Whenever Julien Dossena used to arrive in Paris from Brittany as a teenager, the first thing that would greet him as he exited the train station was the Tour Montparnasse, a skyscraper judged so ugly by Parisians that, ever since it was built, there’s been a ban on high-rises in the city. Julien, a boy in love with techno music and JG Ballard’s Crash, loved it. His thoughts: “Wow, I’m in the city.”
Paco Rabanne’s arrival in 1966 with the legendary show 12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials was the fashion equivalent of the Tour Montparnasse: a modernist, industrial battle cry in the midst of the chic world of haute couture. Within a year or two, the metallic, strange, futuristic dresses could be seen on starlets like Brigitte Bardot and Françoise Hardy, and the designer was soon picked to create a wardrobe for Jane Fonda in Barbarella. A pop culture phenomenon had been born.
An affinity for the modern and the urban is one reason why the pairing of Julien and the Paco Rabanne brand seems like such a glass slipper moment. At the same time, to say it’s only about a shared aesthetic is to belittle what Julien has done for this dormant brand, which has mainly been known for successful fragrances since Mr Rabanne himself retired in 1999. A former senior designer at Balenciaga during Nicolas Ghesquière’s tenure, Julien Dossena has, since his first collection in S/S 2014, transformed Paco Rabanne into a leader in the search for a new kind of modern French elegance – at least for people in the know.
An alumnus of Brussels’ La Cambre visual arts school, Julien is a dashing guy in his mid-thirties, wearing a pair of glasses with frames in stainless steel that I want to steal. Set against his dark blue jumper, they seem another example of that clash of classic and radically modern. His temples barely greying, he speaks a fastpaced English with a slightly hoarse voice, an enfin (so, anyway…) here and there. As we meet, he’s just had an eye operation, yet he is focused and intense, and our conversation strays far, touching on the upcoming French presidential elections, and the conservative candidate’s stance on abortion.
Julien is an avid reader, always keeping two or three books open at the same time. Recent reads include Christine Angot, a French writer famous for her novel Incest, which may or may not be a true account of her incestuous relationship with her father; Mishima Yukio’s Spring Snow, part of The Sea of Fertility tetralogy: “It’s this super-traditional Japanese thing. And then I have a shameful one: Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography.” Having grown up with several French literature teachers in the family, Julien admits that, for him, even now, writing is the ultimate creative expression: “the noble one,” as he puts it.
Fashion came to him as a kind of extension of the techno scene, even though, at first, he felt that other ravers were “like old hippies” and that he “could have been at a reggae concert”. He discovered magazines such as i-D and The Face and, through them, saw how other kids mixed together looks that were “the finishing [touches] of the expression and the lifestyle of something that you love”. Studying art in Rennes in northwestern France at the time, he realised that fashion could be an area that would allow him to do a multitude of things. Not only to draw (he had loved drawing ever since he was a child), but also manage a team, put on shows, come up with set design, make images, be a creative director.
He received the special mention of the jury, as well as the 1.2.3 Prize at the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography in 2006, one year before he graduated from La Cambre, while his own brand, Atto – now put on hold – brought him a nomination for the 2014 LVMH Prize.
When Julien arrived at Paco Rabanne, the house had been through two head designers in two years, an indication that not simply anyone could tame its legacy. Since then, Julien has remodelled the brand along sportier lines, not so reliant on chainmail, instead offering trousers with a mean cut, tops with asymmetric folds, and surprising mixes of masculine and feminine materials. It is clear that the house has found its new master, someone who understands how to reinterpret the radical thrust of Paco Rabanne without resorting to cliché.
The Paco Rabanne heritage is so iconic. Do you find it difficult to work with?
It’s a unique heritage, a strong heritage and, as you say, iconic, recognisable. You know it’s a Paco Rabanne dress from one kilometre away. There is a really clear point of view. But it also allows a lot of freedom, because the basis of the work of Paco Rabanne was freedom and working with elements from nowhere. So, it’s a strong [heritage] and, for me, strength is never a bad thing.
What were you trying to achieve with the S/S 2017 collection?
This time, it was really about bringing back that radical and conceptual spirit of Paco Rabanne. It was not only like a cool normal girl, [someone who looks] desirable in the street. I wanted to express that idea of a super strong modernity – I really wanted to play more with that heritage. [There was the idea of] a cult girl, as well, a religious thing, with the hoods and all the models wearing white. It came from images of Paco Rabanne at that time because, you know, he was really esoteric. The man, not the brand. It was interesting to work with the way that he sees the world. I was interested in trying to mix high-tech modernity with that kind of cult feeling. It was really different from the mix and match collection last summer. One idea, one concept, and then [we made the girls] different but still all the same.
