VISITING PLANET PACO
Byline: Peter Braunstein
PARIS — If one were to liken designer Paco Rabanne to any historical figure, he would most resemble Nostradamus, the Medieval mystic who predicted the future.
Both Rabanne and Nostradamus possess a unique gift for transcending whatever century they happen to be encased in, and both have somewhat mixed results in terms of prophesies. Nostradamus struck gold when he predicted the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon and Hitler. On the other hand, Rabanne’s millennial prediction that the Mir space station would crash into Paris and destroy all of its inhabitants proved to be a really bad call. In a much more enduring way, however, Paco Rabanne possesses an impressive track record as a sartorial soothsayer. Through his design vision, if not his actual prophesies, he anticipated the millennium as early as 1966. His first space-age experiments in dresses and accessories made of metal or Rhodoid plastic disks, introduced in New York and Paris 35 years ago, have intrigued and inspired subsequent designers ranging from Gaultier to Prada, Mugler to Yves Saint Laurent.
Rabanne’s career in the fashion world is atypical. While he dubs his fashion and fragrance empire “the house of Rabanne,” his dynasty has never institutionalized itself in the manner of Saint Laurent or Dior. Instead, Rabanne remains a twilight presence, with one foot in the present and one in the past. He emerges in contemporary pop culture from time to time — Catherine Zeta-Jones sported a Paco top to the premiere of “Traffic” last year, his chain-mail dresses were reappropriated in 1999 by Donatella Versace, his men’s cologne was plugged on “The Sopranos” and his fragrances are department store staples. Yet the designer has to battle a persistent assumption that he, as a person, passed away a while ago.
“Many people believe I’m dead,” admitted Rabanne in a recent interview conducted at his futuristic headquarters on Ile de la Jatte, an island on the outskirts of Paris that resembles the village in the epochal Sixties sci-fi spy series “The Prisoner.”
Part icon, part ghost, Rabanne haunts and resists a present-day fashion world that would be only too happy to consign him to archivists or “where are they now?” magazine features. Rabanne’s career illustrates not only the choppy life-cycle of designer celebrity, but the fate of the fashion innovator ultimately eclipsed by his own creative legacy. Rabanne first appeared on the fashion radar screen in the Sixties, a decade that thoroughly mirrored his rebellious temperament. The advent of youthful styles in fashion, the Mod revolution, rock music and the spirit of experimentation emboldened the youthful Rabanne.
“I wanted to place clothing in harmony with the times,” he said. “So I decided to present a violent collection-manifesto to show them all what fashion could be.”
Rabanne’s first collection premiered on Feb. 1, 1966, under the title “12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials.” Barefoot models wearing Rhodoid plastic cut into strips and held together by metal rings strutted down the runway in the Georges V Hotel to the strains of Pierre Boulez. Paris was outraged: Le Nouvel Observateur accused Rabanne of “plastic bombing” the fashion world. The insurrection continued a month later as Rabanne brought the collection to New York, where amazed spectators reacted with generally more enthusiasm to Rabanne’s “manifesto.”
Rabanne sustained a state of provocation through off-the-cuff quotes he fed to an avid press.
“Haute couture is nothing but a decomposing cadaver surrounded by vultures: publishers, journalists, columnists and advertising people,” he declared in 1967. “They cannot bring themselves to face the fact that fashion is dead, which is why they spend their time trying so hard to make the corpse look alive and well.”
Rabanne soon became the darling of the American fashion press. More innovations followed: chain-mail ‘dresses’ in hammered or studded aluminum; paper wedding gowns; coats composed of metal triangles; a ‘jewel dress’ built from nine kilos of pure gold, modeled by French singer Francoise Hardy at the international diamond fair in 1968; elastic-band clothes made from fringed rubber, and a white mink and steel disk bolero. If Rudy Gernreich represented the visionary endpoint of the American fashion scene, Rabanne was the European designer who most completely embodied the zeitgeist of the Sixties, combining — and counteracting — a sci-fi futurist aesthetic with medieval workmanship.
“We were madly in love with our era, our history, and wanted to impose our ideas and our desires, and we succeeded,” Rabanne recalls today. “The era was crazy, there was a desire for change that was hallucinatory. I’ve never known that again.”
