FrontRunners: Paco's Return

In 1999, couturier and fragrance czar Paco Rabanne held his last couture show in Paris and ceremoniously announced his retirement. Apparently, the life of leisure didn’t agree with the 67-year-old designer, who recently returned to the fashion scene with a new women’s ready-to-wear line. “I have never quit fashion,” says Rabanne. “I only said goodbye to the very old-fashioned system of haute couture.”

The spring 2002 collection—designed by Rosemary Rodriguez under Rabanne’s direction—retains much of Rabanne’s signature experimentation while offering wearable, luxurious clothes. The designs promote the house’s concept of modern romance: white dresses of frayed chiffon with midriff-revealing inserts of clear Rhodoid plastic, armorlike tank dresses in crocheted plastic, metal-covered denim jeans and halter tops, and a “chime” dress made from jumbo plastic and mother-of-pearl sequins. Despite Rabanne’s dismissal of haute couture, many of the pieces from the ready-to-wear line are handmade at his atelier by workers wielding pliers.

The Spanish Basque-born Rabanne has been raising eyebrows since 1964, when he debuted his controversial Dada-esque collection, which he dubbed “Twelve Experimental and Unwearable Dresses Made of Contemporary Materials.” Famous for working with Rhodoid plastic, aluminum, and paper instead of conventional fabrics, Rabanne made his mark in fashion history, along with Andre Courreges and Pierre Cardin, as a progenitor of futurist couture.

He designed Jane Fonda’s supersexy chain mail costumes for the 1968 sci-fi spoof Barbarella as well as Audrey Hepburn’s reflective party frocks in Two for the Road. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Rabanne continued to work with unusual materials, such as laser discs and aluminum jersey, but he became best known for his innovative fragrances: Calandre, Metal, La Nuit, and XS Pour Homme.

Avant-garde fashion emporiums such as Barneys New York have faith in the fashion currency of Rabanne’s legacy. “I hope they don’t try to normalize the brand and lose their original iconic Barbarella aesthetic,” says Simon Doonan, creative director for Barneys. “The Paco Rabanne woman is a warrior—she just happens to be wearing top and bottom lashes.”

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