The Empire Room of the Maison Champs Elysees is a glorious chocolate box of sparkling chandeliers, gold leaf, high arched windows and glittering mirrors that reflect the natural light streaming in from the Paris skyline.
The magnificent reception room of the Haussmann–era luxury hotel was the perfect space for Australian designer Paul Vasileff to present his collection – Gilded Wings during Paris haute couture week in July 2016.
Inspired by the delicate wings of a dragon fly, every garment was painstakingly hand-made and each of the intricately beaded ethereal gowns had taken between 800 and 1550 hours to embroider by hand.
On the eve of presenting his Paolo Sebastian brand to the world’s fashion press and buyers - and the globe’s wealthiest couture clients - Vasileff took a moment to reflect on how far he had come from his origins in the small city of Adelaide, population 1.3 million.
“It’s been my dream my entire life to show during haute couture in Paris, so it was literally a dream come true to be standing in that room, because it’s not something I ever thought would be possible,” says Vasileff.
“Once we had finished setting up I took a moment by myself to look at all the mannequins, and finally it felt real.”
Paolo Sebastian collection. Credit: Simon Cecere
Sewing from the age of three
Vasileff began sewing at the age of three, and was taught by his Nonna, who helped him make his first dress at the age of 11.
“Making that dress cemented in me that was what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “I made it for a friend and then another friend wanted one, and then it went from there.”
Soon Vasileff was designing school formal dresses and graduation dresses - “I would go home every day from school and work on them until late at night” - from the age of 13 he took private patternmaking and sewing lessons.
In 2007 he launched his Paolo Sebastian label, then received a scholarship to Milan’s prestigious Europeo Istituto di Design two years later.
“My parents had heard about a scholarship that was run through the Italian consulate, so I applied not really thinking anything of it. Then one day I got a phone call saying ‘your application has been approved,’” he says.
“I thought that just meant I’d got through to the next stage, but then they said ‘no, you have a plane ticket, you’re coming to Milan!’”
Behind the scenes at Paolo Sebastian. Credit: Meaghan Coles.
Milan came calling
Growing up watching Italian Old Hollywood classics such Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita, Vasileff was excited about the prospect of his first trip to Europe, but terrified of being alone in a new city without his family and friends.
“I’d never been overseas before and I was so scared. I probably hated it for the first three months but then after that I got a feel for my classmates and the city,” he says.
His experience studying in Milan included attending the Versace show and meeting Giorgio Armani and Naomi Campbell, but as soon as he graduated he was on the first plane back to Adelaide.
“The second I finished my last exam I said ‘thank you but you can email me the certificate, I’m heading home to Adelaide’. I wanted to put everything I had learned into building a business in Adelaide and keeping it in Adelaide, because we lose so many talented people who move offshore. I love
Adelaide because it’s a very calming and relaxing city. Fashion is a stressful job anywhere you do it, but at least at the end of the day in Adelaide you can go to the beach or have a quiet catch up with friends.”
Coco Rocha with Paul Vasileff. Credit: Matthew Kroker.
Adelaide will always be home
Back in Adelaide Vasileff focused on getting his brand onto red carpets at the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the Logies, and on celebrities including including E! host Giuliana Rancic, E! correspondent Catt Sadler, Australian singers Delta Goodrem and Jessica Mauboy and presenters Rebecca Judd and Carrie Bickmore.
“The international exposure of the red carpet gives a huge boost to your profile, and the fact a person has chosen to wear your design, outside of the millions of designs they have at their fingertips, is a huge honour,” says Vasileff.
Whether he’s outfitting a celebrity or a client away from the spotlight, his approach to creating a dream dress is the same.
“What I love about the process is making someone feel special and creating that Cinderella moment for them,” he says. “When they put on the dress they are instantly transformed in an almost dream-like sense.”
A designer of the digital age
For fittings with international clients Vasileff works over Skype, as part of his approach to couture that blends tradition with technology. His Instagram feed is a fairy tale of sequins and his prolific social media presence has made Paolo Sebastian the most searched bridal designer on Pinterest.
“I’m 26 years old and I love technology because I’ve grown up with it,” he says. “When I was living in Milan I was Skyping home every day, so being from Adelaide I thought ‘how can we connect with the rest of the world?’ and Skype seemed the natural solution.”
He may be a designer of the digital age, but the inspiration for his otherworldly creations is drawn from fairy tales and ancient folklore.
“As a kid I was always inspired by story books of fairy tales and folk tales and that’s one of the reasons why I love couture, because it gives you a chance in real life to dream and live out those fairy tales and fantasies.”
You could describe Vasileff’s career itself as a fairy tale; he has spent more than a third of his life building a highly successful brand, and at 26, has a couture label that employs 15 people and is about to celebrate its 10th birthday. The icing on the couture cake came when Vasileff was named 2017 Young Australian of the Year in January, in recognition of his overseas success and his commitment to keeping his business in Australia.
“It was something that I never imagined would happen to me, but now having received the award, I want to do the best I can to show the world that we have a fashion industry here in Australia that deserves a place on the global stage.”
His next goal is to show on the official schedule of haute couture, an appellation strictly regulated by the Chambre Syndicale, the French fashion industry’s governing body.
“Showing on the official haute couture schedule is my main goal and my dream,” he says. “I definitely want to stay based in Adelaide and keep my production here, but I also want to be able to take my brand to the world and continue to grow it internationally.”
Coco Rocha, Wildflowers. Credit: Meaghan Coles