Remembering Paco Rabanne
Francisco Rabaneda y Cuervo known as Paco Rabanne
(February 18, 1934 — February 3, 2023)
With the innate spirit of an avant-gardist, a passion for innovation and convictions that transcended the imagination, the designer known as Paco Rabanne contributed radical ideas to fashion throughout the second half of the 20th century. He was a visionary in all senses of the term: in his construction of garments, his sensitivity to social change; and his futurist views.
The Spanish fashion designer Paco Rabanne was born Francisco Rabaneda y Cuervo on February 18, 1934 in Pasaia in the Basque country of northern Spain. He discovered the world of fashion at a young age via his mother, who worked as the head seamstress at Cristobal Balenciaga‘s couture atelier in San Sebastian, Spain. Following his father’s death during the Spanish Civil War, Rabanne — who was five at the time — and his mother fled the country, arriving in France as refugees. Between 1951-63, he studied architecture at the prestigious Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He went to work for Auguste Perret, among the foremost developers of reinforced concrete in Europe, who was teaching at the school. To support himself, Rabanne began selling artisanal buttons, followed by fashion sketches for key couture houses such as Balenciaga, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel and the shoe designer, Charles Jourdan, eventually crafting pieces, as well.
His architectural training formed the basis for ‘Pacotilles‘ — large Op Art-inspired rhodoid earrings that were both colourful and playfully modern.
Paco Rabanne unveiled his first fashion designs as a ‘manifesto’ at the Hotel George V. in Paris on February 1, 1966. For his first collection entitled ’12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials’, Rabanne outfitted models in creations crafted from plastic elements linked with metal as they walked to Pierre Boulez’s Surrealist masterpiece Le Marteau Sans Maitre. With this debut, Rabanne declared the “death of cloth,” noting that he preferred to experiment with alternative materials in his fashion pursuits. “Sewing is a bondage,” he is known to have said.
Designers across the industry took notice, with Coco Chanel once describing him as a “metallurgist de la mode” — a fashion metalwork master. Throughout the next decade, he would experiment even further, positing that it was a couturier’s duty to continually bring fashion to the forefront of progress, and that “creation should not stagnate”.
Despite their different approaches, Rabanne was often grouped together with Pierre Cardin and Andre Courreges as defining a ‘Space Age’ movement in fashion.
Apart from his radical vision, Rabanne began expressing his progressive social views as an extension of his collections. In 1964, Paco Rabanne cast Black models in his runway show with an instinct towards inclusivity. “I wanted to represent the entire planet and Black girls were the most beautiful at the time — they still are,” he explained on a French TV program years later.
He drew a connection between the women’s liberation movement in the United States and what was happening in France. Considering himself a feminist, he felt women in the 1960s had emerged as warriors vying for their emancipation. His metal dresses — hailed by Vogue Paris as “the new little black dress” — were intended to be their armour. At the time, He noted: “Fashion equals freedom, and a fashion designer can do as he pleases; he can use
whatever is in his power to create, so as long as he emphasises a woman’s beauty and doesn’t humiliate her. Why not dress women in metal, leather, rhodoid, paper, and in other contemporary materials?”
Onscreen and off, Brigitte Bardot, Francoise Hardy, Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road (1967) and Jane Fonda in Barbarella (1968) were the quintessential muses for the dresses — female icons who conveyed independence and audacity.
During his career, Rabanne also collaborated with visual artists such as Salvador Dali and the Swiss photographer, Jean Clemmer. Dali once said, “There are only two geniuses in Spain: Paco Rabanne and I”, and for his book with Clemmer entitled Nues (1969), a diverse group of models were photographed in provocative poses — nude save for Paco Rabanne’s revealing ‘assemblage’ pieces.
Parallel to fashion, Rabanne expanded his personal interests and established himself as provocateur in various cultural realms. He was involved in the launch of a small, subterranean nightclub, Black Sugar, located on the Left Bank that was a rival to the legendary Castel. He also launched a record label, Paco Rabanne Design, that brought
together a variety of Afro-Caribbean artists — including a group called Tumblack — who regularly wore his designs and created music for his shows.
Paco Rabanne has been decorated Order of Isabella the Catholic, a civil award in recognition of services to Spain and was awarded the French Légion d’honneur in 2010.
Fragrance has been synonymous with the name Paco Rabanne. In 1968, the Puig company acquired Paco Rabanne Parfums and created the fragrance Calandre. Housed in a flacon inspired by the grill of a car, the fragrance broke the mould with its unique and exceptional floral aldehyde scent intended to evoke ‘lovemaking in a Rolls Royce’. A string of successes under his direction continued, notably Paco Rabanne pour Homme (1973), XS (1993) and Ultraviolet (1999). In 2008, he launched his best-selling perfume to date, 1 Million, a men’s fragrance inspired by a unique bejewelled dress made of 9kg of pure gold plates and studded with 300 carats of diamonds worn by Francoise Hardy in 1968 at the first International Diamond Fair. The debut of Invictus and Olympéa further an audacious perfume profile. Today, Paco Rabanne fragrances are infused with his legacy, from Pacollection which debuted in 2019 as a gender fluid series of nine scents to the most recent ones, Phantom and FAME, which conjures a world where everyone can be true to themselves.
Since 2013, the house built by Paco Rabanne has seen a revival in ready-to-wear under the direction of French designer, Julien Dossena, who continues to evolve his contemporary interpretation of the values and aesthetics linked to Rabanne’s progressive vision. His work continues to pay homage to Paco Rabanne’s universe, through re-issued products, graphic collaborations.
Known for wearing his all-black uniform of collarless jackets — the better to appear like a “parish priest”, he mused, Rabanne never ceased to think beyond boundaries. In 1967, he told the world, “By pushing experiences to the limit, we can change mindsets.”