Sorority of strength

The supernatural world of Julien Dossena’s Paco Rabanne
By Tempe Nakiska | 21 December 2020
Photography Nhu Xuan Hua

Power, sisterhood, and forces of the unknown. Such things were on Julien Dossena’s mind as he conjured Paco Rabanne Fall/Winter 2020, and a sorority of fierce females with celestial swagger. Like these figures, Dossena is fully in his stride – as a designer and at Paco Rabanne, where he has been creative director since 2013.

This season, that confidence looked like slick leather coats, ruffled collars and cuffs, metallic embroideries, and full chain mail looks complete with glinting headgear and boots to stomp in. And while he subverted medieval armour and religious vestments traditionally worn by men, this wasn’t a statement about reclaiming masculine archetypes. Rather, it was a celebration of unity and uniquely female strength, embodied by women whose power lies not in an institution or philosophy, but within themselves.


Tempe Nakiska: The show was captivating – what got you thinking about the idea of female power?
Julien Dossena: I was thinking about the values or morals of Paco Rabanne, he was quite mystical, quite a believer. Reading about mysticism, it’s not associated with women in history – that inner strength, that possession of an understanding of the world beyond what reality can be. A lot of the time it has been used against women in history, for example with witches, and the way that people mystified them in the sense that they were dangerous. I wanted to play with all those elements and explore incarnations of that feminine strength, to translate it in a way that it became a real, visible power and not a threat or something to fear. So it was how to celebrate that inner strength, and at the same time building a community of women together, because that’s what’s so interesting in those mystic communities of women or witches, they associated with each other in order to be stronger together, a kind of radical version of feminism in that way of building their lives. I wanted to create a kind of sorority, showing this bond that makes women strong together.

TN: There’s a lot of individualism in modern society, so this idea of community is really strong.
JD: Definitely. And weirdly, it’s not associated with women that much. It’s something that I really wanted to show that exists and that can be a super strong way to push boundaries of what women are fighting for.

TN: Then there’s the armour, the chain mail, which is very Paco Rabanne and conjures thoughts of medieval battlefields. But there’s a sensuality to these pieces, like the fluidity of the metal mesh and the way it moves with the body. So you were playing with these masculine archetypes, and placing them very much in the domain of the woman.
JD: The principle of being a warrior, it’s quite interesting but it’s a bit ‘done’. Some fashion designers have done it better than others, but to put women in men’s clothes, for me, it’s not expressing women’s strength. It’s more like trying to guide women and their strength in the way that men’s strength is expressing itself, which in itself is toxic. That masculine strength is a bit of a problem in our modern society because it doesn’t leave space for other communities to express themselves and live their lives. So for me, sensuality and working around the woman’s body was really key and the base of building that strength as a visual, because it’s a powerful body. So you have the sensuality that is expressed by the clothes, and you also have the chain mail that is really symbolic of the warrior – it’s that balance and contrast between the two that I love. It’s about how you cut and cover the woman’s body in a way that you see its strength and force, and not like underlining the supposed ‘fragility’ or ‘delicacy’ of it. Rather, it’s about creating a sharp and fast movement with the clothes, which is the woman, for me there has never been a doubt about that. And these are strong values that are also carrying Paco Rabanne.

TN: So it’s a strength that’s fluid and quickly adaptable, it’s not rigid, and is all the more powerful because of that.
JD: Yes, and at the same time it’s about shapes that, for me, sometimes evoke more ‘mysterious priestess’ than Joan of Arc. It’s more like this presence of light and metal that the movement is giving life to, the strength is expressed in the movement of the material. It was really interesting when some of the reviews spoke a lot about Joan of Arc and the chain mail on a woman, because for me it was more an evocation of a natural presence that is embodied in that dress. It’s wider than just being a warrior.

TN: It also encompasses, like you mentioned, the brand legacy. You often think about 1960s and 70s futurism with Paco Rabanne but there was also a strong mysticism running through everything, which is also key to understanding the house and its founder.
JD: And that’s what it was during his design days but also after. He wrote many, many books about that, about these forces, about the world and astrology and predictions, and that’s why they always call him ‘crazy Paco’. But all this is really in tune with his designs and the values of the house, so it’s an interesting topic to develop there. Also because this mysticism is still a really common topic in our everyday life.

TN: Yeah, there’s quite a strong interest in spirituality among younger generations today. Not necessarily in terms of religion, but new forms that maybe provide direction or hope.
JD: Exactly, just to find sense in a way. Before, when people didn’t get much opportunity to choose the life they were living, religion was a way of giving sense to them. Now, when everything is digital and all the choices are totally open for a lot of people – to choose what they’re going to do with life, to change in the middle of it, to jump on another thing if they don’t like the thing before – people are still craving sense in their lives, their place in the world and in why they are there. Specifically when you don’t find any support in general, you look for a guide. I’m totally fascinated – in a good way – when people are talking about astrology and how they will behave in the next month because of this and that. You can see that today people are still looking for some kind of guide, it’s something very human, and it’s more this general feeling that I find interesting to work on.

