interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by ANDERS EDSTRÖM
style by ELODIE DAVID-TOUBOUL
concept JULIEN DOSSENA and OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by GIASCO BERTOLI
After leaving Balenciaga in 2012, French designer Julien Dossena is now revitalizing Paco Rabanne — the designer who radically futurized couture in the 1960s, by turning models into living sculptures. Dossena, 32, looks toward the future, but through the lens of sportswear technology and movement, using every innovation possible as a way to vitalize the style of the smart, creative women he champions. Dossena doesn’t idolize Paco Rabanne’s artistic vision of the future; he creates a compelling modernism in tune with the energy of the street, bringing a visual optimism into contemporary style. And he is only at the beginning of what he wants to do in fashion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You work a stone’s throw away from Avenue Montaigne, in the heart of the world of luxury goods. Isn’t that context a little intimidating?
JULIEN DOSSENA — It was a little weird at the beginning. For me, the area is a bit old hat, an area I had never before visited. And at the same time, Paco Rabanne was quite a radical fashion house. Its creator had a very special vision of the couture landscape. Over time, it has become a rather classical couture house, at least in terms of its image. Meaning you can easily compare it with Dior or Chanel. In a different way, sure, but it has made its place in the luxury world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Paco Rabanne moved directly into the couture world without having to check off that prêt-à-porter box first.
JULIEN DOSSENA — In the beginning, Paco was working at Balenciaga. He made jewelry, buttons, objects involving metalworking, accessories, and bracelets. Then he created his own collection. It was the right time, the moment of Cardin and Courrèges. He found the couture world fossilized, a conservative system that was no longer functioning. And unlike Cardin and Courrèges, he didn’t go through the prêt-à-porter phase.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He stepped over it.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Exactly, yes. He began creating atypical, precious fashion articles, like all his chainmail dresses, which were painstaking to make. He prioritized the creative and aesthetic side. For him, it was above all a performance, an artistic gesture, not really about the building of a couture house…
OLIVIER ZAHM — So couture allowed him to create, to get closer to art.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Completely. I think what he loved most about it was the the artisanal side.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you comfortable with the idea of couture today?
JULIEN DOSSENA — I have always refused the codes of couture, certain ways of doing things. Even the idea of the atelier doesn’t really interest me. I want clothing to be more accessible, more immediately desirable, the idea of being able to make a purchase without serious consequences. If you place yourself in the context of that time, Paco Rabanne is the history of the artistic gesture in couture; at the same time it’s an aesthetic that conceptually followed industrialization — the raw materials of his era that he made precious by the way he put them together and tailored them. Today it doesn’t make sense in terms of the aesthetic, and in any case we don’t use the same materials or have the same way of doing things.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But what is amazing, since we’re talking about Rabanne, in 1966-67, at the very beginning of his collections, is that there was an immediate meeting of the world of couture — at that time still very traditional — and extreme innovation, all in the one gesture.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Clearly. I get the impression he was reacting fairly instinctively, but he had a very conceptual approach, with a reasoned discourse laid out in manifestos.
OLIVIER ZAHM — His collections were accompanied by texts.
JULIEN DOSSENA — It was very conceptual. His first show, for example, was a performance of 12 unwearable dresses. That was his thesis. He did his show at the Hotel Georges V with music composed by Pierre Boulez. Paco Rabanne was quite close to Dalí. I think he wanted to implement a whole new system of reflections and values. He thought of fashion as a discipline which could be very artistically ambitious. His whole entourage was like that. He lived accompanied by extremely precise concepts, whether it be for presentations or what he wanted to express. You find in his work a surrealist side that can be rather droll, the influence of Dalí, with a strong erotic charge, as well as a colder, more conceptual side, like Boulez.
OLIVIER ZAHM — More abstract.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Exactly. They sort of melted into each other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a stimulating story for you, I guess?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Exactly, both in the attitude and in the values carried in the name. It’s clearly unique in the landscape of fashion in Paris. And I’m lucky to work for a brand built on this modernity, this radicality, these concepts, and at the same time, which also has a sexual charge for women. It was a sort of utopia that drove him toward esotericism, the formal research which happened at that time with Cardin or Courrèges. He wanted everything to be made of metal — children wearing metallic uniforms in the street.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why metal?