Which is, in a way, very directional.
I hope [laughs].
Because so much of fashion today is about putting a lot of suggestions and ideas on the catwalk, and then the customer can mix and match whatever she wants. It’s like everyone is supposed to be able to find themselves in each collection.
Yeah, in one piece or one girl. This is only my opinion, but I can’t stand that any more: street style and stuff like that. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the love for fashion that street style has, and the freedom that it allows. At the same time, when women in our audience are beginning to express themselves through street style, it’s our job as designers to make a point, to be directional. The wrong way for me is designers and editorials that give the feeling of every [pos-sibility] and then, afterwards, people play with that. This was a reflection I had at the beginning of the process for the collection – I really wanted to work differently.
I also find it’s a fast-fashion idea, that big brands have abandoned the idea of trends and, instead, it’s more: “Be yourself and express yourself – we have something for you.” We see similar ideas being presented at several luxury houses, which is very interesting.
Super interesting. And it’s really interesting to observe the technique that [fast fashion] use to sell mainstream [clothes]. But it’s a different business. The basis of that business is not a luxury item. I don’t like that word [luxury], it doesn’t mean that much any more… Let’s say “fashion”. In fashion, we are working on new ideas. [Fast fashion brands] take what fashion trends are the best, and put them in their stores; they don’t have that process of creation and development of an idea that we have. Of course, in the collection structure, you need direction and, at the same time, to let people buy t-shirts and [things at an] accessible price. But it’s not [the core of] what you are expressing with a brand like Paco Rabanne. You can’t play both sides – you can’t have a super strong, directional, precise image of a brand and, at the same time, have this kind of selling like Zara or H&M. Sometimes in [high] fashion it gets a bit mixed up, because they play on saying that street style is fashionable, more than editorials or the expressions of the designer. You have to take a position against that at some point.
You’re asserting the role of the designer as a creative leader?
I guess. If I was working in a more contemporary brand or even mainstream brand, I would think totally differently. As a designer, you can be creative and directional in a brand that allows it, like Paco Rabanne. But, as designers, we all know what kind of product is working. If you want to sell, it’s [about] what you can sell. A bomber can sell. You get [information] six months before the next season that it is going to be this kind of coat. Sometimes this trend or this product is not [fitting] into your directional vision for the brand, you have to make choices.
When you arrived at Paco Rabanne, how did you go about modernising the brand? You’ve said you didn’t bother with the archives.
Not at first, no. Because I wanted to work with the values of the brand, these values of modernity: radical, conceptual, a bit intellectual, the body consciousness.
When I was researching the brand I saw the video for Brigitte Bardot’s song Contact. She has on a metal Paco Rabanne outfit, and it was cut in a similar way to some looks from S/S 2015, but you had done it in a sporty material. It was almost as if you were transcribing it with a different fabric and feeling.
Yeah, it was really about that. I thought that the aesthetic of the 1960s was really strong and new at the time, then it became iconic, and now it’s more retro iconic, so I didn’t want to give it too much space at first. I didn’t care that people would say, like, “Oh, he didn’t put mesh metal [in the show], it’s really not Paco Rabanne.” We wanted to play with that freedom we were given over the brand. It was more when people understood the girl after, like, three collections or something, that I went [to the archive] and there, more than a brand vision, I discovered Mr Rabanne’s vision. You touch all the garments directly, the dresses and the accessories, and [see] all the documents and the interviews. It gave me more sides to the brand. I discovered some dresses all in wood balls with rough yarn, they were from the 1970s, and I could really relate to that kind of DIY thing. To have this softness, movement, that could be Paco Rabanne, too, for example. When I go [to the archive], it’s more to discover the man’s vision – the man himself, in a sense.
There are a lot of sports influences in your clothes. Is that because you used to be a swimmer?
I always did like sports, and I swam a lot for a long time. I grew up by the sea, and surfed when I was a teenager. So I’ve always been surrounded by those kinds of all-in-ones, surfing [clothes] and swimsuits. My life at that time was really aquatic. I guess it is an influence on what I like, those kind of colours and materials but, more than that, when I began to think about what could be good products for Paco Rabanne, I thought that this kind of sports influence could be modern, because the conception, the techniques and the fabric are already innovative [in themselves]. I thought it could be a good translation of what metals and industrial products had meant for Paco Rabanne [during the 1960s].