“Reading about mysticism, it’s not associated with women in history – that inner strength, that possession of an understanding of the world beyond what reality can be. 

TN: You’re balancing so many elements in a collection like this. The ancient and the modern, historic and mystical symbols, a legacy that’s very much of the 60s and 70s, and the need for it to feel fresh and relevant. It’s a lot! Where do you start?
JD: It’s a cool brand to work with because it’s really unique on the landscape. It’s carrying a lot of different values in terms of what Paco Rabanne was obsessed with in his design days, so when you look at everything there, it’s how you update it, how you translate it to the present. He really worked with this sci-fi futurism, but it could be utopian or dystopian or postmodern, so it’s really open in the way of working and approaching the collections because he touched a lot of different territories. When I begin to think about the season, it’s more about a reflection that is half what Paco Rabanne would have done, and half total freedom – asking my own question and not answering it, but expressing it in the collection.

TN: Does your approach change according to what’s going on in your life and the world?
JD: Well yes. For example this collection was mystical because I felt like we had been running everywhere like headless chickens, and like I was talking about before, I felt like people were a bit lost, you know? And then Covid-19 arrived and one week or so after the show we were locked down and that was it. It has felt like time is slowing down, so we’ve been thinking about ourselves and how we want to live our lives. And now after that, for this season, it’s like, what do people need? Like in an even more pragmatic way. How do you escape from that, or not? It’s really organic in that way, and Paco Rabanne, it’s a brand where you can really reflect the present, and it was like that in the 60s, too. It was really the brand of the present, the brand the girls wanted to live in because it reflected the questions they had at that time. So when you know that, when you face that truth, you can work on anything. Also I’m quite curious, and so I always want to discover things I don’t know. With a style of course, there is the way that I do clothes and the clothes that I love and want to work on, but at the same time, for me, what’s most interesting is to change and approach topics in different ways each season, it’s an amusement to me.

TN: So the job is a way of thinking about yourself and the world?
JD: Yes, and how you project questions on friends and family, a way of analysing the world by expressing it. It’s what I love about my job, too, the creative and artistic part of it. Because when you normally get a good formula, you stick to that and never move. You’ve got your style, you sell the same clothes, and everybody’s happy with that. But if it was just that I would be disappointed. So it’s a balance between a strong style and having an identity that’s quite recognisable and at the same time being able to move around, all while having the same sincerity with what you say – that links everything together.

TN: It’s quite common for brands to be successful because they have nailed one riff, but it’s also easy for that to burn out.
JD: Yes that’s right. I’ve always looked at my job in the way that I want to last, I want to do it for years and years. If you stick in one style you may be totally lost in two years, because of course you’re a huge success for a time, but then you’re totally outdated because you aren’t reflecting the world in terms of the present. More than that, it’s super dangerous because if you just work on one successful item, if you can make it last for five years you’re super lucky, but most of the time it’s just one year. The market is moving on but you’re still doing the same thing in every colour possible until people can’t stand it anymore, and during that time you haven’t developed much that is new, you’re just relying on something that already exists. So it’s a trap of the fashion industry sometimes. I learned with Nicolas Ghesquière and Marie-Amélie Sauvé, who never talked about fashion in that way, so that may be my luck: not knowing how to work in any way other than to be organic and search for different topics or extremes.

TN: Do you ever feel too much pressure and get stuck, or not know where to take it next?
JD: Not really, I’m just going with the flow of what I want to do at that moment. I’m not scared anymore, you know. I don’t feel that it’s never enough or something, that feeling you can have when you begin something, your first piece that you are writing, or one of your first collections, that “Oh my God, I shouldn’t have put that, it’s not what I wanted to say!” I was really lucky to be able to develop that expression and get it to a point where it feels complete.

TN: That confidence really comes through in your work, and then you have this vision of women who are standing in their power this season, which feels fitting.
JD: Yeah, you realise when you age that you’re never better than when you don’t care. Ah! You care, but in the way that you want to propose the best that you can do, and at the same time you are not scared of people’s reactions. And when you’re not scared of anyone’s opinion, you just go. You know that there will be people who like it, people who won’t like it that much, but you don’t have to bother about it. Because if you do, it’s a bit like a dead end, that’s when maybe you feel like what you were talking about before – that kind of fear of not proposing the right thing – but when you’re a bit more relaxed about it, it’s much easier to work. You do have to always check in because sometimes you lose that strength, but at the same time it’s really just about doing your thing, and knowing that whatever that is is valuable. It’s really like an unconscious confidence, like when you’re a kid and you jump off the cliff into the water all the time, you don’t think that much about it, it’s that kind of confidence.