JULIEN DOSSENA — For him it’s an extension of jewelry. In the end there were the conquering women, the influence of the heroic fantasy aesthetic, from comic books and science fiction characters like Barbarella. For Rabanne, metal was a material meant to represent modernity and the future — making women-airplanes, women-cars, time machines. It’s the machine, and also this thing of recreating chain mail, working with these little elements to create this material that just flows over the body. That’s why he worked with metal in all its forms.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did it sell?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Yes, and it had a tremendous impact on his image. The image of Paco Rabanne was powerful and audacious.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg went out a few times dressed completely in metal.
JULIEN DOSSENA — There are great images of them, one in these sort of undershirts made of chain mail, against a Baroque 18th-century-ish fireplace. I love these images because it represented exactly what Paris was at that moment in time: a blend of absolute modernity, with a pinch of intellectual provocation and continuous research over an extremely classic background.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You get the impression that anything was possible in fashion at that time in Paris.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Yes, it was, and it was the first time the creators were speaking to their generation, no longer to mothers who were taking their daughters for their first dress at Dior or Chanel, but directly to a generation of girls aged 20 to 30. He created fashion adapted to their new lifestyles, their new ways of moving, of going out. It was a new energy with new social and aesthetic values.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it is a form of fashion quite close to art in the end. It’s fashion in sculpture, pure experimentation.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Completely. And pioneering, in the way Comme des Garçons was, later on, arriving in Paris and having the women walking the shows be so flat, so dead. With a certain joy, I came across some magazine archives — back then people found it amusing. But it became something quite popular in the end.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Really?
JULIEN DOSSENA — There was a sort of trend for that sort of thing: Jane Birkin arriving at Castel half-naked in her little metallic dress; there was both provocation and indulgence; they ran together.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was also a period when musical TV shows were created — like the mainstream musical show produced by Maritié and Gilbert Carpentier with their geometric sets inspired by geometric art, optical art, pop art.
JULIEN DOSSENA — It was completely whacked visually, as a TV show targeting mainstream audiences. But the audience wasn’t shocked; they liked it. The musicans and singers enjoyed being there. So it was similar for Paco Rabanne: the idea for him was that fashion could transmit an aesthetic message of its time to a larger audience, in a democratic, populist manner. Fashion is the strongest way to broadcast an aesthetic message.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So how do you adapt this attitude today? What have you retained from all that?
JULIEN DOSSENA — I sort through it. It’s an important part of our heritage.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At the same time, it is a bygone era.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Right. In the past, it was all about a designer disseminating his or her aesthetic. It’s difficult to start out in fashion now, to say to yourself, “I am going to do something completely new. I am going to try to shake up the system.” It’s an industry in the good as well as the bad sense, and that’s an established fact. We look at brands and branding completely differently now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t believe in the myth of the creator.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Not really any-more.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t subscribe to the fantasy.
JULIEN DOSSENA — No, not at all. I am really there to serve the brand.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t want to be more famous than the brand.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Not at all. For me, what is important is to put Paco Rabanne back where the brand deserves to be.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With international ambition?
JULIEN DOSSENA — As part of the landscape of international fashion. It worked right away in the United States, more than in France. In fact, I believe 70% of our business comes from the USA. For the moment, the French aren’t quite there yet. At the beginning, I complained a little and wondered why. But the important thing is for people to rediscover their taste for the identity of Paco Rabanne, while at the same time focusing on all the values we think are right in contemporary fashion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you targeting the young, active woman now?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Yes, exactly, introducing a sports-influenced line. That is clearly my initiative. It hap-pened quite naturally, and it’s a kind of clothing I like. I want to inject this sporting element, and it makes sense with the company’s values of innovation, modernity, comfort, technology, and new materials. There’s a kind of radicalness attached to an immediacy of desire. The question is how to play with all these elements. Sports is the area in ready-to-wear where you find the most innovative materials, pushing the envelope on collage techniques, lightness, even synthetic effects. I decided that if Paco Rabanne were working today, he would have been interested in this sartorial technology.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you go into a sportswear store, it’s not very sexy, nor are the clothes particularly attractive to look at…
JULIEN DOSSENA — No, it isn’t. So how do we render these new materials more elegant, noble even? How do we add a special sensibility, making another kind of outfit, a luxury object created with such fine, subtle detail and conceived in a completely modern manner? That is the challenge in my work here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You can work with these new materials in your ateliers and factories?