Soon Rabanne was recruited by Hollywood: He outfitted Jane Fonda for the 1968 camp hit “Barbarella” and Audrey Hepburn in the 1966 film “Two for the Road.”
“Givenchy, who I had worked for, told me ‘you are the only designer I will permit to clothe Audrey,” said Rabanne. “But I dressed many others: Madame Newhouse and Peggy Guggenheim, just to name a few.” Even Hilton Hotels jumped on the Rabanne bandwagon, offering their guests “Pacojamas” — paper pajamas and nightdresses that sold for 15 francs apiece.
Of course, there was the occasional detractor: Coco Chanel said at the time that “Paco Rabanne is not a designer, he’s a metal worker” — a characterization that Rabanne celebrates to this day.
Rabanne sustained the dynamism of his career throughout the Seventies, and branched out into the fragrances that have since become the financial bedrock of his empire. He introduced Calandre in 1969, Paco Rabanne Pour Homme in 1973, and the landmark Metal in 1979. But, as with most cultural revolutions launched in the Sixties, by 1980 Rabanne lost his momentum and was forced to surrender the limelight to a new generation of designers.
“Infatuation with my work disappeared the day that those wonderful creators Gaultier, Castelbajec, Montana and Mugler arrived on the scene,” said Rabanne.
Douglas MacArthur in his farewell speech said that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” In the fashion industry, aging designers also fade away, but not without keeping a running tab on uncredited knock-offs by younger designers.
“If today John Galliano has an immense amount of freedom to do his collections, perhaps it is because I opened a door. Gaultier told me as much: He said, ‘I exist because you were there before,”‘ mused Rabanne. “When Versace did metal dresses in the Nineties, one journalist finally said, ‘Wait a minute, Rabanne invented those dresses, and he’s not dead yet.’ But innovators are never understood. Yet we continue to exist. We exist, really, the day other people copy us.”
While crafting this solace of the forgotten inventor, Rabanne still has to contend with accusations of remaining stuck in the “Barbarella” aesthetic of the Sixties.
“People point to the chain-mail dress and accuse Rabanne of being a one-trick pony,” said Katy Rodriguez, an owner of the vintage store Resurrection. “But they forget that it’s a great trick. For one thing, that’s really just pigeonholing him, because he experimented with many different materials other than metal — leather, rubber, paper, you name it. But even if chain-mail was his only innovation, how many designers can lay claim to that kind of legacy? His design concept is in everyone’s consciousness at this point, it’s just part of what is.”
Rodriguez blames the burial of the Rabanne legacy on the fashion industry’s historical amnesia.
“Contemporary design is so derivative now, you can knock off Rabanne or some other designer from the Sixties without even knowing it,” she said.
Rabanne, on the other hand, has always been a devoted — but quite eccentric — history buff.
“When hair goes up, governments fall,” he theorized back in 1970. “Hair was mountainous during the reign of Louis XVI. Then, in 1958, French women were piling their hair up into those beehives and the Fourth Republic fell.”
He has subsequently devised a handy timeline for the history of fashion since the Sixties. “The movement was at first avant-gardiste [Sixties to Seventies], then classical [Eighties], then decomposed-baroque [early Nineties], then baroque-decomposed [late Nineties],” explained Rabanne.
“Today we are in what I call ‘les annees poubelles’ [the trash-can years]. Nowadays, the world is poubelle, fashion is poubelle; Dior, the last Gaultier collection, it’s all poubelle — but I don’t mean that in a pejorative way,” he qualified, explaining that he’s not calling the collections trash, but rather that they are drawing inspiration from the “dustbin” of fashion history. “It’s all about vintage, about recuperation of the past, but soon the whole cycle will begin again.”
Although Rabanne might have imagined the future back in 1966, the millennium seems to have shortchanged his fashion prophesy.
“Rabanne envisioned a lifestyle that never materialized,” said Cameron Silver, owner of Decades, an upscale vintage store in Los Angeles where a Paco Rabanne disc dress can be had for $4,500. “We must still imagine it, because we don’t actually need specific clothing for the 21st century.”