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The Universal Magazine

Paco Rabanne: the man who almost never became a couturier

Paco Rabanne and Princess of Burundi Esther Kamatari, one of the first models of African origin

Paco Rabanne, the emblematic designer of a certain way of conceiving his fashion pieces, died on February 3, 2023 in Brittany, in this region that adopted him when he fled his native Basque Country, because of the Spanish Civil War. Paco Rabanne, the man, has marked with his particular imprint the history of haute couture – we will return. And yet, he almost never did this job. A look back at a jack-of-all-trades with a tortuous career, an iconoclastic couturier, and a genius in spite of himself.

Exiled and orphaned from his father

The life of the young Francisco Rabaneda y Cuervo – not yet Paco Rabanne – had begun badly. He was less than three years old when the Spanish Civil War orphaned his father, a colonel in the Spanish army killed by Franco’s regime. Faced with this tragedy, his mother took him, his three other siblings and his grandmother to France. After crossing the Pyrenees, the family settled in Brittany, in the Morlaix region.

It is in this country and in this region that he really begins his life.

Arrival in Paris and beginnings in art

At the age of 17, the young Paco Rabanne went to Paris to study architecture. At that time, it is for him the noblest art and he must dedicate himself body and soul to it. He spends more than 10 years in the Architecture section of the National School of Fine Arts, particularly with the master of reinforced concrete of the time: Auguste Perret.

He put his studies to good use by designing his first clothing models, which he sold to the fashion houses in vogue at the time: Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga. One cannot understand the style of the clothes designed by Paco Rabanne, if one does not integrate this architectural dimension of his fashion pieces.

Because, in the end, it is the fabric that holds him back, not the fashion. This attraction comes from both his odd jobs (he designed patterns and models for big houses, as mentioned above), and his mother’s profession. Indeed, when the Rabaneda y Cuervo family lived in Spain, Paco Rabanne’s mother was a dressmaker for Balenciaga.

Paco Rabanne: the provocative fashion designer

In 1964, Paco Rabanne made a dramatic arrival in the very closed world of fashion designers. He released his first collection entitled Twelve Experimental Dresses in Contemporary Materials.

In 1966, the enfant terrible of the Parisian fashion repeats with Twelve Unwearable Dresses.

He has also created the costumes for several famous films, including Barbarella in 1968 and On a volé la cuisse de Jupiter in 1976.

Rabanne has also worked on many projects outside of fashion, including interior design, photography and film. He has designed furniture and decorative objects, such as metal lighting fixtures.

Inspired by his architectural studies, Paco Rabanne designs dresses in new materials: metal and plastic… He broke the codes of fashion, which earned him scorn from some of his contemporaries in the field. Gabrielle Chanel even went so far as to call him a “metallurgist”!

Support and popular success

But despite this rejection by his peers, he receives valuable support. This is the case, for example, of the art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who commissioned dresses from him. Or Jane Fonda and Françoise Hardy, true icons of the time, who agree to wear dresses weighing more than 16 kilos.

Paco Rabanne knows that it displeases, but plays of it, declaring in particular to a journalist of Marie-Claire: “My models are weapons. When you close them, you think you hear a gun. He who breaks the codes of fashion will still open a store in the 6th arrondissement of Paris in 1971, where he rubs shoulders with many designers.

Simple paper dresses

He can afford it because his brand is successful. In particular her paper dresses, without any seam, sold at 15 francs each. Behind the material, there is a whole symbol as he declared in his autobiography: “symbol of our carefree civilization which glorified the ephemeral”.

In Paris-Match, in 1995, he confided: “I make simple clothes in strange materials, while others imagine extravagant forms in classic textiles”.

Fashion and ready-to-wear house

Behind the flashes, there is still a great professional who manages to stand out by his rigorous approach to fashion, which comes from architecture. He received the Dé d’or in 1990, an award for the best haute couture collection.

The 1990s saw Paco Rabanne at the height of his fame with a retrospective in his honor at the Musée de la Mode in Marseille in 1995.

Subsequently, the haute-couture branch of the house declines and the designer and from 1999, he refocuses on the ready-to-wear. In 2006, the company went bankrupt and stopped sewing.

Paco Rabanne: the versatile man

A true fashion myth, Paco Rabanne is still very well known to the general public because of the many franchises that bear his name.

Perfumes and franchises of all kinds

He gave his pseudonym to a whole collection of perfumes, which is still very popular today. But, other products will bear his name as L’Immeuble Rabanne, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In total, the designer would have sold more than 150 different licenses, declining his name to all the sauces, according to the requests.

Bottle of eau de toilette Paco Rabanne XS
Bottle of eau de toilette Paco Rabanne XS

Music and magazine production

In the 1970s, Paco Rabanne launched a production house for West Indian and African music, which was a niche success, as well as a women’s magazine, dedicated to women of color. Still in the music business, he opened an iconic venue on Boulevard de la Villette in Paris for artists. Entirely free of charge, it is a complex with a performance hall, a rehearsal hall and a recording studio. This patronage action earned him recognition from the younger generation, with artists such as NTM and MC Solaar emerging thanks to him.

Finally, as a sign of the eclecticism of the character, Paco Rabanne has even appeared several times on television to talk about another of his passions: esotericism. Thus, it was not uncommon to find him on a Sunday afternoon in front of a crystal ball, facing an audience both half-astonished and half-intrigued. There is no need to recall his apocalyptic predictions about the year 2000…

In short, Paco Rabanne was an innovative and provocative fashion designer who left an indelible mark on the fashion industry with his futuristic, bold and innovative designs. He continues to be considered one of the most influential designers in the history of fashion, and his name is associated with originality, eccentricity, and daring.

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