JULIEN DOSSENA — It is a supplementary difficulty. We have to teach those working on the ground. We have to lead them to new ways of doing things. I have always liked this principle, this slight discrepancy, working with a material that might seem a little cheap, or restrictive from an aesthetic point of view, whereas it is quite useful from the perspective of wearability, comfort, protection…
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you feel like you have succeeded?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Well, reactions to and perceptions of my collections have been…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Positive!
JULIEN DOSSENA — … accurate. I like thinking in terms of the product. There are two types of women. There are those who are going to buy the garment because it’s in season and it’s great, and there are those women who have a real eye and who are beginning to build a wardrobe. Those who are building their wardrobe, they really want these garments. They know they will be keeping them and wearing them. They see these garments as the “new classics.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are there other designers who inspire you in your approach?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Nicolas Ghesquière, of course. I learned everything from him. But also Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela, and Azzedine Alaïa, when he began working with jersey, which was considered a rather “poor” material. With his genius, his codes of cutting, it became incredibly beautiful and took on a whole other dimension. He was making suits of a quality and price point equivalent to other, more noble fabrics. I appreciate this principle, this shift in materials.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it Nicolas Ghesquière who gave you this taste for the “laboratory” and research?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Yes. I learned a great deal during my five years with Nicolas. Working at his side, I saw how he was shaping a brand that was already well established. I arrived toward the end of the period in which that way of working — research — was still essential for Nicolas. At Balenciaga, he pushed the aesthetic of interactions between different materials very far, sometimes resulting in “eco-warrior” women mixed with other things…
OLIVIER ZAHM — This futuristic pushing toward tomorrow was good preparation for Paco Rabanne.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Absolutely the best! Right off, I felt I was on familiar ground, at ease because this is how I had first learned to work. Maybe they pushed it a little further at Balenciaga. But you must be careful with this idea of the future because it can turn around on you and become retro if you’re not paying attention.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Almost backward.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Exactly.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You read a lot of science fiction — why is this?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Well, what I really like in science fiction is the principle of vision itself, coherent in its tiniest details. It’s the fact that you can construct an entire universe. This is why I like science-fiction novels as much as films. You can feel the meticulousness of the creation of the universe. Recently, I was rereading Dune, and it’s extraordinary seeing how detailed it is, precise, thought out. As if it had all been verified! And that is what I find crazy — studying in great scientific detail, documenting your research, in the end, not to create a world, which bizarrely could not exist, which isn’t plausible. That’s the rule in that kind of novel, implicit. It’s all very powerful.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And your young buyer at Paco Rabanne, what does she say? I admire women who manage to be elegant wearing Nike, and I get the feeling that your Paco Rabanne girl wears this sort of thing to the hilt, a sort of sportswear/luxe mix?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Completely. I love the idea of the girl wearing Nike shoes, which will all of a sudden be elegant as she’s coming out of her yoga class. She’ll put on a man’s coat with Nike running shoes or flat shoes, then she’ll go to work, pick up her child, hang out with her friends, then go out that night in a dress… These are the patterns and actions in the street that we can observe and pick up everywhere — they fascinate me. Like those Uniqlo down jackets worn under tuxedo jackets, for example. It’s this kind of functional attitude I try to make beautiful and luxurious. I force myself to always think about that woman, to find a consistency there, which I always find in the action she has just performed or which she is currently doing. That’s it, I create my garments thinking always about action, an idea of movement, of what the girl is going to or must accomplish during her day.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe that’s your pragmatic side, coming from Brittany…
JULIEN DOSSENA — Yeah, it’s my down-to-earth side! In direct contact with reality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel like a Breton, or not at all?
