There's more to life than aftershave

Paco Rabanne takes time out from saving the world to bring his new collection to London. Robin Dutt meets him
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Paco Rabanne, along with friends Cardin and Courreges, was responsible for shaping the design revolution of the Sixties when he shocked Paris and the world with a selection of dresses and outfits employing man-made materials such as paper, plastic and, especially, metal. The whole idea was to subvert convention and elevate the commonplace. The fashion world went wild.

After a brief honeymoon period, the fickle fashion commentators moved on to the next big thing, leaving Rabanne to concentrate his energies into selling his name. He is more phlegmatic than many designers who might have stamped a foot, turned bitter or shot up in disappointment.

The launch of his new Spring/ Summer collection will be the first time so large a Rabanne collection has been made available to the London punter since the Sixties. His clean shapes and uncomplicated lines are in part a throwback to the minis and croppedtops of that decade but reinvented in new fabrics.

"I'm not annoyed by people not being interested in my work," he says. "It is natural and normal. Journalists don't look at my collections now but have turned to people like Jean Paul Gaultier who is the fashion world's darling. But it is dangerous to be famous for a day when you have the rest of your life to live."

Rabanne is fortunate that his name, like that of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin, has something of a magic ring to it. Seductive and exotic, it can be slapped on to a bottle of fragrance and sold around the world... And it certainly has been.

Rabanne became a creator of perfumes and aftershaves - while, of course, still not giving up on the day job. So desirable have his perfumes proved that they have been widely copied. More than 35 imitations of the best-selling Paco Rabanne Pour Homme haveto date been discovered around the world. It is a curious and certainly illegal homage. In some countries, his name has become a generic term for aftershave. But Rabanne has been recognised by the establishment, too, for his contribution to the ethos ofFrench perfumery, receiving many awards and citations including the prestigious Fragrance Foundation Award. France has also recognised him by awarding him the coveted Legion d'honneur - the equivalent of the OBE.

Socialites and film stars have worn his creations and, while they may have transferred their loyalties to others, still remember him with affection. Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Francoise Hardy and the late Audrey Hepburn were all Rabanne fans. Today, fashion stylists and collectors comb flea markets hoping to turn up a bit of vintage Rabanne - the real stuff, not the endless copies which followed.

Fashions come and go, though observers might say that Rabanne has not exactly helped himself keep a high style profile. Indeed, he has committed the cardinal sin of telling the world exactly how he feels. Rabanne is an unabashed mystic. He uses the word on his press material and prefers to talk about the Age of Pisces rather than his latest cut. As he talks he sketches symbols and timescales with the addition of significant numbers and dates. This is a man who cheerfully admits that he has lived before - as an ancient Egyptian priest and an 18th-century prostitute.

Rabanne's recently published book was destined to receive the critical brush-off. Has the Countdown Begun? looks at the potential end of the world and ways of averting disaster. The mystic cheerfully steps into the firing line. "I've always been a mystic," he says simply. "I believe in a harmony between creation and belief. When people say I am mad, I laugh because I am saying something very important about the essence of light. What else can I do?"

Keep it to yourself, perhaps. The fashion world loves eccentrics but they should live in candy coloured rooms, love dogs and adore English antique markets. To challenge the way we live and see the future... That's a no-no. For the fashion darlings, Rabanne's face has been badly blackened by his coming out as a seer and prophet. It's hemlines they want, not lifelines. "In any case," he says, "I'm not talking of the end of all time but the ending of a time." So there is hope, then.

Money could not matter less to Rabanne who owns very few personal possessions and lives in a modest rented apartment. Fashion's messiah always presents himself in the same way - collarless tunic jacket and simply styled hair, never a tie ("It's the symbol of the hangman's noose").

Last month, Rabanne launched his latest perfume - XS for men and women - with the advertising tag, "Step into the Light". The bottle's silver lid flicks open like that of a cigarette lighter. His new collection, meanwhile, keeps a finger firmly on the pulse of the young (who in his opinion, "are never wrong"), creating an alluring image by using radical but simple metallic shapes designed to slice the body up into seductive cuts of flesh.

Always a futurist, this latest collection is certainly a link with his space-age past of 30 years ago. He was ahead of his time even then. And only time will tell if he was right - or monumentally wrong.

Paco Rabanne's latest collection is exclusively available at Joseph, 77 Fulham Rd, SW3 from early Feb. Prices start at £150 approx