Punk and protest.
Paco Rabanne Spring/Summer 2023.

In the midst of potent political unrest, Julien Dossena is arming his women to fight back.

By Dan Thawley

In the midst of potent political unrest, Julien Dossena is arming his women to fight back.

Film by Amanda Louise Macchia.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, two hours before Paco Rabanne’s Spring/Summer 2023 show in Paris, and the green room in the bowels of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris is overrun by models stomping around in platform boots strung with chains. On first glance, they seem more appropriate for a hardcore gabber gig (Thunderdome, anyone?) than the unofficial opening day of the Paris Haute Couture schedule.

Compared to last season’s demure kitten heels, the pivot in footwear is an early signifier of a considerable vibe shift since Julien Dossena’s previous show in January for the brand. Despite the aggressive kicks, the designer and his team are a picture of relative calm backstage – observing the runway rehearsal in the next room from a monitor flashing white light through a tunnel of steel cladding and scaffold.

Behind a folding screen, a Stockman’s form is visible beneath a poured silicone trench coat swirling with turgid colour, metres from diaphanous knit skirts punched with pretty studs. Pinned onto boards nearby, the rest of the collection jumps off glossy printouts: full-body shots and portraits resplendent with chainmail and silicone headscarves, belted chokers in craquelure leather, and high-shine silhouettes in latex and nylon bifurcating lace. Escaping to a quiet corner of the museum, Dossena sat down with System to unpick not only the inspirations, but the emotional fervour behind the season’s militant persona.

This is a ready-to-wear show shown off-schedule a day before haute couture. Is there a particular message behind that?

Julien Dossena: It was more of a business decision to delay the show until Couture week, acting as a temporary patch in order to buy some time and make the delivery more efficient. The pandemic and its ensuing uncertainties honestly motivated this decision, and it’s something we’re actually going to stop after this show. Starting next March, we’re back on the ready-to-wear schedule! I enjoy the energy of ready-to-wear when all the designers present their collections at the same time. There’s something about being part of the season that is close to my heart. At the moment, that excitement is diminished as we are a little isolated showing in July, but this will be the last show we have off schedule.

The Spring/Summer 2023 collection is markedly different from the lady-like clothes you showed in January. What prompted the about-turn?

Julien Dossena: Yes, it’s very different. This collection is rooted in a femininity embodied by a fighter, a woman who fights back against the system. We dug into the image of the Paco Rabanne woman, a woman who is also a warrior, one who makes the first move and is certainly not afraid to fight. Expressed through notions of culture and subversion, we tried to re-appropriate the past with material research and exploration and twist them with different social registers. The conception of working with latex, lace and rubber is tied together by a fil rouge – the idea of protection going into battle.

We’re in such a politically enraging time. Of course, this collection was started long before the recent news broke in the United States, but something certainly resonates here in terms of your portrayal of women. What sparked this change from princess to punk?

Julien Dossena: Last season, the idea was to touch on something more intimate, a sort of coming back to yourself and being within the protection of a cocoon – somewhere much more comfortable and perhaps a little in denial too. However now, I am furious that Roe v. Wade was struck down in the United States just two weeks ago. It is as if all the progress we have been able to make in recent years, of accepting new norms and greater openness, has only been a prelude to a fight that’s just begun. I see it almost as a punishment or an attempt to discourage all this progress. That’s why the image of this very strong woman includes her ability to defend herself, to protect herself and even to attack. I was interested in expressing all this resulting anger, violence, and chaos through the lens of subversive cultures. Obviously, the end goal is that everyone can live together with the same, equal rights and the freedom to not be dominated by oppressive forces.

‘I was interested in expressing all this resulting anger, violence, and chaos through the lens of subversive cultures. The end goal is that everyone can live together with the same, equal rights and the freedom to not be dominated by oppressive forces.’

Julien Dossena

The show space itself consists of only bare scaffolding in the centre of a black tunnel, which is quite reminiscent of Paco Rabanne shows and exhibitions from the past.