JULIEN DOSSENA — No. I grew up there, but after that I moved a lot. I lived in Paris then Berlin, and for a little while in the South of France. My stepfather was in the military, so we moved from base to base.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So Brittany was more or less accidental for you.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Let’s say I grew up there, and I went back there. What I like there is the boredom. The temporality. I’m kind of a slow guy; I need to take time to do things and to reflect at each stage of the process. I am a bit laborious in what I do, and at the same time I work in a world that moves very quickly. I am a bit in between the two, all the time. The real and the imaginary intertwine with me in a very specific way; they give me balance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about your shows. They are extremely clinical, like a photo shoot, with strong lighting, no podium…
JULIEN DOSSENA — I seek that visibility. A show must be strong, but it isn’t a performance for me — it’s a line of clothing that we are showing. There are designers who are excellent at creating spectacular shows, but I am more interested in the essentials. It’s a remnant of couture. For me, it’s the clothing that is the performance. And it’s when people concentrate on the clothing that you see the most enthusiastic reactions. I like that sensation and become aware of it during my shows.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t like enter-tainment in fashion?
JULIEN DOSSENA — No artificial effects. The only effect is the precision of the cut. The colors. The connecting of materials. I don’t want these effects to be diminished by an additional or secondary one, such as the architecture of the show or its “concept”… But in truth, I am still at the beginning of what I am doing. It will certainly evolve; there are so many facets of Paco Rabanne to explore.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you try to make sure your clothes have a meaning?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Yes. I learned that at the Balenciaga studio with Nicolas and Natacha [Ramsay-Lévi]. A garment has a hidden meaning, which is not a message but its substance. I don’t want it to be gratuitous. I like focusing on the essential, but it isn’t at all about minimalism or minimal aesthetics.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It isn’t really the evolution of fashion today, in which the clothing looks more and more superficial to me, overflowing with useless effects.
JULIEN DOSSENA — It’s a huge mix. It’s a little aggressive visually. You can suddenly feel like doing crazier things. But right now we also need to tamp down a few things, to balance them out. That’s what I am looking for here. Making sure the garment makes sense for me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I am looking at your photos in your studio. You don’t think only in terms of aesthetics, but also in terms of functionality, in terms of how the garment is worn, right?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Its wearability, exactly.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think that you are part of a new wave of designers?
JULIEN DOSSENA — I’ve established a real dialogue with Jonathan Anderson at Loewe about fashion; we talk to each other directly; we ask each other questions. He has his way, which is completely different from mine, but we look at what we do, and we each progress, and we’re aware of our affinities.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s no competitiveness?
JULIEN DOSSENA — None. We have two entirely different configurations: Jonathan works with a large group, which already has established boutiques around the world, so it is important to fill them. Paco Rabanne with Puig is part of a large cosmetic group, but it is still relatively small in the world of fashion. And I am comfortable in this configuration. When we spoke of taking the time to build, to experiment, to have a lab, independence — I feel that is possible here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you define your generation in relation to the generations just before you, such as Nicolas Ghesquière, and also Helmut Lang or Margiela, and going farther back to Comme des Garçons?
JULIEN DOSSENA — I think we are moving away from these absolute creators. But this process had already begun with the generation of Helmut Lang. It was another way of approaching business and creation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A more pragmatic way?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Certainly. And you also lose a kind of freedom. There is no longer that creative ex nihilo side; the designer is no longer a deus ex machina relative to his products.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your generation of young designers has multifaceted brains, since you have to see all the aspects of fashion: artistic, the store concepts, marketing and communication, distribution, advertising, window displays…
JULIEN DOSSENA — Yes, we must try to digest all these elements to invent a new model for today’s fashion. Creativity happens in every aspect, at all levels. For example, we are planning to open a store next January in Paris, and I am thinking about a new model of distribution. Does it have to be 500 square meters? What would that mean for us, relative to our size, and what are we trying to do?
