julien dossena is taking paco rabanne back to the future

The rise of the silver surfer, Julien Dossena is bringing the chainmail legacy of Paco Rabanne into a bright new era of sexy futurism.

by Tess Lochanski
30 November 2015, 2:37pm

Taking over a classic fashion house immediately poses the challenge of creating something new. When you're taking over Paco Rabanne, a brand rooted in futurism, you better buckle up for some serious innovation. "It was all very intuitive," Julien Dossena says, now four seasons into his residency at the house where he managed to do just that. Critics have been unanimous in their praise of him ever since, confronted with the often-impossible test of actually explaining why his efforts feel so new. "Take that chain mail, for instance," Nicole Phelps of Vogue Runway wrote in her review of his debut collection for spring/summer 14. "The potential for cliché is pretty high, but Dossena made it look modern by layering sporty unzipped tank dresses on top."

American Vogue's Sarah Mower tipped Dossena as the rising star of Paris, calling his light take on Rabanne's chainmail for spring/summer 15, "not just a by-rote nod to the house's heritage, but the beginnings of the creation of something fresh and relevant." Using Dossena's own term the following season, Hamish Bowles described the designer's reinvention of classic workwear elements as "the 'new normal': the idea of a traditional pair of jeans, say, treated in a 'really weird' way, by layering translucent indigo-colored synthetic fabric over white canvas to create an effect that he describes as 'radiographic'." More than anything, the sporty and boyishly nonchalant sex appeal of Dossena's new Paco Rabanne has the elusive quality of desirability: clothes girls want to wear.

Slouched on a sofa overlooking Paris from his office rooftop terrace near Avenue Montaigne, Dossena puts his intuition down to observing the women around him. "My friends and their daily lives inspire me. I don't have this fantasy of fatale, corseted, frozen beauty. I make clothes for women, who live and move. When we work in the studio, I always go for the pieces the girls love the most." Understanding but never condescending in his view of femininity, Dossena quite literally doesn't put women on pedestals -- they don't even wear heels. "Maybe it's because I'm gay, but I've never thought women should think or behave differently than men. As a designer, I don't want to erase genders entirely. I like our differences because I like bodies: women's ones as much as men's."

It's a view of gender that sits well with the forward-thinking legacy of the futuristic house he fronts. Rabanne's metallic mini dresses made famous by Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy in the 60s, and by Jane Fonda in Barbarella, embodied the sexual revolution of the Space Age. "Paco Rabanne undressed women and built these really powerful and sexy silhouettes made out of industrial material. My way of empowering women today is by fulfilling their actual needs and their own desires, by giving them confidence. My girls are a little boyish and they wear flats because they don't live to seduce. They don't need to be validated by men. They're cool, independent, happy with their sex lives -- things that make them even more desirable." How French of him, but then Dossena -- much like his mentor and former boyfriend, Nicholas Ghesquière -- does have that twinkle in his eye, backed up by impossibly good looks like some silver screen movie star, and impeccable charm and manners. 

Raised in Brittany, the 32-year-old designer studied art history in Paris and fashion in Brussels before joining the Balenciaga team in 2008. He left four years later following the departure of Ghesquière, and set up Atto, the now-closed label, which formally introduced the Dossena name to the industry before he went to Paco Rabanne. Here, he would employ the meticulous perfectionism so infamously practiced by Ghesquière, which goes hand-in-hand quite effortlessly with Dossena's own visual and methodical universe. "Precision means everything to me. I'm a demanding person. I love excellence and hard work. I have always been more impressed by car designers than by gadget designers," he says. His French is fast and he rarely completes his sentences, as if his vocabulary is never specific enough to translate his intense and intricate thoughts. "I love movement and action, speed and reactivity." (Dossena is a fan of sci-fi author J.G Ballard and venereal horror king David Cronenberg.) "There's something about machines and velocity that really attracts me: a cold sensuality. It's super inspiring. But on the other hand I've always had the feeling that I have time."

They're rare words in a business that's a nonstop forward march. But Dossena is unfazed by the corporatism of his industry. "I'd rather elevate things than lower the bar," he says, sweepingly. "When I started working almost ten years ago, all people were talking about were corporate bodies and super power. Big money is un-cool now. There's something gentler going on. I feel that we're part of a way bigger movement, not only in fashion. Our generation, and the younger generation even more so, crave authenticity. With the internet, people have access to things. You can't bullshit them anymore. They want real stuff; well made, respectful. I'm not saying that in a nostalgic way, because I love technology and what it brings. I just want people to act and do things well."

The key to the newness and freshness observed in Dossena's work could well be rooted in that very statement. It's an at once optimistic attitude and provocative raised finger at his own industry and the world that surrounds it. It's Dossena recognising the all-important role of the fashion designer as social influencer beyond the runway, and fashion as a global platform that doesn't have time and space for complacency or mediocrity. And perhaps Dossena's newness is hard to define simply because we're yet to find the words for it. "I'm not scared of not being understood," he says. "Especially if it means that I have to compromise my vision. Of course, I want success. I'm here to sell products, to help a company grow. But I'm also ambitious for myself. I will never change to be popular."



Text Tess Lochanski 
Photography Nick Dorey
Styling Zara Zachrisson
Hair Tamara McNaughton at Management + Artists 
Make-up Emi Kaneko at D+V Management
Digital technician Olivia Estebanez
Photography assistance Butch Hogan, Ryan Garcia
Model Rhiannon at Wilhelmina.
Rhiannon wears all clothing Paco Rabanne.

Paco Rabanne
nick dorey
julien dossena
tess lochanski
the here and now issue
zara zachrisson