LVMH Prize finalist. Creative director of Paco Rabanne. Founder of the fledgling label Atto. French designer Julien Dossena is juggling a lot of roles this spring, but he was in New York last week wearing his Paco Rabanne hat. Dossena replaced Manish Arora at Rabanne early last year shortly after leaving Balenciaga, where he worked under Nicolas Ghesquière. By his own account, he has his work cut out for him at Rabanne. Outside of France and fashion circles, the brand is known for little more than perfume and men’s cologne, despite the late designer’s groundbreaking designs of the 1960s. Jane Fonda wouldn’t have been half as convincing as Barbarella without her Rabanne chain mail, and photos of pretty young things in his metal shifts encapsulate the futurism and free love of the era. But the company has floundered in recent years. “The image of the brand before was a bit blurry,” Dossena said. “Now we are taking back the reins.” Over lunch with Style.com, the designer talked Jane Birkin, Françoise Hardy, and why chain mail will always be essential. —Nicole Phelps
How did Paco Rabanne sales go for Fall?We got opinion-leader kind of shops: Corso Como, Maria Luisa, The Webster, Blake, Just One Eye, Dover Street Market in New York and London. It’s a good start. And Barneys for the bags.
Did any piece in particular connect with buyers?We really wanted to emphasize a daywear wardrobe, but—there’s always a but—the stores need a bit of chain mail on the rack. People love it, they buy it. The challenge is to figure out how we can integrate chain mail into a daywear wardrobe.
As you say, the vision of the brand was blurry before. How do you intend to clear it up?
If women have only one Paco Rabanne dress in their closets, the brand isn’t going to develop. So we want to move away from the super-embroidered dresses that were the base of Rabanne before. We want to make it a classic brand for a younger customer. This season, we got the stores we need to deliver that commercial message. Now we’re working on our first pre-collection. We’re going to open our first shop in about a year and a half. Those are the first steps to having a strong brand.
Where will the shop be?
In Paris. Paco Rabanne is a classic from the sixties like Courrèges or Cardin. It can compete now with Balmain, Carven, those kinds of names. Paco Rabanne can be one of them. In France, Paco Rabanne is really deep in the culture. People love the name in France. I don’t know about America.
People who know fashion here know Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy in the dresses—those cool metal dresses.
That’s what we want to bring back, that coolness that we love from those images. The question is how to translate those images into new product. If there’s a main word that we’re trying to do, it’s effortless.
To be a successful revival brand these days, you can’t just be about the past, right?
It has to be a balance of not losing the signature, but not being impressed by it, either—not being controlled by it. In five, six, seven years, Paco could become a lifestyle brand. Like if you travel, what kind of clothes do you want to wear? If you go to the countryside on the weekend, what do you want to take? I’m super-interested in that aspect and bringing that together with the visual futuristic signature of Paco Rabanne. It’s a good challenge. The good thing, I hope, is that we cleaned the image of the brand quite fast. And now we can move forward.
No one was paying much attention to the label, but very quickly you seem to have caught people’s attention.
I hope. The name deserves it.
Do you think launching your own brand, Atto, at the same time as you signed on at Paco Rabanne has been helpful?
Yes. You learn so much on your own. When you launch your own brand, you have to be super-logical. Basically, it’s either you can do that or you can’t. That’s all. It teaches you not to be afraid to say, “OK, we can’t make a show? Don’t make a show.” But also to find the power in not making a show by really focusing on your products.
That’s what I wanted to do after I left Balenciaga. At Balenciaga I was working on the shows, and when you design clothes for a show it’s totally different than when you design for a customer. Paco Rabanne has taught me that a good basic with a little something more can be super-interesting. Each look has to go on a woman, has to be relevant.
But is it hard to manage two brands?
I just started wondering about that now. It happened randomly that I started Atto and Paco at the same time. I launched Atto in December  just after Balenciaga. Then Paco called me for freelance in mid-January. Now that we’re adding pre-collection in Paco, I wonder what is the best way to keep the balance. At the end, the signature is me. Of course I have the Paco name to hold on to, but in the end, it’s what I think is good.
How is the Paco girl different from the Atto girl?
She’s different, but she’s still my girl. Maybe at Paco she’s more sensual, she’s more rich. At Atto, her look is more sharp, more clean.
Are you going to stick to showing Atto by appointment only during the pre-collections?