Also, I saw that this kind of modern lifestyle could be interesting to work with. In the streets, you see girls wearing men’s clothes and yoga pants or sneakers with a shirt. It became a kind of modern uniform for the woman who takes her child to school, then goes into the office, so she has to wear a shirt. Then to yoga class, and so she has to wear the pants and put a t-shirt on. After that, maybe she could just change her shoes. If you can make the yoga pants desirable, maybe they can [follow her] through the day.
You once said that growing up in a seaside town influenced your relationship with the body.
And Nicole Phelps wrote in her review of the S/S 2015 collection for Style.com that you have to have “a phenomenal body” for these clothes. I wonder if the vision you have is not just about sports, but also about the athletic body?
I don’t know, it’s just that I was surrounded by bodies all my childhood. I remember my father dropping me and my sister off with his friends to watch us on the beach when I was six or seven. We were staying there from 9am until 6pm, and then my father came to pick us up, and that was my whole life. Every weekend, three months in the summer and even in October, even in April. We were by the sea all the time, so we were surrounded by swimsuits. You know the body, you know the movement, you know this kind of attitude that the beach gives. It’s sporty, of course, you’re surfing, you’re playing volleyball, you’re running, you’re fishing, you’re doing everything. I guess it had [an impact] on my mind. I’m [creating clothes] for women, and I’ve always loved strong women.
Strong women meaning physically strong women?
For me it is about being built [strong] and being fast. It’s not about heels and prettiness. It’s not about making clothes where the only aim is to look pretty for a boy to take care of you. It’s more jackets and coats and trousers because you work and you are master of your life. That’s the kind of woman that seduces me, not the pretty, cute [one] who is playing on her fragility. I have always considered [men and women] equals. Or I wish we were. I always try to design [with that in mind], to give women tools to live life in the same way as if they were men or boys, with that speed or sportiness. Of course, I like to work on bodies. Paco Rabanne is really about the body, and sexuality, as well. These kinds of materials are like water on the body, revealing everything and, at the same time, it’s shiny so [it is] giving you a mirror, a body mirror. It’s not [an innocent girl] waiting for “the big bad wolf”. It’s more: I am shiny, you see me, you see my sexuality, you see my desire. It is a key thing in the Paco Rabanne DNA. So what I love about the body mixes well with the brand. I guess I do try to make the sexuality and the sexiness appear. But it’s more than that, it’s a mix of speed and sexiness, let’s say, even if I don’t like [the word] “sexy”.
Speaking of sexy bodies, you spoke of a mix of surrealism and sexual liberation when referencing the 1969 book Nues, a collaboration between Jean Clemmer and Paco Rabanne. And last year you did your own book of nude portraits, together with the young female photographer Coco Capitán. Why did you make this choice?
There is not much nude work any more, and that’s why I find it interesting. When you see a nude body, sadly – or not sadly, I don’t know – you see pornography. Or you see that kind of sexy amazon, always hidden a little bit. I think it’s interesting to see what another woman’s eye on a woman’s body means. And how can you make it desirable, yet, at the same time, it’s her body. She’s doing things in it, and she’s not there for you.
There’s a movement in fashion photography now, with more young female photographers, and they shoot a lot of nude women.
You’re right, there’s Harley Weir…
Or Lina Scheynius, though she is more of an art photo-grapher, these days. And other girls love it.
It’s important to have representations of a woman that are different from everything we see in the mainstream. Sometimes [the mainstream representation of women] is really disgusting – even if you can play with the idea. But let’s stop being ironic about it when there are no images that are more accurate about what a woman is now, what a naked body of a woman looks like now.
Do you think women still need sexual liberation?
I guess, more than before.
There are some, let’s say role models. I don’t doubt it’s sincere, but they are playing with the idea of feminism as if it were an accessory. It’s really weird to me. It doesn’t mean you have to embrace all the ideas of feminism but, at the same time, you can’t come wearing thigh-high boots with, like, knickers and a little bra and then say, we are women, we are strong. You can’t play both. It’s a mainstream feminism, and it’s just words, it’s just lyrics in a song that people are dancing and bouncing to.
Photography Jean Vincent Simonet, Styling Anna Schiffel (Bird Production), Model Oudey Sow (Oui), Casting Elodie Yelmani, Hair Chiao Chenet (Airport), Make up Anthony Preel (Artlist), Photography assistant Basile Mookherjee, Styling assistant Emma Carles.