A young couturier goes global while championing his hometown, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup
AS presenter of E! Red Carpet, Giuliana Rancic gets a lot of attention. The show is broadcast live around the globe on the E! channel and any dress she wears receives an audience of millions.
At the 2014 Academy Awards, Rancic wore a gown by fashion newcomer Paolo Sebastian. It was a princess dress with an embroidered floral bodice and a tulle skirt, and she gushed about the design. But halfway through the show, the zipper broke while she was live on air.
Paolo Sebastian founder Paul Vasileff, 27, was horrified.
“The Oscars is something I had always dreamt of. As a child you look up to Hollywood and I never, ever thought I would have one of my dresses on the carpet. It was the highlight, and then the lowlight.”
Speaking to Asian journalists in his hometown of Adelaide, under a programme by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Vasileff explains that Rancic’s battery pack for her microphone had gone flat and needed to be replaced.
The pack was under the dress and she also had a lot of wires taped around her. So with a fresh battery in place, the tech person zipped her up but one of the wires got caught in the zipper
There was no way of hiding the wardrobe malfunction in front of the camera.
“But she was wonderful about it and explained on air that it wasn’t because of our dress. We got a lot out of that zipper break. It was the most searched dress at the Oscars that year. It’s funny how things work out but at the time I was devastated,” says Vasileff.
MILAN STATE OF MIND
Apart from a one-year programme at the Instituto Europeo di Design in Milan, Italy, when he was 19, Vasileff is a largely self-taught couture designer. He made his first dress when he was 11 with the help of his grandmother. He staged his first fashion show as part of a school project when he was 17, creating some 60 looks that received full page coverage in the newspaper the next day.
“We had my friends’ parents, my mum’s friends, everyone, at home around the kitchen table sewing buttons and hems. I was halfway in Year 12, working until 3am and waking up at 7am to catch the bus to school, and doing it all over again the next day.”
After he finished school, Vasileff interned with a local tailor from Italy, who suggested that he apply for the programme in Milan. He applied to keep his mentor and parents happy, but didn’t think that he would be picked.
Never having lived away from home and overwhelmed by his new surroundings, Vasileff hated Milan. But as the months went by, he warmed up to his new school and its instructors.
“My pattern-making teacher was the pattern maker for Dolce and Gabbana. My illustration teacher was the illustrator for Gucci and my knitwear design teacher was the knitwear designer for Prada. So I was in good company, and they were such wonderful support and I learnt so much.
“They put my name in all sorts of programmes and my work was chosen to be shown at Milan Fashion Week. But at the same time, I really missed home, so the second I finished my last exam, I said ‘thank you’. I didn’t even wait for my diploma!”
HAUTE COUTURE HOPES
Upon his return to Adelaide, Vasileff went to work relaunching Paolo Sebastian. The resulting collection was a big hit, and he was asked to present it in Sydney. Photos from the Sydney show went online, and one dress in particular became a massive hit on image bookmarking website Pinterest.
“I started getting all these calls from as far as New York, and I wondered how they heard of me,” says Vasileff. “So one of my friends showed me and I quickly opened a Pinterest and Instagram account. Now we sell to the world. We’re stocked in Harvey Nichols in Kuwait City and Doha, as well as Singapore, Shanghai and New York.
Vasileff initially worked from his parents’ living room, but as his business grew he moved to a studio. Paolo Sebastian now operates from a two-storey building in Gouger Street in the Adelaide’s Central Business District, with a staff of 18.
“We still hand-make everything here in South Australia. I’ve always said that I wanted to maintain production here, and it hasn’t been easy. But for us in Australia, so much work has been taken off-shore and it’s a shame to our local industries because there are so many talented people who deserve jobs.”
Vasileff’s ambition “is to make the official haute couture calendar in Paris”. Haute couture is the highest standard in fashion, and the term’s usage is protected by French law. In general, only fashion houses that have been inducted by a special commission called the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture can use it.
Members include Paris-based Christian Dior and Chanel, as well as Armani and Valentino, which are based in Italy. Meanwhile, Guo Pei from China and US-based Rodarte were invited to show as guests at the most recent presentation.
“Last year we showed (off calendar) in Paris for the first time and we were officiated by the Asian Couture Federation a month later. This year we had the former president of Chambre Syndicale come through to our display, so anything’s possible.”
ONCE UPON A DREAM
At this year’s Academy Awards, Vasileff’s creations were worn by Rosalind Ross, the (much younger) girlfriend of Australian actor Mel Gibson and Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo.
He’s hoping to get more red carpet presence in the coming Hollywood awards season with his Spring/Summer 2018 collection called Once Upon A Dream. It debuted at the Adelaide Fashion Festival last month on a runway of grass and cherry blossom trees.
“We collaborated with Disney, taking the essence of Disney films and looking at the themes and iconography. So we got The Little Mermaid dress with lyrics from Part Of Your World embroidered on the fabric. We’ve also got the whale, Ariel and Ursula — not as direct cartoons but representations so it’s still couture and high end.”
He also did a version of Belle’s iconic yellow dress from Beauty and the Beast in gold. It is embroidered with roses, vines and thorns, and lyrics from Tale As Old As Time. The Sleeping Beauty dress is blue with images of fairies.
The collection makes use of French tulle and silk chiffon in light tones of pink, brown and blue as well as evil witch-inspired black. His finale gown is a wedding dress with a veil that is embroidered with the words “and they lived happily ever after”.
“My aim was to take everyone back to their childhood. I don’t want it to be a princess collection. I want it to have more depth than that. There was a lot of thought and meaning behind each of those dresses,” he adds.
PAOLO SEBASTIAN: X
The Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide has partnered with Vasileff to celebrate his label’s 10-year anniversary with an exhibition called Paolo Sebastian: X. It features 20 gowns from different collections that showcase Vasileff’s high level of craftsmanship and attention to detail.
These garments are interspersed among the gallery’s usual exhibition. A delicate and diaphanous dress with purple tassels and a nightingale motif is presented in the same eye line as a sculpture of a hung horse. Meanwhile, a rose gold jumpsuit with a tulle cape is shown in the same room as a 1765 portrait of King George III, who wears a robe of his own.
One room is recreated like the spring meadow runway from his Spring/Summer 2017 show, which Vasileff is thrilled about given the gallery’s usual reservation of having live plants among the artwork. Supermodel Coco Rocha walked that show, and her dandelion dress is shown alongside Camille Pissaro’s Prairie a Eragny from 1886.
Meanwhile, Vasileff is also influenced by art. One dress comes from a collection that’s inspired by Czech artist Alfonse Mucha. “Each panel is taken from various parts of his artwork. If you look closely, there are hundreds of different colours in the dress in a sort of mottled mosaic effect,” he says.
There’s an amazing amount of detail in a couture dress, and the techniques used to make them are meticulous and labour intensive. You wonder how much of that gets through to the average person.
Says Vasileff: “If someone comes for a couture dress, you hope they’re somewhat versed in the process and has a bit of understanding. But it’s not necessary. It’s like when you’re studying art and you’re looking at art, you understand the process that goes behind it. But you might also just look at a painting and go, oh wow, that’s a nice painting and move on.
“I guess that’s why I love couture. When I look at something I dissect it and think how that’s made. So it depends on whether you’re interested or not.”