Yes, I don’t want it to go too fast or too big. I really want to take my time and enjoy it. To not put pressure on me or the collection. What I’d love to do is co-branding, or collaborations with people who have a specific technique or savoir faire, like Atto Mackintosh, Atto and Charvet shirts. That’s a dream. I love the Comme des Garçons model—you know the way they do those jackets with Barbour. I love that. They keep the essence of Barbour, but they add all their craziness and twists to it.
I’m almost afraid to do a show for Atto because I worry that I will lose the aim of Atto. Doing a show totally transforms your vision of your clothes. It makes you think about the casting, all these kinds of things. When I design Atto now, I say, “OK, is the girl going to be comfortable in that dress? What can she mix it with?” I’m afraid to lose that mix-and-match, modular feeling of Atto.
What about the LVMH award? You’re one of the twelve finalists, for Atto. Congratulations.
I was super-honored and super-happy. You know, in France, there is not much support for young designers and young brands. It’s really hopeful when you see that a big group like LVMH is looking at what young designers are doing. It’s a good thing. It means you are not playing anymore. It’s serious. If Atto doesn’t win, we already won, just to be part of the designer group. It’s quite an eclectic group of finalists. And I’m so happy it’s going on in Paris, you know, finally.
There is something moving. My friends and I are super-happy that J.W. Anderson is coming to Loewe, that Nicolas Ghesquière is coming to Vuitton. You can feel a good energy now in Paris.
When Julien Dossena quit his job as a designer at Balenciaga in December 2012, after the departure of his boss, Nicolas Ghesquière, panic soon set in. “There was no point in staying on,” he admits. “But I’d worked there for four years, often 24/7, and it felt sad.”
Not that he felt that way for long. Just a few weeks later, the boyishly handsome 31-year-old was offered a consultancy at Paco Rabanne. The house’s owner, the Puig group, was struggling to revive Paco Rabanne’s allure as a futuristic label that had dazzled the fashion scene in the 1960s alongside Courrèges and Pierre Cardin. Having gone through two chief designers in as many years, CEO Marc Puig offered the creative director role to Dossena just eight months after he’d joined the company. Dossena’s first collection of glossy leather dresses, metal mesh tops, and silver jeans was widely praised when it was unveiled in Paris last autumn. “I’ve always loved Paco Rabanne for its rebelliousness and modernity,” Dossena enthuses. “I want the new collections to have the same aesthetic impact, but for the young women of now.”
It is worth remembering just how radical Paco Rabanne, now 80 and retired, was. He got his start in 1966 with the collection 12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials, in which he used metal, plastic, rubber, and cardboard. He continued to experiment with paper, knitted-fur, and fiberglass clothes for, among others, the singer Françoise Hardy and the actress Brigitte Bardot. Well known for his spiritual beliefs, Rabanne fled Paris shortly before August 11, 1999, convinced that on that day the Russian space station Mir would fall on the city and obliterate it.
Dossena himself is partial to futuristic visions, albeit as a sci-fi enthusiast who enjoys J.G. Ballard’s novels rather than as a prophet of doom. He was born in Brittany, studied art history in Paris, and then fashion in Brussels. After graduating, in 2008, he was hired by Ghesquière, who is now his boyfriend. Participating in Balenciaga’s technical experiments was ideal preparation for Paco Rabanne, which shares a similar laboratorial culture: For his debut, Dossena worked with some of the original Paco Rabanne fabric suppliers, but he took advantage of the latest technologies. “Chain mail was Paco Rabanne’s signature,” observes Laure Heriard Dubreuil, who ordered the collection for her Miami store, the Webster. “But Julien designed the pieces to look lightweight and effortless.”
Rejuvenating the clothes is only the start for Dossena, who also runs Atto, a label he cofounded with two fellow Balenciaga alums. Like Ghesquière and other designers he admires—including Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang—he sees the collection as part of a wider vision. “If you begin with the clothes and add the bags, the logo, the boutiques, and everything else, then you can go like a cannonball!” he says. “What I love about sci-fi is that you get to invent a whole world, complete with landscape, architecture, and characters. Paco Rabanne did that with his women in metal dresses surrounded by metal walls and metal furniture. Now it’s up to me to build my own visual reality.”
Hair by Marion Anée for Leonor Greyl at airportagency.com; makeup by Aude Gill at Studio 57. Models: Lena Hardt at DNA Model Management; Harleth Kuusik at the Society Management; Mijo Mihaljcic at IMG Models; Maja Salamon at Next Management. Digital technician: Nick Dehadray; photography assistants: Edward Singleton, Paul Jedwab; fashion assistant: Florie Vitse; production: Belinda Foord at Shiny Projects.