OLIVIER ZAHM — It isn’t so much the aesthetic of the boutique; it’s also the very way it functions.
JULIEN DOSSENA — You get it. The entire distribution chain. What does e-commerce mean today? What about communication? Does this mean we are going to have ad campaigns in the trade magazines? Is there another way? Are we interested in collaborations, like Junya Watanabe with Loewe or Raf Simons with Fred Perry — and if so, why? How do we think about that differently? All of this is part of the creative process.
OLIVIER ZAHM — These mutations are vital.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Absolutely. You need to position yourself in the jungle. Because in the end, it’s another weapon of alternative, interesting creativity. The big houses have these massive, established communication machines. We need to find other ways of doing it. In fact, it’s just as important as the proposition you make from the podium: how to be aware of all these elements without losing sight of yourself. The trap we must avoid is to not let ourselves be absorbed by all these satellite issues. We must not lose ourselves.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t mind using the word “product” when you are talking about your clothes.
JULIEN DOSSENA — You mustn’t forget the product… This is my pragmatic side. The product must be exceptional, well cut, accurate. It must make sense; that’s the base. Once that is set in place, the rest follows. But it is absolutely not subject to compromise.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your first name, Julien, is kind of romantic. Julien Sorel… Very French and very romantic. I mention it because with you there is always — in spite of this pragmatism, this focus on the final meaning of the product — the persistent presence of a subtle sensibility in your collections. You manage to preserve something fleeting and delicate. How do you do that? Do you protect yourself by traveling, escaping?
JULIEN DOSSENA — I don’t travel that much. But I have learned to manage the two sides, the pragmatic and the more artistic side.It allows me to step into my own little bubble. I can cut myself off. This is what saves me sometimes. And I try to keep a lot of time — as much as possible — for reading and discovering new things. Last week, I went to the Louvre, and it really helped. I hadn’t been there for years. I’m in this business also for that: seeking material, letting it sustain me. Fashion is not an end per se. I chose this profession because it obliges me to remain permanently on alert aesthetically in order to keep moving forward. Life already doesn’t make much sense, so if you’re supposed to only concentrate on one thing, to the detriment of everything else, it becomes quite sad and limited. Fashion obliges me to seek nourishment in as many ways as possible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fashion is ideal for that.
JULIEN DOSSENA — My sensibility is self-constructed. And it’s a work in progress, not a talent that fell from heaven. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you continue going to museums like the Louvre.
JULIEN DOSSENA — Exactly. A “public institution,” really! We are lucky — even if France is a complicated country to live in, for many reasons — to have this legacy. I grew up with the idea that I lived in the most cultivated country in the world — such a French idea. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s nice knowing you are not blasé. Do you enjoy living in Paris?
JULIEN DOSSENA — I am absolutely not blasé. And frankly, yes, I do enjoy living here. There’s a rhythm that works for me. I like going to New York, but for a week at a time. There’s the excitement, the speed, I see a ton of things. I run everywhere, but in the end it is not my rhythm. If there were another city where I could live, I think it would be Los Angeles, with its end-of the-world gestalt, the earthquakes, “the Big One,” which is also legendary in science fiction. I find its aesthetic interesting. Things are not over-built; they are temporary. And again, it’s a question of rhythm and perception.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve never wanted to build your own brand?
JULIEN DOSSENA — Not at all. I’ve had other opportunities for work at various times, and I’ve had to make choices. For Paco Rabanne, I had to really think about it, but it quickly became obvious. I couldn’t see myself trying to build a brand, making just a vehicle for myself. I don’t think of this as a stage in a larger global plan. There will of course be stages, but I don’t know what they will be. Maybe in 10 years I will be doing something else. I have no idea. I do know that my approach is the most sincere it can be, that it is close to the sensibility we have talked about. To be at peace with myself is the only solution for the incredible pressure I feel in fashion.
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