“Julien! Julien! Look at the camera!” Julien Dossena, the 36-year-old creative director of Paco Rabanne, is spread out on his bed playing Tomb Raider, seemingly indifferent to the photographer Nigel Shafran’s entreaties. But it’s not that he’s rude, or shy. He is just really into his PlayStation. There’s a console in his bedroom, and another in the living room. “I’m not an addict,” he says pointedly a little later, stubbing out his 10th cigarette of the afternoon. “I played when I was a teenager, and I still do, because it’s better than Xanax. You’re living another life in a second. Your brain goes somewhere else.” When Dossena and his team take a break from the shoot, they spread out in the living room, dolled up in nightclub-ready Paco Rabanne. The suite of low-to-the-ground black leather Togo chairs and couches by Michel Ducaroy make for a chic flophouse atmosphere. The cigarette smoke is thick, with packs strewn on the Gaetano Pesce side tables fighting for space with bars of Valrhona chocolate. “Oh, so we’re having a party?” Shafran asks, popping in.
For Dossena, who frequently throws impromptu dinners here for friends and team members, it’s just another day at the office away from the office. Present today are his personal assistant, Angie Rubini; his studio right hand, Jean-Philippe Chemin; the American singer Kelela; the model Emmy Rappe; the DJ Benoît Heitz, who goes by Surkin; and the César-nominated actress Marina Foïs. Although the three-bedroom Paris apartment is crammed with clothes, steamers, catering, and photo equipment, Dossena remains preternaturally calm. When Chemin comes out to show his boss the look he has put together—a fluffy Paco Rabanne fur worn with tight plaid pants, from the women’s collection—Dossena seems proud. “He looks so cute, doesn’t he?”
Big furs and plaid may strike Rabanne aficionados as foreign references. Those who recall the label’s 1960s heyday will likely picture Jane Fonda‘s space-temptress ensembles from Barbarella, or the opening scene of William Klein’s film Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, with models wrapped in Paco Rabanne metal sheets. Though an undisputed star of space-age fashion, Rabanne (né Francisco Rabaneda) faded into relative obscurity in the ensuing decades, save, perhaps, for his ominous prophecies. In the book he published in 1999, shortly after retiring from fashion, Rabanne predicted that, prior to the turn of the millennium, the Russian space station Mir would hurtle to earth and crash into Paris, obliterating the city and, for good measure, a few small towns in southwestern France.
Spared from the cataclysm, the Puig family, the label’s owners, tried relaunching the Paco Rabanne fashion house in 2005, first with the designer Patrick Robinson at the helm, then with Manish Arora in 2011, and again with Lydia Maurer in 2012, but none of them generated excitement. Dossena, who began designing as a freelancer at Paco Rabanne in 2013, was the only one who managed to turn the label into something broad, diverse, and wearable, with clothes that range from slim jeans to sharp suiting to, yes, metal. He says that when he got the job he tried to reimagine every single piece of clothing in a contemporary wardrobe. “What’s the Paco Rabanne jacket today? Not a tailored thing with little couture buttons. How about a fitted bomber? A denim jacket with a little touch of silver?”
He paid special attention to activewear—obliquely referencing Paco Rabanne’s latter-day fragrances, with names like Invictus and Olympéa. This lower-priced gear is shown together with the more formal runway collection; for fall, the same cabbage-rose print that adorned chain mail dresses sprouted on shorts and skirts. “There’s a practicality to everything that Julien designs,” says Foïs, who wears Paco Rabanne metallic gowns on the red carpet, and trenches, suits, and boots the rest of the time. “The clothes always have a strong silhouette, but I can move in them.”
Dossena grew up mainly in Brittany, in a small town called Le Pouldu—“in Breton, it means ‘black hole,’ so you can imagine,” he says. He was nerdy as a kid. “I drew all the time. I had an obsession with whales, drawing different species really precisely. Then I concentrated on speedboats: the motor, the steering wheel, a little window. And then it was figures.” Slowly he turned to female characters, like the vixens he discovered in his father’s stash of racy Italian comics, women who, to him, appeared “so amazingly powerful, like superheroes.” As a teenager, British magazines like i-D, The Face, and Dazed & Confused gave Dossena the first real taste of what would become his calling. By then he was surfing and skateboarding, and had developed a lasting love of Carhartt. (The no-nonsense practicality of ’90s streetwear still informs how Dossena dresses himself: simple blazers, jeans, T-shirts, and Stan Smiths.) “I was slow getting into fashion because the industry kind of scared me,” he says. “It’s an intimidating world, but I knew that with fashion I could draw, direct, and curate.”
And so Dossena landed a spot at La Cambre visual arts school, in Brussels, where he studied fashion and graduated with a master’s degree; he won the special jury prize at the prestigious Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography for his student collection, in 2006, and with it an invitation to create a capsule collection for the French mass-market brand Etam. But Dossena had his mind set on Balenciaga, where Nicolas Ghesquière was then on an almost decade-long hot streak. “I started to get offers from other brands, but I refused,” Dossena recalls. “I called my parents and said, ‘Okay, you’re going to have to trust me. To get to Balenciaga, I may need to go back to interning, so please stick with me for just another moment, I promise you it’ll be the last time.’ ” With help from the late fashion buyer Maria Luisa Poumaillou, he was finally offered an internship in 2008, and soon after a proper job as senior designer. Pierre Hardy, who designed Balenciaga’s shoes at the time, recalls how Dossena was “so serious, always totally, totally concentrated on the fit of the clothes, very sensitive to the body.”
In 2012, before both he and Ghesquière left Balenciaga, Dossena launched a small line of his own called Atto, which focused on tailoring and fashionably reworked staples like gabardine tunics and white cotton button-downs. Shortly thereafter, the stylist Marie-Amélie Sauvé, who worked with the team at Balenciaga, introduced Dossena to Marc Puig, the CEO at Paco Rabanne. Eight months after joining the label, Dossena was promoted to full-time creative director, and Atto had to go. Dossena says he built the different divisions of Paco Rabanne like pillars, focusing on longevity and practicality rather than gimmicks. “The best advice I ever got was from Nicolas, who said, ‘You know, getting in the press is already difficult, and some people never get there. I’m sure you will. But if you fail after that, you’re finished. You don’t get a lot of second chances, so you have to last. If you can be there in 10 or 15 years, this is when you achieve something.’ I’ve always kept that in mind.”
Six years in, Dossena is on his way. Paco Rabanne’s sales in 2018 doubled those of 2017, and the same rate of growth is expected for 2019. “In fashion, there are good times and bad times,” Puig told me. “You have to live with it. But this guy, he’s on fire.” Recently, Dossena has complemented his sleek sportswear with bias-cut dresses and crisp suits in exuberant prints, cocktail-length bustier frocks with dramatic trains, and glam military-inspired outerwear. He’s also collaborated since 2016 with the graphic design legend Peter Saville on a capsule collection of T-shirts. “I get bored if I do the same thing,” he says. “One month I can be totally obsessed by minimalism, but I also love to explore old glamour.”
By the time the shoot wraps up, the sun is starting to go down. Dossena switches on the pair of Gae Aulenti Patroclo table lamps he got on eBay seven years ago. “They’re like scuba helmets, and I love that golden light they give off,” he says. “I’d never find them anymore.” He says he misses having the time to bargain hunt, but he’s not complaining. Kissing everyone goodbye, he gets a little sentimental. “In fashion, you have to be completely ready for when your moment comes, so I selected people, one by one, who share the same ambition and vision as me, who understand what I want to say and believe in me, but whom I also love,” he says. “That is the thing that makes me the proudest.”