Jane Fonda in a Barbarella costume designed by Paco Rabanne, 1968; Aquilano Rimondi Fall 2017.
Among the brands to land on Vogue Runway’s Fall top 10 list was Paco Rabanne, where creative head Julien Dossena presented a breakthrough collection featuring the chain mail that was one of the house founder’s signatures. A cocreator of the 1960s Space Age movement (André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin also get credit), Rabanne is remembered for his use of nontraditional materials and unique linking technique. And he’s got a life story as compelling as his design innovations—one that touches on issues of great importance in 2017, from sustainability to the rights of women and refugees.
Born in 1934 just outside San Sebastián, Spain (close to the birthplace of Cristóbal Balenciaga, for whom his mother worked as a seamstress), Rabanne lived in France, a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, from a young age. At 17 or 18, he began studies in architecture at the École Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, designing jewelry and buttons on the side. “Most couturiers gave me the boot,” he once said. But Elsa Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, and Hubert de Givenchy number among those who were welcoming, as was Roger Jean-Pierre, a jeweler supplying the couture.
When he was 30, Rabanne presented his first fashion designs. Two years later, in 1966, he had his breakout show: “Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials.” Presenting at the George V, Rabanne broke utterly with convention, using music (which wasn’t done at the time) and including models of color in his casting. Arguing that “sewing is a bondage,” he made dresses not of fabric, but of earth-friendly paper and other non-fashion materials like plastic and metal, which were pieced together with wire and glue. (He’d later sell DIY kits consisting of discs, rings, and pliers.) Rabanne’s designs existed in the space between art and fashion, and they were irresistible. The collector Peggy Guggenheim was one of his first customers, and the yé-yé star Françoise Hardy became a fan. This season Dossena referenced a metal-link jumpsuit Hardy wore in 1968, the same year that Brigitte Bardot sported Rabanne in the music video for her song “Contact” (written by Serge Gainsbourg) and Jane Fonda modeled the designer’s futuristic costumes in Barbarella.
Rabanne’s dresses revealed more than they concealed, but critics reacted less to his exposure of the female form than to his technique. “Paco’s Sewing Kit: Pliers and Wires,” blared one New York Times headline. “He’s the talk of Paris,” agreed Vogue. Coco Chanel was a dissenting voice, dismissing Rabanne as “the mettalurgist.” She was on to something: In 1979 the designer released Métal, a fragrance “for young women who adore metal accessories.”
Rabanne spoke and wrote extensively about his past lives, and his claims, including the one in which he “traveled to Earth from the planet Altair, to organize civilization on this planet 78,000 years ago,” and this earned him the nickname Wacko Paco. As flighty as all that sounds, though, Rabanne had his feet on the ground, insisting that he found inspiration in his “contemporary environment,” rather than in what was to come.“In France, during the ’60s,” he said in a 2002 interview, “we had a similar women’s liberation movement as in America... It was a moment when women emerged to be warriors because they needed to affirm their desire of emancipation, freedom, and liberty. The armor was almost necessary.”
“Paco’s dream of change,” as Vogue once put it, became reality on the runways this season. Maison Margiela’s John Galliano, Jonathan Anderson, and Noir Kei Ninomiya, among many others, employed chain mail and linking techniques. “It is important to remain impertinent, radical,” Rabanne once said. “Creation must ‘shock.’ ”
Miu Miu Fall 2017; Audrey Hepburn in Paco Rabanne in Two for the Road, 1967.
A leather coat by Paco Rabanne, 1967; Maison Margiela Fall 2017.
Loewe Fall 2017; Paco Rabanne 1968.
Paco Rabanne 1967; Julien Dossena for Paco Rabanne Fall 2017.
Stefan Cooke, Central Saint Martins Fall 2017; Jane Fonda in a Barbarella costume designed by Paco Rabanne, 1968.
Paco Rabanne 1969; Christopher Kane Fall 2017.
Julien Dossena for Paco Rabanne Fall 2017; Francoise Hardy in Paco Rabanne, 1968.
Paco Rabanne metal disc dress, 1969; Fendi Fall 2017.
J.W.Anderson Fall 2017; chain mail by Paco Rabanne 1966.
Céline Fall 2017; Paco Rabanne 1966.
Caroline Sanders in a stainless steel dress by Paco Rabanne, 1969; Gucci Fall 2017.