DRESS ME UP

an ate­lier de­signer is stitch­ing to­gether an im­pres­sive ca­reer from a sur­pris­ing lo­ca­tion

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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.”

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