Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Remembering Paco Rabanne

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We celebrate the enduring legacy of the Spanish-born designer whose avant-garde approach shook up the fashion world in the 1960s.

Paco Rabanne, the eccentric Spanish-born fashion designer and space-age inventor, died on February 3, the news prostrating the fashion world into shock and mourning. Although shrouded in enigma, the man – his pseudonym, which is said to be Egyptian in origin, means “the breath of the solar soul invades the world” – is remembered as a visionary, a mystic and creative force who shaped the aesthetics of a generation.

CIRCA 1900: Paco Rabanne, fashion designer. (Photo by Herve BRUHAT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

One of four children, he was born Francisco Rabaneda Cuervo in 1934 in the Basque town of Pasaia. After his father, a colonel in the Republican army, was executed by Francoists during the Spanish Civil War, his family fled to France, crossing the Pyrenees on foot and taking refuge in Brittany; his mother later took a position as
a chief seamstress at the Balenciaga boutique in Paris. Rabanne was raised primarily by his mother, a committed socialist, and his grandmother, an ardent Catholic and shaman. “My mum gave me the taste for revolt,” the designer reflected. “Once she was incarcerated because she was dressed too scandalously.” She also nurtured his artistic pursuits, which led him to the faculty of architecture at l’Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts and, subsequently, to jewellery design.

Some three decades later, in 1966, the world was in anticipation of the moon landing, an event that would propel humanity into a new era. Much like industrialisation making way for entirely new art forms, so the idea of cosmic travel triggered the birth of a space age in fashion and, with it, a new star. One fateful day, Rabanne – by then creating jewellery for Dior, Givenchy and Balenciaga – astounded the fashion universe with his inaugural haute couture show, Manifesto: Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials. His innovative creations amazed and were saluted by collector Peggy Guggenheim and French singer Françoise Hardy, for whom he went on to design an impressive 9kg dress of pure gold encrusted with 300 carats of diamonds.

Paco Rabanne autumn/winter 1997-1998 haute couture show

The dozen dresses, made from phosphorescent plastic discs, aluminium, steel, rhodium and rubber, were held together by wires and glue alone; it was unfathomable how this “couturier” had managed to abandon thread and needle for pliers and a blowtorch – and as if to reinforce the commotion, Rabanne employed black models in his line-up. When later in life the designer recalled the event, he said, “It was such a scandal I decided to stop being an architect and become a dressmaker.” Among the critics and sceptics was Coco Chanel, who dismissed him as “the metallurgist”.

Rabanne was often likened to artistic luminaries such as Victor Vasarely, Julio Le Parc, Jesús Rafael Soto and Pol Bury: his couture prominently featured the light, movement and polychromatic patterns found at the extremities of mod subculture. Light and Movement, his 1967 exhibition at the Paris Museum of Modern Art, synthesised fashion and kinetic art – models with Cleopatra make-up, decked in headpieces of metal stalagmites and chainmail, posed on spinning platforms against rhomboidal cages suspended mid-air. Some were trapped in mirrored kaleidoscopic cells adorned with garments of round and bulky chain links. One journalist called it a “weird and wonderful flight of fancy”.

FRANCE – MAY 19: Francoise Hardy and Salvador Dali in Paco Rabanne In France On May 19, 1968. (Photo by REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The same year he designed an exquisite dress of metal paillettes for Audrey Hepburn to wear in the romantic comedy Two for the Road. Indeed, Hollywood was quick to enlist the artistic prowess of couture’s industrialist. But Rabanne’s most illustrious screen credit remains Roger Vadim’s 1968 science-fiction adventure Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda. The master tribologist span chainmail into fabric and weaved plastic into dresses and bustiers – his obsessive craftsmanship most prominent in the famed green dress that Fonda donned for the film’s promotional stills (and, coincidentally, the dreams of adolescent boys at the time). Rabanne then began his experimentations with shorter dresses, which coincided with the rise of the women’s liberation movement in France; his signature chainmail pieces became a metaphor for armour worn by modern women to protect themselves.

Screen stars and entertainment moguls weren’t the only clienteles infatuated by Rabanne’s vision. Surrealist Salvador Dalí, a long-time friend and collaborator, called Rabanne the “second greatest Spanish genius”. Their most enigmatic project, titled “Le Devin Dalí” and documented by Swiss photographer Jean Clemmer, presented a spectacle of Rabanne’s Venusian pieces at Dalí’s home in Port Lligat. Models such as Amanda Lear, Elsa Peretti, and the African-American Donyale Luna paraded his metalware in a show of grandeur. Regrettably, the only copy of this masterpiece was destroyed in a fire, leaving only the imagination as a relic of its glorious genesis.

Rabanne dressing Barbie for its 30th anniversary

As a man of art, Rabanne yearned for greater pursuits than those confined by the boundaries of his designs. In the same vein as Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel, Nina Ricci and Manfred Thierry Mugler, he began creating scents with unprecedented flair in collaboration with the Spanish fragrance company Puig. His first, Calendre, was an alluring bouquet of rose, geranium and aldehydes with a sensual metallic facet shimmering through. Some say he invented the notion of “metallic fragrances” altogether. José Manuel Albesa, president of Puig’s fashion and beauty division, remarked: “Who but Paco Rabanne could imagine a fragrance called Calandre – the word means ‘automobile grille’, you know – and turn it into an icon of modern femininity?”

Paco Rabanne spring/summer 1993 haute couture show

Yet, Rabanne’s fall from grace was tragic, painful and spectacularly colourful as a narrative. In 1999, he published Le Feu du Ciel (Fire from the Sky) – a collection of his interpretations of Nostradamus’ prophecies – in which he predicted that the crash of the Soviet space station Mir would set Paris ablaze. He also made the shocking claims that he was an ancient 78,000-year-old being sent from planet Altaïr to found Atlantis in a past life; Tutankhamun’s killer in another; and a French prostitute during Louis XV’s reign – and that he’d seen God on multiple occasions.

Media outlets had a field day, ridiculing the once-praised designer as “a weirdo who has fallen on his head,”; “a nut case”; a “clown searching for publicity” and “Wacko Paco”. Shortly after Le Feu du Ciel appeared, Rabanne was encouraged to step down by Puig executives. Eccentricities aside, in 2010, the designer was awarded the Legion of Honour by Frédéric Mitterrand, France’s minister of culture at the time.

Rabanne with model Isabel Feldel

“He was a couturier who did not sew, but who welded, hammered, assembled, who played with the texture of the skin as with fabric, and who reinvented what dressing meant,” the official statement statement read. “With his rigid materials and his chainmail creations, Paco Rabanne stood up against the stiffness and heaviness of an environment he saw as a straitjacket, and whose reactions were contrasting, to say the least.”

Rabanne’s death is a blow to us all. His legacy will live on in the hearts of every aesthete and dreamer who ever spoke of retrofuturism and whispered the words “space age”. And his enigma will remain an enduring source of inspiration for generations to come.

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