Julien Dossena: Going back to the Paco Rabanne basics was really the initial inspiration. I really like the industrial feeling, especially in relation to nightlife. The French film from the 1990s Les Nuits Fauves was a great reference point, reflecting how people go out at night to find what exactly they’re searching for. Their courage, willpower and lust for life is something that resonates with me. I believe that the scaffolding, mimicking industrial elements in the night, evokes these sentiments in quite a romantic way.

In addition to the materiality, is that idea also reflected in the collection’s colour palette?

Julien Dossena: I wanted this palette to really play with the associations surrounding fetish, as opposed to pop. There’s a powdery pink that could almost be considered the latter, but once applied onto latex, suggests a completely different register. There’s a chaotic collage of colours, of reds mixed with purple and even nude, which reminds me of the way punks used to mix colours with each other. Of course, black and metal are the staples of what comes to mind when envisioning punk, so we employed much of that as well. These violent clashes of colour really came to us by observing documents and images of the punk movement.

With all this fetish-inspired material, was the idea to portray sexuality in a certain light? Or was it to take the material somewhere else?

Julien Dossena: It’s the spirit of being open and accepting, like we mentioned before, of any community, any behaviour, or any desire for freedom. I find the frontier or passage between something considered normal and something considered subversive quite interesting, and that’s where I began the work. I questioned how subversion becomes imposed, and in which parameters can it exist in a personal way. Sexiness and the body is a type of dangerous sensuality, a bit aggressive, and shows itself through clothing in a very organic way. What I brought to the table was this idea of sensuality instead of the idea of traditional femininity, such as the trope of the bombshell in a short, hiked-up skirt. Rather, I’m suggesting a subversive sexuality, dangerous and with an underlying sense of transgression, one that is also dominant in the way it presents itself.

To me, the silicone pieces are very reminiscent of Gaetano Pesce, an artist from the same generation who also possesses this liveliness and a very organic expression of materiality. Was he a source of inspiration?

Julien Dossena: We actually worked with a textile craftswoman in Paris who started playing with liquid silicone in different colour combinations. Gaetano’s work is more with resin and colour, and when I examined his vases, I found this violence in his compositions and objects which fascinated me. His work was definitely a point of departure, but we quickly moved away in order to be able to work on clothes and adapt around the body. But I liked the original chaos in his work, and I am a very big fan of Gaetano.

And the other techniques? For example, I noticed many eyelets and metallic appliqués on silk and knitwear.

Julien Dossena: There’s always this idea of ‘morphing’ when you work with metal. Going from mesh to this almost metallic silk, you really play with a sense of chaos and electricity between the materials. There’s also this latex that is extremely light, almost like silk, mixed with lace inlays and assembled in a traditional, ‘Haute Couture’ type of way. There’s always an attempt to twist things from the principal designs. In the same vein, the silicone dresses with different splashes of colour delineate this chaotic borderline that verges on bondage, but also allows itself to be seen as an object. Almost like a strangely designed car. It’s within this exploration of materiality that I find ways to transcend and re-apply certain codes and registers. I hope people can feel this primal sensuality upon discovering the materiality of the clothes.

The luxury and fashion industries occupy a space of extreme privilege regarding who has access to your product, however at the same time, fashion reaches a huge audience today. Keeping in mind the youthful spirit and open-mindedness of Paco Rabanne, I wanted to ask you about the message you want to send to young people through clothing?

Julien Dossena: Now that information is transmitted so quickly, for me it’s extremely important to send a message of encouragement to everyone. The fight continues and we will fight together and equip ourselves for battle. In a way, it’s a parallel message because on one hand, I just make clothes for women and propose what I think is beautiful. But by doing so, I hope to offer a kind of accompaniment, particularly at this moment of great upheaval. Life can certainly become difficult to live and we must continue through the struggle, and in any case, I want to be there to help.

Watch the full Paco Rabanne Spring/Summer 2023 show.

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