and black tailored trousers look convincing, aspirational even, as if the scintillating scenes of a Parisian nightclub were only a wardrobe change away.
Chainmail, of course, is one of the brand’s markers. When the original Paco Rabanne founded the label, he was prized for the way he made the metal look stylish and lightweight.
Now, Dossena is bringing this to men’s wardrobes. “I always thought that chainmail could be a material that can be used to express the modern masculinity the collection embodies,” said Dossena.
“I worked it into simple generic shapes for men: a polo, tank top and shirt. It’s really interesting to see the diversity of men who want to wear chainmail, they appropriate it in a super individual way which is fascinating to observe: how they mix and match etc…”
The upshot of the collection was a bold introduction to graphics. He worked with art director Peter Saville (graphic designer for New Order album artwork) to create prints taken from a collection of internet screen-grabs from over the years. Dossena and Saville have collaborated on collections since 2014.
“It’s like meeting a friend,” said Dossena. “We talk about ideas, the modern world and what we want to express in that context. There are always lighthearted and fulfilling conversations.”
The lighthearted undertones of those conversations translates to the clothes. Poised as we are in a formless period that increasingly feels like a macabre interval between Christmas-and-New-Year’s, these clothes, though they can’t take away from the one of the most surreal moments in our history, invoke the true meaning of fashion: it must spark imagination.
Furthermore, in the current climate, when economic prospects might look bleak, designer clothing could come across as alienating as ever.
But now is the moment to carefully consider your spending and the clothes you want in your wardrobe: investment is key. You don’t need a fifteenth white t-shirt but some tailored trousers to last you years — that’s where your money should be directed.
Sure, fashion is a business like any other: Paco Rabanne wants you to buy these clothes. But Julien Dossena, the man behind it all, wants you to believe in its message.
Your wardrobe can evoke club nights of 1970s France with ease through these generic sharp silhouettes with lurid patterns and flashy finishes. They are striking and transportive. They symbolise that fashion is much more than commerce, it provides fantasy. The allure of escape has never been more desirable.