The Daily Telegraph
Designer and parfumier whose Space Age fashion aesthetic was matched by his New Age worldview
PACO RABANNE, who has died aged 88, was a fashion designer who shot to stardom in the 1960s with some famously unwearable clothes, made his fortune from aftershave over the following 20 years and later became notorious 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 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 aged 17 after a “short period of lechery on the Champs-élysées”.
Alongside this narrative Rabanne made a number of predictions, among them 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 obliterate Paris. When the month of this forecast disaster – August 1999 – passed without incident, Rabanne declined to back down, merely suggesting that he had been mistaken to give an exact date.
While such pronouncements might have been embarrassing for the House of Rabanne (and frustrating for any journalist attempting to get at the truth), they did little to hurt his international reputation – and indeed may have burnished it among those who saw him as French fashion’s most senior enfant terrible.
This was a couturier, after all, whose early collections in the 1960s had included dresses weighing more than 60lb. Avoiding cloth and wool, Rabanne fashioned clothes from plates of plastic (he was particularly fond of rhodoid) and metal. He worked with black models at a time when they were vanishingly rare in the industry – and, instead of having them parade in the customary sedate silence, set them dancing to pop music.
Rabanne’s innovations were initially regarded as scandalous but were inevitably adopted wholesale by the fashion elite. Audrey Hepburn appeared in one of his heavy metal dresses in her 1967 film Two for the Road; Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg all shimmered in his iridescent, chainmail-inspired outfits. These would be held together with wire and glue (“sewing is a bondage”, Rabanne once declared), and moulded to the shape of the wearer’s body.
Later ventures included the first real sally into disposable fashion – with a line of paper dresses sold in sachets for 15 francs – and outfits constructed from dozens of linked buttons. He also designed various costumes for plays, ballets and films, including the cod-amazonian uniforms worn by the “Guard girls” in the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale.
For the intergalactic sex goddess Barbarella in Roger Vadim’s 1968 film of the same name, he produced pirate-style leather boots, halter tops made from see-through moulded plastic and a green dress that resembled a Space Age lampshade (and offered about as much coverage).
As with most post-war fashion designers, however, he found real wealth only with the launch of his perfume and diffusion ranges. Calandre (1969, named after the French for a car radiator grille), Paco Rabanne pour Hommes (1974) and XS (1993-94) were some of the most successful scents of their day, while Lady Million (2010) – sold in diamondshaped bottles with embossed gold caps – played up to ideas of extravagance.
In another indication of the designer’s forward-thinking tactics, Paco Rabanne was among the first brands to be sampled in a men’s magazine; readers of Playboy in July 1984 received an insert imbued with the latest luxury scent.
Though Rabanne was, he admitted, “rather put-out” to hear himself described in passing as “the perfumes man”, the financial figures bore out this description. By 1987 the Spanish cosmetics group Puig, already the owners of Parfums Paco Rabanne, had gained control of the apparel business as well, and by the new millennium turnover within the House of Rabanne had come to be largely dependent upon perfume sales.
The departure of Rabanne himself – by this time derided as “Wacky Paco” in the French popular press – prompted some to wonder whether the fashion house had a future. Only with the arrival of the Breton designer Julien Dossena, who became creative director at Paco Rabanne in 2013, did things begin to improve. The items in Dossena’s revamped collections ranged from slim jeans and bomber jackets to lighter versions of the founding father’s chainmail dresses.
Paco Rabanne was born Francisco Rabaneda Cuervo in the Spanish part of the Basque country, near San Sebastian, on February 18 1934. His maternal grandfather had been 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 bombings and machine gunfire as he was shuttled between camps.
After his father was captured and executed in 1939 he escaped with his mother across the Pyrenees. The family found relative stability in Morlaix, a quiet rural part of Brittany, where Francisco was largely brought up by women.
The most influential of these was his mother – a staunch socialist and atheist who had been a seamstress in Balenciaga’s fashion house back in Spain – and his grandmother, a devout Catholic whose faith, as he recalled, “happily included white magic and occultism”. At seven he discovered a gift for out-of-body travel (“astral planing”), which his grandmother encouraged and supplemented with lessons on magical self-protection and healing through the laying-on of hands.
In 1952 he arrived in Paris to study architecture at the École Nationale des Beaux-arts. Here, under the auspices of Auguste Perret, one of the first men to build in 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 “sinking into barren stagnation”, he embarked on a grand “gesture of provocation”, his 1964 debut collection, pointedly titled “Twelve Experimental Dresses”.
Two years later he followed it with a couture collection called “Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials”. The clothes were worn by barefoot models parading to the sound of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître; though the lack of shoes was an economy measure, the music was deliberately chosen to shock.
Coco Chanel summed up the fashion elite’s disquiet when she declared of the newcomer: “He is not a tailor, but a metallurgist.” Soon, however, Rabanne’s admirers had come to include Françoise Hardy, Audrey Hepburn and Salvador Dali, the surrealist even going so far as to proclaim him “the second genius of Spain” – after Dali himself.
Unlike many designers, Rabanne did not spend his fortune on yachts or private chateaux. He dressed simply, eschewing ties (“the symbol of the hangman’s noose”), and claimed to own no car and few personal possessions. A considerable portion of his money went to charitable endeavours, including a hospice run by monks in the middle of France.
He never married.