The Adidas-endorsed young designer inspired by skiing and suburbia
Paolina Russo discusses her CSM MA graduate collection, collaborating with the sportswear brand, and starting her business amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photography Aidan Zamiri
It’s been over three weeks since the UK government first asked the nation to stay at home, and most of us are splitting our time between the bedroom, boredom and panic. But not Paolina Russo. The 24-year old is actually enjoying some quality home time. And it’s no wonder -- she’s just completed a seven-year marathon of studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, garnering a cultish fandom that includes Solange, Kate Nash and Sita Abellan along the way. While most graduates dread the moment their educational safety net disappears, Paolina is simply continuing to develop her already-established visual language, known for its crafty interpretations of classic couture silhouettes.
Originally from Markham, a suburban city on the outskirts of Toronto, Canada, Paolina moved to London in 2013 to do her foundation degree at CSM, before continuing onto the BA and MA programmes. When we last spoke with her, her final bachelor’s degree collection had won her the prestigious L’Oréal Professionnel Young Talent Award (previously received by Grace Wales Bonner and Fashion East’s Goom Heo) and was later sold in Selfridges. Paolina’s second collection, for AW19, was shown at Paris Fashion Week in partnership with Adidas and was then exclusively picked up by SSENSE. And then, this past February, Paolina presented her MA collection as part of the CSM graduate show during London Fashion Week, which demonstrated the extent of her signature aesthetic’s evolution over the years.
After wrapping up her student days slightly earlier than anticipated, we jumped on a call with Paolina who told us all about delving head-first into the industry in this most challenging climate for young designers.
You were right in the middle of your final MA exhibition at CSM when everything kicked off. What have you been up to since?
We evacuated the school and I’ve just been at home for the past three weeks, working from here and watching TV shows. I started rewatching my favourite childhood anime Inuyasha. There’s almost 200 episodes and four movies so I have a lot of material to get through -- it’s about a girl in modern-day Japan who gets transported back in time to Feudal Japan. It feels really nice to be able to sit and enjoy TV -- it makes me feel like I’m a teenager again. Back then, during the summers, I don’t really remember seeing people that much. Everyone was on vacation, and I was just stuck at home with my parents and making do with what I had. I’d watch loads of anime and movies or make art in my room. That’s what’s going on -- I’m a teenager again.
When you compare it to your final BA collection, how did you approach this one?
When you do a BA, it’s really about finding who you are and what you like. When I had my BA show, it was the first time that I was able to fully express the person that I am as an artist and a designer. Going into my MA, it was really about owning that and going full-force. It felt for the first time that I was a real designer, in a way. I had control over what I was doing. On your BA it’s a discovery, but on your MA it’s about knowing and doing.
Your collections always have a personal approach -- what was on your moodboard this time round?
It was about looking at the woman I want to explore. That woman is kinda like me in a way, as I always explore the story of a suburban girl taking on the big city. Wanting beyond what she knows and has access to. I’d always dreamed bigger than staying in the suburbs of Canada my whole life, but I didn’t necessarily have the means or resources to do that. I just imagine that girl getting inspired by the sports she plays and using her own clothes in order to create this world of fashion that she wants to be in. When I was younger, I used to do lots of snow sports with my family and friends and we used to wear all these fun, crazy ski outfits. So I looked a lot at vintage skiwear and ski jumpers, then re-imagined in a more futuristic context.
There’s a sustainable narrative around your collections, particularly with reworking existing garments and fabrics into new silhouettes. How have you incorporated that into your final collection?
Before doing my MA collection, I had already gained some experience in developing products and seeing how production works thanks to the two collections that went to stores. During that process, my focus became creating a really high-quality product that’s special and also lasts within someone’s wardrobe. Right now, my understanding of sustainability is really a focus on quality. I love working with reclaimed materials, but I feel like right now, it’s more important to focus on minimising that waste and, secondly, making sure that what you’re doing is worth it. A lot of the pieces in the collection are knitwear and the way of making it is very mathematical. All the yarns need to be weighed and you’re always thinking about wastage to make sure there’s no excess.
You also collaborated with Amsterdam-based cordwainer Marko Baković on the footwear.
After previously working with Adidas, I was approached by them to partner on the footwear for my final collection. I wanted to use their existing pieces, so we got a chance to work with their stock of Superstar trainers. Marko is also really easy to work with because we have a similar approach to our work. Adidas donated the footwear and we worked with upcycling zippers and leather to make the base of the shoes. It was a really fun process as I’ve always worked with shoes but never made one.
When it comes to selling the collection and starting up a business during these weird times, how have you approached it?
I just have to put my student hat back on again. Right now, all the mills in Italy are closed and a lot of production has completely halted. So the way that I’m approaching it is at an even smaller scale, using the resources that I have to make pieces in a more bespoke way. I have all the yarns left over from my MA, which I’m planning on using in production, and I’m looking at creating fabrics with some friends who have access to machines, but that will have to be done remotely. I don’t want to take what’s happening as a sign to give up. Nothing is perfect, there are always challenges. This just happens to be a global one. I’m lucky I live with photographer and filmmaker Aidan Zamiri, who is my boyfriend as well as a huge creative partner. We recently collaborated on the campaign for my MA collection which resulted in images that exist in an alternative universe where Joan of Arc and Marie Antionette star in a New Romantic Kill Bill-style thriller fantasy.
There’s so much uncertainty ahead, but what do you want to achieve by the end of 2020?
I want to start up my brand and create more collections here in London. I have a few collaborations with Adidas coming out later in the year as well, which I’ve been working on for a year now, so I’m really excited to see them out in the world. It’s really amazing to see people continuing their creative practices. It’s easy to feel down and discouraged, but this seems like a great time to re-evaluate what makes you happy, what you want to do and how you want to approach it. It’s also a great time to reach out to those around you and seek advice. We are all in this together -- what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong? You know, a designer is someone who is a problem-solver by nature so this is just a new problem to solve.
Photographer Aidan Zamiri
Makeup Mona Leanne
Hair Rebecca Chang
Set Emilie Alstrup
Casting Naj Li-Saad
Models Yiling Zhao and October at Anti-Agency
Movement Direction Simon Donnellon
Photo Assistant Arthur Comely
Styling Assistant Feben Vemmenby
Production Object & Animal