How Julien Dossena Is Reviving the House of Paco Rabanne
In one of the stranger moments in fashion history, the designer Paco Rabanne, famed for his futuristic dresses made of plastic discs, gave up his career and hightailed it out of Paris in 1999 because he was convinced that the Russian space station Mir was about to crash-land and destroy the city during a solar eclipse.
This is a designer, mind you, who also claimed to be an alien from planet Altair—an odd footnote for a man who made such a seismic impact with his mod fashions for the Youthquake generation. The House of Rabanne survived his absence and nearly two decades later is known mostly for blockbuster fragrances. Meanwhile, attempts by other designers to revive the fashion side have had even less impact on Paris than Mir did in the end.
That is, until Julien Dossena came along and gave the label Paco Rabanne a believable future.
Dossena, who will be 35 this month, is a designer who takes pride in his normalness. Studious, curious, and disciplined in his approach as the creative director since 2013, he has quietly made a mark with collections that exude a cool youthfulness and an interest in modernity without belaboring Rabanne’s heritage of shop-class experimentation.
Rather than riffing on satellites and space suits, Dossena turns out chicly wearable body-conscious silhouettes as well as bomber jackets, cargo pants, and T-shirts inspired by the street. (His collaboration with the graphic designer Peter Saville on “Canned Candies” and “Futuresex” prints was a big hit this spring.) Off the runway, Dossena is likewise unpretentious and down-to-earth. At least, he doesn’t believe the sky is falling.
“I’m a normal guy, in fact,” says Dossena. “Or maybe I just hide my weirdness by being polite.”
Among the new generation of design stars in Paris, Dossena stands out for his early success at an unexpected place. He got his start as a hyperactive student at La Cambre in Brussels, where his interest in fashion was inspired by the conceptually rich work of Belgian designers like Martin Margiela and Dries Van Noten.
When he graduated in 2007, there was only one company he wanted to work for: Balenciaga, which had undergone a remarkable reinvention under the direction of Nicolas Ghesquière to become the most influential house in Paris at the time. It took some persistence and a year of freelance styling projects (music videos, Hollywood Chewing Gum advertisements, a T-shirt collection for a mass retailer) until Dossena was accepted—as an intern. And he remained there for five years, rising through the ranks to become a senior designer, working right alongside Ghesquière, who for some years was also his boyfriend. Dossena could only have dreamed about being at such a place while growing up in Brittany in a relaxed family of artists and educators.
“Balenciaga was like a convent,” Dossena says. “You would go there and work until 5 in the morning and then be back in the office at 8 for days and weeks before the show. It was like a religion, making these pieces that were so complicated in their techniques, but everybody was so enthusiastic about Nicolas’s vision that we all were crying by the time of the show. I learned everything I know about fashion there.”
Balenciaga offered young designers opportunities for unbridled exploration. Dossena remembers the awe he felt while working on one particular design for the fall 2010 collection, which included complicated layering of multiple fabrics in a single outfit—a paperlike top covered with graphic poster text was attached to foil-printed matte plissé trousers. Ghesquière inspired such loyalty among his staff that when he split with the house in 2012 (joining Louis Vuitton the following year), most of his assistants, Dossena included, quit too. It was Marie-Amélie Sauvé, the influential French stylist and a longtime collaborator with Ghesquière, who then suggested Dossena for a supporting role to the existing creative director at Rabanne.
“That happened 10 days after I left,” Dossena says. “I didn’t even have time to think.”
It proved to be a fateful match. Within a season, Dossena took over the collection and débuted his own work for spring 2014, an energetic mix of mini dresses spiked with metallic accents that immediately commanded the industry’s attention. “I didn't go into the archives at first because I didn't want to be influenced by them,” Dossena says. “What interested me was that Rabanne was one of the first designers to address a new generation of women who did not want to dress like their mothers.” In fact, he barely acknowledged Rabanne’s signature chain-mail designs until this year, with a fall 2017 show that was widely viewed as a triumph. On the runway, Dossena offered an update with lightweight mesh dresses that had the fluidity of satin slips, paired with silver loafers that played up a sense of street-smart edge.
“More confidence brings more freedom,” he says. “I feel like I am evolving with my age too.”
Like Ghesquière, Dossena values loyalty, and while he remains close with that ultracool circle (the model Liya Kebede and the designer Pierre Hardy are also friends), he has a solitary side. Reading alone for an hour or two every evening is a ritual, and he will pick up anything, from a biography of Marie Antoinette to a political book by the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, to a romance novel by Danielle Steel. “I was this way as a child, reading everything: the newspaper, the dictionary, the side of a cereal box,” he says. “I’m always reading three things at the same time.”
Of course, another subject he has studied extensively by now is Rabanne himself, who has had little contact with the company since his departure. Dossena has discovered that, eccentricities aside, Rabanne’s spirit of innovation, modernity, and sensuality is often very much in line with his own.
“Everything he loved and explored was about celebrating the body,” Dossena says. “It can be intimidating when you are working under somebody else’s name, but if some day he wants to meet me, it would make me very happy.”
Photographed by Easton & Roso. Hair by Dennis Devoy/Kérastase at Whiteroom BK NY/Art Department. Makeup by Allie Smith/Dior Beauty/Bridge Artists. Styling by Nina Sterghiou/Bridge Artists. Manicure by Yuko Wada/Chanel Ombre Première/Atelier Management. Set design by Bette Adams/MHS Artists.
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download July 7.