DRESS ME UP
an atelier designer is stitching together an impressive career from a surprising location
He launched his fashion label, Paolo Sebastian, while he was still at high school, earned a scholarship to a prestigious design institute in Milan, and won Young Australian of the Year a short time later. Paul Vasileff has experienced more in his 26 years than most fashion industry veterans do in a lifetime. Throw in his first time showing at the Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week and it’s safe to say that his career has been something of a fairytale.
“You read about these characters that face adversity and have a happy ending,” says Paul. “How can you not be inspired when you’re making a dress for someone, and you put it on them, and you see them instantly transform? It’s like you’ve given them a Cinderella moment. That, for me, is the greatest feeling.”
Paul’s career trajectory is all the more impressive considering he’s still based in his hometown of Adelaide – a world away from Paris or Milan, though one that’s increasingly becoming known for its fashion credentials.
“For me it’s important that we’re here [in Adelaide] because the community has given so much to me and the brand,” says Paul. “We’re successful because of Adelaide and because of Australia. I don’t want to lose that. And, also, my staff are here, and we’re such a strong family. Our team is 16 people and we’re all so passionate, and we’re all working toward the same goal, and that’s something that I want to continue.”
Despite being trained in Milan, Paul’s plan was to bring what he’d learnt back to Australia and “make it work”. Couture, he decided, would be his focus. “I was always inspired by the artistry and the craftsmanship of couture, and of the work that goes into the pieces, more so than ready-to-wear.” Couture is not exactly synonymous with Australia so, unlike his Milanese counterparts, Paul had to pioneer an appreciation of the labour-intensive, made-to-measure art of couture in the heart of Adelaide, successfully growing his brand into an industry powerhouse. And it’s paid off. Last year he showed his dreamy, feminine gowns in Paris, thanks to the philanthropic “fairy godmothers” of the Adelaide Fashion Festival. “They said, ‘That’s your dream, right? Let’s make it happen,’” says Paul, who also engaged the help of the South Australian Tourism Commission to present his show at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week.
“I knew exactly how I wanted it to be, and I really worked hard to make sure that it was at the level that it needed to be at,” he says of the 14-piece collection that graced Hotel La Maison Champs Elysées. >
We’re SUCCESSFUL because of ADELAIDE and because of AUSTRALIA. I don’t want to LOSE THAT.
“I was so stressed about showing it because, I thought, ‘This is the real deal now, there’s no hiding!’”
And while Paul’s praises have been sung the world over, his talent was rewarded a little closer to home when he was named Young Australian of the Year in early 2017.
“It was a huge honour to be there, and very humbling,” says Paul of the Canberra ceremony. “I did I ask, ‘Why me?’, and they basically said that my story is one that can inspire people… I didn’t realise the impact my story could have on others.” He points out that his ethos of keeping it local, and success on an international stage also played a role. “I think it’s also that story of supporting local business and the fact that I’ve decided to base myself in Adelaide, but we’ve been able to take our passion to the world. And it’s been wonderful because we’re the first fashion designer to be recognised for this award in 57 years.”
Paul’s virtuosity stems from an aesthetic that was fostered at a young age while watching 1950s movies with his Italian grandparents – Audrey Hepburn classics and Disney fairytales. That aesthetic is evident in his old-Hollywood-inspired designs, and dresses that wouldn’t look out of place on royalty. But there was one dress in particular that inspired him to pick up a needle and thread.
“When I was around 11, I remember a friend of mine was looking through a magazine and there was a picture of a dress, and we just thought it was the most beautiful thing ever. Of course, as an 11-year-old, you can’t really afford to buy a designer dress, so I said, ‘Let’s try making it.’” With the help of his nonna, Paul set about doing just that. “It took me a couple of months, then other friends saw it and they wanted one. It kind of snowballed from there.”
His Bulgarian father, who works in a brewery, and Italian mother, a microbiologist, acknowledged Paul’s passion and placed him in art classes. “As a kid drawing and creating these garments, it was really inspiring because [fashion] transported me into another world.” Paul’s nonna continued to help him with his sewing and, when he hit his teens, his mother sought out a mentor in the form of Jenny Tirelly, a sewer and drafter. “She took me under her wing and showed me how to draft patterns from scratch, and taught me the detail I needed in sewing. I’d go one night a week after school to her house and she’d guide me through the process. I learnt so much from her.”
