In her role at the helm of Paco Rabanne, Tunisian Nadia Dhouib is ready to make the brand a household name once more.
While on the metro in her home city of Paris this past summer, Nadia Dhouib was approached by a young woman pointing eagerly to the chain-link leather tote she had slung over her shoulder. “C’est Paco Rabanne!” exclaimed the stranger who was carrying the same exact style, unknowingly addressing one of the most senior executives at the luxury label she had correctly identified from across the platform. “Seeing this, having someone very excited by her bag and by the brand, this is really what excites me,” says Dhouib, who was evidently charmed by the incident she is now recounting. “This is probably my maternal feeling, but I want to bring this brand where she has to be. All I say to the team is that I’ll be very happy when I see lots of people in the streets wearing Paco Rabanne.”
Since taking the reins of the storied fashion house earlier this year following the departure of its former chief executive officer Bastien Daguzan, Dhouib’s mission is as clear as the label’s iconic chain-mail dresses are bright: to attract the global exposure and recognition she believes Paco Rabanne deserves. The 40-year-old Tunisian businesswoman, who is also mother to two young daughters, was appointed as the brand’s general manager of the fashion division after a 15-year stint at Galeries Lafayette. Despite her impressive ascension to one of the industry’s top roles, she’s not the type of leader to keep to her sleek, terraced office on Avenue Montaigne. Dhouib begins her Vogue Arabia interview in the Paco Rabanne showroom, where she pulls out the pieces she thinks best personify the futuristic genius of creative director Julien Dossena: a clingy, sunset-hued skirt set; garments cut from hand-painted rubber; a range of metallic babushka-esque head coverings, one of which Kylie Jenner would later wear in an Instagram post liked by millions, to name a few. “I think it’s very important in this work to recognize the talent where it is,” she explains, gesturing towards a red latex slip dress with a wide, purple lace trim that looks as though it was designed for a disco party set in the next millennium. “It’s not because he’s not shouting very loudly [to be noticed] that he’s not gifted, and it’s also my role and my responsibility to bring the brand to the world so they can understand and see the talent of Julien.”
Today, Dhouib is in denim – a fabric that she’s quick to point out “is not just for young people” and is key to her strategy for broadening the Paco Rabanne audience by pushing its daywear category – paired with a simple white T-shirt. Her minimalist attire is accentuated by a pop of purple in her slingbacks and the thick gold jewelry that hangs from her neck and wrist with gravitas. These two aesthetic details, along with the warmth of her welcome, are a nod to Dhouib’s Arab heritage. Born and raised in Carthage, a port city in Tunisia that’s characterized by a mélange of cultures and what she describes as a Mediterranean appreciation for the art de vivre (which translates to art of living), Dhouib attributes her personal and professional style to her place of origin. “In Tunisia, almost everything is looked at through the angle of beauty. Even if you prepare or cook something, it has to be colorful,” Dhouib says. “Colors for me can give you so much energy. Sometimes they can even help you to communicate with people, like if you have a bright color, you are happy, and if you have more low-key colors, maybe you just want to be quiet.”
Having moved from Carthage to Paris at the age of 18, Dhouib can identify with the immigrant story of Paco Rabanne the designer, which had a tremendous influence on the 1966 launch of his namesake label. He was born Francisco Rabaneda y Cuervo in Spanish Basque Country in 1934 before moving to the French capital at a young age, when his mother was working as the head seamstress for Balenciaga. After applying his training as an architect to avant-garde accessory design and adopting the pseudonym Paco Rabanne, he became known as a visionary and an eccentric among the 1960s fashion set. Rabanne used his growing platform to celebrate creatives from underrepresented communities in France, and was among the first high-profile designers to send Black models down the runway long before diversity was embraced across the industry. He went on to open up a space in the north of Paris later on in his career, where musical artists from all backgrounds could gather and perform.
“Mr Rabanne did so many things that are still unknown, [and he believed that everyone should] just come, be yourself, give the best of yourself, and have the best time. And those are the great values and the great ideas of the founder of the brand that we really want to push and communicate today,” Dhouib explains. She sees online and in-store activations as an important opportunity to share more about the magic of Paco Rabanne’s heritage with its clients. The festive attire for which it has become known is also a way of harnessing this spirit into the pieces themselves, especially in a post-pandemic era where people are eager to gather again – and to sparkle as they do. “Socialization is in the DNA of the brand, so now that we are back to life, it’s just something that we’ll accelerate.”
In addition to re-exploring Paco Rabanne’s history through an innovative collection of NFTs based on the brand’s most conceptual designs (profits from the project helped to fund improvements for its physical archive), Dhouib is collaborating with the head of the fragrance division to establish a unified tone of voice under the brand’s parent company, Puig. Over the coming months, she plans to make Paco Rabanne more visible inside the department stores and multi-brand retail partners it has established across the globe, including Chalhoub and Harvey Nichols in the Middle East, in order to meet customers wherever they are, listen to their unique needs, and tailor each collection accordingly. She calls it “putting the customer in the playground.”
“I know how women in the Middle East like to be very, very chic, and at the same time craftsmanship is important, quality is important, sizing is important,” Dhouib asserts. “We want to express our values and our savior faire, and to show the best of Paco Rabanne in the region.” And she’s well-equipped to do just that after founding her own retail advisory firm and overseeing a total of 400 different brands in her role as managing director of Galeries Lafayette Champs-Elysées. This was no small feat, considering she was tasked with opening the location right before the yellow vest protests overtook the famed avenue. “All the metro stations were closed and everything was closed so I said, ok, ok, the worst that can happen has happened. But a few years after [the protests], Covid hit,” Dhouib recalls. “I learned so much from that, and my team learned so much. After Covid, we all learned about resilience. If we are not resilient today, we cannot make it in life.”
Though she didn’t start out in fashion – Dhouib began her career at the consulting firm Accenture – she continues to carve out an auspicious path for herself within it, albeit one with plenty of twists and turns along the way. Each step is paved with the same modus operandi Dhouib has had since taking that initial leap from finance to fashion: “Don’t be afraid to fail.” It’s one she believes is especially important for Arab women like herself. “We really have to stand out, and we have to not be managed by the idea that you have to marry and you have to have kids. We have to be strong enough to say that there is a time for everything, but first we have to understand and listen to ourselves.” Without even realizing it, Dhouib finishes this thought by harking back to the words of Mr Rabanne himself: “Be true with who you are and what you want to do.”
Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia