Paco Rabanne, fashion designer and perfumer whose Space Age aesthetic matched his New Age philosophy – mortality

Paco Rabanne with two of his models during Paris Fashion Week in 1996 - Stephane Cardinale/Corbis

Paco Rabanne with two of his models during Paris Fashion Week in 1996 – Stephane Cardinale/Corbis

Paco Rabanne, who has died aged 88, was a fashion designer who burst onto the scene in the 1960s with some famously unwearable clothes, who made his fortune from his work over the next 20 years and beyond he became famous as a guru of New Age philosophy.

His story, according to his published writings, began 78,000 years ago when he came to Earth from the planet Altair to build a permanent settlement, which would later become Atlantis.

Since then he has claimed to have lived through multiple incarnations, including a spell as the Egyptian priest who murdered King Tutankhamun; as the prophet Daniel; as an acquaintance of Christ, and as an 18th-century prostitute who died at the age of 17 after “a short period of lechery on the Champs-Élysées”.

working with metal - Keystone-France

working with metal – Keystone-France

Along with this narrative Rabanne made several predictions, including the claim – in The Dawn of the Golden Age: A Spiritual Design for Living, published in English in 1999 – that the Mir space station would fall to Earth and he would destroy Paris. When the month of this predicted disaster – August 1999 – passed without incident, Rabanne refused to back down, saying only that he had mistakenly given an exact date.

While such announcements may have embarrassed the House of Rabanne (and frustrated any journalist trying to get at the truth), they did little to hurt his international reputation – and indeed it may have awakened him among those who viewed him as a French fashion journalist. terrible enfant senior.

Jane Fonda - Allstar/Alamy

Jane Fonda – Allstar/Alamy

This was a couturier, after all, whose early 1960s collections included dresses weighing more than 60 pounds. Avoiding cloth and wool, Rabanne made clothes from plastic plates (he was very fond of roses) and metal. He worked with black models at a time when they were very rare in the industry – and, instead of parading them in the usual silence, they made them dance to pop music.

Rabanne’s innovations were initially considered scandalous but were undoubtedly adopted wholesale by the fashion elite. Audrey Hepburn appeared in one of her heavy metal dresses in her 1967 film Two for the Road; Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg all glittered in his edgy, chain-inspired outfits. These would be held together with string and glue (“there is a seam in them”, Rabanne once declared), and shaped according to the shape of the wearer’s body.

Creation of Rabanne from 2002 - Geoff Pugh

Creation of Rabanne from 2002 – Geoff Pugh

Later ventures included the first real foray into disposable fashion – with a line of paper dresses sold in sachets for 15 francs – and suits made from dozens of connected buttons. He also designed various costumes for plays, ballet and film, including the cod-Amazonian uniforms worn by the “Guard girls” in the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale.
For the interstellar sex goddess Barbarella in Roger Vadim’s 1968 film of the same name, he produced pirate-style leather boots, see-through molded plastic halter tops and a green gown that resembled a Space-Age lampshade (and offered so much coverage ).

But as with most post-war fashion designers, he only found real wealth with the launch of his fragrance and diffusion ranges. Calandre (1969, named after the French for a car radiator grill), Paco Rabanne pour Hommes (1974) and XS (1993-94) were some of the most successful scents of their day, and Lady Million (2010) – sold in diamond . bottles – shaped with embossed gold caps – they played up the ideas of excess. In another indication of the designer’s thoughtful tactics, Paco Rabanne was among the first brands sampled in the men’s magazine; Playboy readers in July 1984 received an insert infused with the latest luxury scent.

Rabanne - Historical Corbis

Rabanne – Historical Corbis

Although Rabanne, he admitted, “had better put it out once” to describe himself passing as “the man of perfume”, the financial figures gave this report. By 1987 the Spanish cosmetics group Puig, already the owners of Parfums Paco Rabanne, had also taken control of the clothing business, and by the new millennium turnover within the House of Rabanne was heavily dependent on perfume sales.

The departure of Rabanne himself – who was currently being openly dubbed the “Wacky Paco” in the French popular press – prompted some to wonder if the fashion house had a future. Things only got better with the arrival of British designer Julien Dossena, who became Paco Rabanne’s creative director in 2013. Items in Dossena’s revamped collections ranged from skinny jeans and bomber jackets to lighter versions of suits. the chains of the founding father.

Paco Rabanne Francisco Rabaneda Cuervo was born in the Spanish part of the Basque country, near San Sebastian, on 18 February 1934. His maternal grandfather was one of the first Spanish socialists killed by the Civil Guard; his father led the Republican forces against Franco in the north. For the first five years of his life Francisco had to contend with bombardment and machine guns when he was shut between camps.

Rabanne pieces from 1995 - Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Getty

Rabanne pieces from 1995 – Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Getty

After his father was arrested and executed in 1939 he escaped with his mother across the Pyrenees. The family found relative stability in Morlaix, a quiet area in rural Brittany, where Francisco was raised mostly by women. The biggest influence on this was his mother – a socialist and staunch atheist who was a fixture at the Balenciaga fashion house back in Spain – and his grandmother, a devout Catholic whose faith, as he later recalled, “happily included white magic and the occult” .

At the age of seven he received a gift for out-of-body travel (“astral planning”), which encouraged and complemented his grandmother with lessons in magical self-defense and healing by laying on hands.

In 1952 he came to Paris to study architecture at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Here, under the tutelage of Auguste Perret, one of the first men to build reinforced concrete, he developed an enthusiasm for modernism. To pay for his studies he designed and sold accessories to the great couturiers of the day – Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Dior. Concluding that the world of fashion was “going into a relentless stagnation”, he embarked on a “great gesture of inspiration”, his first collection of 1964, pointedly titled “Two Experimental Dresses”.

Rabanne tests one of her designs on a Barbie doll - Micheline Pelletier/Sygma/Getty

Rabanne tests one of her designs on a Barbie doll – Micheline Pelletier/Sygma/Getty

Two years later he followed it up with a couture collection he called “Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials”. Barefoot models wore the clothes that paraded to the sound of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître; although the lack of shoes was a measure of economy, the music was deliberately chosen to shock.

Coco Chanel summed up the unease of the fashion elite when she announced about the newcomer: “It is not tailoring, but metalwork.” Soon, however, Rabanne’s admirers including Françoise Hardy, Audrey Hepburn and Salvador Dali – the surrealist even went so far as to declare him “the second genius of Spain” – followed Dali himself.

Unlike many designers, Rabanne did not spend his subsequent fortune on yachts or private chateaux. He dressed simply, avoiding ties (“the symbol of the hangman’s nose”), and claimed to have no car and few personal possessions. Much of his money went to charitable endeavors, including a hospice run by monks in central France.

He never married.

Paco Rabanne, born 18 February 1934, died 3 February 2023

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