Word got out that Paul was the go-to guy for formal dresses and, at 14 years of age, he decided to stage his own fashion show, and committed to his
I was still in high SCHOOL, so I was WORKING after school until 3am most MORNINGS.
final years of schooling to do exactly that. He established Paolo Sebastian thanks to a subject called Extension Studies (firstyear university subjects taken in addition to mandatory courses), that allowed him to create his logo in art class and develop a business plan. He officially launched his label midway through his last year at school.
“I had my friends model for the show and I made a collection of 63 garments. I drafted everything from scratch. I did jeans, I did suits, I did ball gowns, everything.”
Paul had expected around 160 people to turn up to the show – 660 came. “The venue was overflowing and we had a full page in the paper the next day. From then on I was doing bridesmaids and wedding dresses and I was operating as a business. I was still in high school, so I was working after school until 3am most mornings, and then getting up at 7am to catch the bus to be at school.
“I just knew what I wanted,” he says of his preternatural motivation to succeed in the notoriously tough world of fashion – a drive that now sees his label stocked in New York, Singapore and Harvey Nichols in Kuwait. “I watched every documentary, I got every book that I could get my hands on, and I read and read about couture. I began to understand as much as I could about it, and I loved Dior and Chanel and those types of brands. I thought, ‘One day that’s where I want to be, that’s what I want.’” >
While Paul continued his studies at TAFE after graduating from high school, and held a second fashion show, he felt displaced and hungry to fill the gaps in his already extensive skill set. He eventually quit TAFE, but not without first seeking out an alternative. “I got in touch with local tailors Di Fabio Bros. They were from Italy originally, and made suits by hand and, I thought, I know a lot about womenswear, but I didn’t know a lot about menswear – suiting and tailoring.
“So I approached them, and they agreed to take me on a couple of days a week, as a sort of internship. I’d just go in there and make a suit from start to finish. It took me a whole year to make that suit because I’d do one part and they’d make me undo it and redo it and I did that about 10 times! I really learnt so much. It was all by hand, it was all these old-school techniques, and it was just wonderful learning from these people that had generations of knowledge.”
Towards the end of that year, 2009, his parents came to him with a scholarship application for one of the best fashion schools in Milan. “The school called back after I sent everything in, saying, ‘We need to start getting things organised.’ I said, ‘Sorry, what for exactly?’, and they replied, ‘You’ve moved on to the next stage, you’ve got the scholarship!’. I nearly dropped the phone.” At 19, Paul had never been overseas. “I didn’t speak the language, and I thought, ‘I can’t leave Adelaide for a year! I’m going to miss out on so much!’. Of course, I missed out on nothing, really,” he laughs.
“I was devastated that I’d lost my support base, and it wasn’t until about three months [in] that I started liking Milan and getting used to it all,” he says of his time spent at the European Institute of Design. “I learnt so much there because our pattern-making teacher was the pattern maker for Dolce & Gabbana, and the knitwear teacher was the knitwear designer for Prada, the illustrating teacher was the illustrator for Gucci and all these teachers taught part-time so they were actually still in the industry, which is amazing.”
Missing home, Paul consumed himself with his studies and quickly gained the favour of his teachers. “They thought that I was extremely passionate – I was
I think I’ve ALWAYS been a PASSIONATE person; if there’s anything I set my MIND to, I won’t rest until I’ve ACHIEVED it.
the first to put my hand up for any work or any extra subject or project, plus I was the only Australian, so I automatically stood out.
“I built really strong relationships with many of them. They’d get invited to all these events and they couldn’t go, so they’d pass the invitations on to me, which was amazing. I got to go to Naomi Campbell’s 25-year anniversary with Dolce & Gabbana, I got to go to the Versace fashion show and to the Alberta Ferretti fashion show.”
Paul’s talents became even more formidable in Milan, and his work was shown at the Swarovski Crystal Exhibition. He even met legendary designer Giorgio Armani when his work was chosen to be shown at London Fashion Week.
“All these amazing things were happening but, at the same time, I was incredibly homesick, I couldn’t wait to get home. At the end of my course, even before I graduated, they asked me, ‘Would you like us to set up interviews for you? We’d really like for you to meet with these people’, and I said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you, I’m going home. Post me my diploma!’ and I jumped on the first flight back to Adelaide.” Without any hint of regret, and with an allegiance to his hometown that has been his point of difference for the entirety of his career, he adds, “My whole life, I have always followed my gut instinct and I knew home, Adelaide, was the right decision for me.
“I think I’ve always been a passionate person; if there’s anything that I set my mind to do, I won’t rest until I’ve achieved it.”