PACO RABANNE: MR MYSTIC
FROM THE VAULT (SUMMER 2011)
Like many men of my age, I first became aware of the name Paco Rabanne when a family member returned from a package holiday to Spain in the 80s and gave me a bottle of his scent, purchased at duty free. Rabanne’s gentleman’s fragrance has become as synonymous with the smell of my coming of age as Brut and Denim were with the decade before me and the subtler Calvin Klein lines the decade after. I love Paco Rabanne for this. There is something so intimate about smelling like another man’s version of the perfect scent for the perfect moment.
I can smell this perfume even now at twenty paces. Admittedly, it’s strong. There is nothing androgynous about it. It reminds me of The Queen Is Dead, the first McDonalds opening in town, the No Clause 28 march, a nightclub called Legends and losing my virginity. These are strong, heady reminiscences; ones that will never happen again.
Over the 25 years since I first perfumed myself in his honour, I have come to invest Paco Rabanne with a more nuanced understanding, to form a comprehensive knowledge of the visionary shape he lent womenswear at the height of his revolutionary chic at his atelier on the Rue Bergére. The scent has begun, too, to trigger more distinct feelings over the last few months. It has become representative of the combination of elegance and eccentricity that was Rabanne’s real fashion gift…
Amongst all the kerfuffle surrounding Galliano at the beginning of this year, one was reminded of a subtle shift that has happened at the commercial end of high fashion. Eccentricity has now been replaced as the defining feature of the communication of the carefree visionary at the head of a house. A kind of vileness has substituted it. Sometimes this vileness can be funny. Sometimes it cannot. But it is persuasive. With all due respect to Natalie Portman and her appalled outcries (what did she expect she was signing up for when she agreed to let her amazing face sell a fashion house’s perfume? A job at the UN?) Galliano has become emblematic of a wider feeling in fashion. When pressure, artistry and the politics of extreme capitalism clash there are inevitably some after-effects on the denizens of the house.
Was the age of eccentricity a simpler one, or just a variation of the same thing?
Francisco de Rabanne de Cuervo was born in San Sebastien, Spain, in 1934. His mother was the chief seamstress of the Spanish salon of the house of Christobal Balenciaga, intimating that he was perhaps born into fashion genetics. The family moved to France during the Spanish civil war. The key detail of Rabanne’s younger years, though, was his study of architecture, a detail that makes a lot of sense on even the most cursory Google Images search of his peak-era work. His linked disc dresses have become as iconic to a moment in the late sixties as his fragrance was to young men in the 80s. They were profoundly architectural. His use of divisive fabrics – plastic, metal, Perspex – was about permanence. His first collection was 12 runway pieces that he deemed in the title to be ‘The Unwearables.’ Imagine a fashion house advertising itself thus now? Impossible.
Now we understand the inter-disciplinary nature of the visual arts we don’t blink for a second at collaboration between, say, Zaha Hadid and Melissa footwear. It makes perfect sense. But for a Mediterranean fellow in the 60s, the rejection of a stoic career in solid, macho engineering-based construction design and into the fleet footed world of Parisian womenswear was quite the radical left-turn.
Some claim that it is this that marked a point where Rabanne started looking for something other in his life and began a journey – his own book is called precisely that and makes for a sympathetically weird read – outside of fashion that was bookended by out of body experiences, mysticism, astrology, vibration theory and, most astonishingly, what he claims to be close encounters with God. He says he had his first out of body experience at 7 years old. He made a direct line between his spiritual search and his creative process. Like the architect Louis Kahn, Rabanne was a formidable visual force who believed he was communing with a higher power through the discipline of design.
Through the seventies and eighties he even began to look like an exquisitely groomed Hollywood version of God; his white beard and intense, steely gaze was omnipresent. Obviously everyone thought he was mental.
Me, not so much. In 2002 I saw a major retrospective of Rabanne’s work at a nice gallery in Milan. The shape and form of his work has been imitated into parody over the prevailing years but the crux of it remains dazzlingly new. Keeping communion with whatever holy arenas were interesting him at any given moment lent his work an incredible other-worldly aspect.
It was Courtney Love, ironically, that once told me that everybody she knew at the top of their game in the field of entertainment had some kind of spiritual aspect. She had fleetingly begun practising Buddhism herself, though whether this was a stitch in time to attempt to attain salvation, mirroring people who had done so for perhaps purer reasons was never quite established. The defining piece of journalism of this year, a 26 page exposition the Church of Scientology and its close links with Hollywood in the New Yorker magazine, intimates the same thing. That however outlandish or cultish, however ridiculous a spiritual doctrine might be, the weights and measures of any given unconventional religion at any given moment provide a perfect counterbalance to the act of creativity.
In some strange way this brings me back to Galliano and the moment he was caught on camera, clearly in some altered state, making strong, oppositional and, yes, vile statements to someone. There is a thin line between communing with a benevolent other force and a malevolent one. Isn’t a pact with the devil just a whisper away from one with a god?
In a godless age, Paco Rabanne might look like a crazy. His mysticism might seem like a foolish trope. But his arcane ventures into the paranormal did something to the whole idea of what is chic that will perhaps never be replicated. Were these really the delusional ramblings of an old eccentric or simply the behaviour of someone who chose good over bad and implicitly wove it into his hemlines? Somewhere amidst the Church of Paco Rabanne, there is not just the scent of a million schoolboys dreaming of becoming men, there is a morality tale for us all.
by Paul Flynn