TN: You mentioned slowing down before, and that during lockdown your team have had time to think about the way you work. I wondered if you think the fashion industry can learn anything from what we’ve experienced in recent months?
JD: Of course, and I talked a lot with my team about that. There already were key issues in the fashion industry that were always discussed and that were urgent to talk about, but now it’s urgent to act on it – and quickly. Like the fashion circus, when thousands of people are travelling around the world going to shows for one month and then one month later there’s another round of shows, it was always feeling a bit like nonsense. It’s the same for the collections: four collections then six collections then, for some, eight collections. Surely people are not buying that many clothes and accessories, and it’s not working that way, because you can’t make that many clothes properly. Even if you have a huge team and huge house, creativity needs time, luxury needs time – to make, to source the right fabric for what you want to express in that moment, you can’t skip these steps. So you can have many, many ideas but it’s about how you make things in reality. You need to sell of course, it’s why we are hired to work at the end of the day, but it’s how you develop a new way to continue to grow and at the same time develop a more realistic and luxurious way of creating clothes. Clothes that have been sewn, engineered, well manufactured and well-sourced, in order to give them the best quality and composition that’s available, and at the same time for what people want to buy. That’s the only way to be sure that ethically you’re going to make the best things.

TN: It’s clear that fashion needs to be more conscious, but there are so many factors that make the process of change complex.
JD: Yes and it means that the prices are going to go up, because when you have something valuable, it has to have that value. As creatives, of course we want to make the best things of the highest quality we can, but sometimes you have to open the discussion with marketing or finance – they want to have the best-priced clothes, which is a totally accurate point of view as well. Maybe you’re going to be a bit less democratic in some ways, but at the same time it’s true that it’s going to be the right product at the right moment for the people who can afford it and who are conscious of what they are buying. It’s a full circle of reflections that needs to be on the table all the time.

“…you also have the chain mail that is really symbolic of the warrior – it’s that balance and contrast between the two that I love.”

TN: And what about slowing down personally? You’re a big reader, what authors have you been drawn to this year?
JD: This year, as I had more time to read, I wanted to explore more work of a few writers I love. So I re-read a lot of Joan Didion, a writer who really touched me deeply, and I discovered her journalism work that I didn’t know before. I think she wrote for Vogue and a newspaper that I don’t remember, and California was super present in her early writing, which I always found really interesting. From there I jumped to another author that I love, John Steinbeck, because I really wanted to go back to those landscapes that I loved when I was about twenty. And then there’s a French writer, Annie Ernaux, who is talking about her life in a super personal way, and her writing is very much about the journey of a woman in the 70s, 80s and 90s and experiences of divorce and motherhood. It really helped me to understand what could be a woman’s reflection of the world, and how a woman is perceived by the world. It was super eye opening, super sharp and amazingly written. Simple but really strong in that simplicity. Also, I just bought a house in the countryside and was reading about the neighbourhood and the village there, which I found really fascinating – when it was built, its story, who lived there.

TN: That’s exciting! When do you move in?
JD: Yeah! I just got the keys now, so I will do some work on it, and I’m crossing my fingers that I will have everything done by January and hopefully I can be in there for next spring. I crave to go there, I think it will be quite a change in my life because I may stay there like half of my time as it’s only 40 minutes from Paris. It’s going to be nice. It’s really natural and has the forest at the end of the garden. There are lots of trees and it’s super quiet. It’s in the countryside but right on the edge of the village, so you can go walking and go to the cafe to have a little I-don’t-know-what in the morning and buy your newspaper. I’ll be living in my place in Paris to work, but it’s great to have that choice, that at the end of the day if you feel like seeing trees you can go there. So yeah, I’m really happy.

“I wanted to create a kind of sorority, showing this bond that makes women strong together.”

Interview originally published in HEROINE 13.

All clothing and accessories by Paco Rabanne FW20

Models Mae Lapres at Premium Models and Mica Tosi at IMG; hair Yumiko Hikage at Agence Saint Germain; make-up Annabell Petit at Agence Saint Germain using MAC Cosmetics; set design Eli Serre and Camille Lichtenstern; casting Nicolas Bianciotto at The Art Board; movement director Manue Soum; photography assistant Josh Chang; lighting executive Nicolas Scarbonchi; location Studio Cyclo at Les Studios Francais; executive producers Ama Nelly Kattie, Marlene Dionnet, Robin Hollande; production Saint Luke; special thanks Vincent Tsouderos, Les Studios Francais

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