Conquering the world of couture

By Melissa Keogh

Adelaide fashion designer Paul Vasileff was just 11 when he stitched his first gown – a light purple, bias-cut satin frock inspired by a picture in a magazine.

Fast forward 16 years and the couture king, who heads Adelaide high end dress label Paolo Sebastian, has reached a level of success most fashionistas would only dream of achieving.

Despite Paolo Sebastian boutiques existing in New York, Singapore and Shanghai, as well as a clientele list featuring the likes of Kim Kardashian, Paul says Adelaide will always be home.

“It still shocks me when people ask me ‘are you planning to move?’ he says.

“We aren’t going anywhere. I’m in Sydney for two days and I can’t wait to get home because I love it here.

“We show in Paris and Paris is amazing, but nothing is home except for Adelaide.”

Dreams and fairytales inspire Paul’s whimsical and romantic bridal and special event gowns that feature on runways across the globe.

The handmade gowns are renowned for their feminine silhouettes, expert tailoring and princess-like lace and embellishments.

Each dress begins with a sketch before the design is handcrafted by Paul and his team of dressmakers at his Gouger Street atelier.

“I’ve always been inspired by story books, fairytales and old Hollywood since I was a kid,” he says.

“For me, fashion should offer a sense of a dream for the client. When you put on a dress you should be transported into the highest version of yourself.”

Paul Vasileff at the Paolo Sebastian headquarters on Gouger Street, Adelaide.

Paul Vasileff at the Paolo Sebastian headquarters on Gouger Street, Adelaide.

Paul fell in love with the needle and thread as a teenager, taking sewing lessons and learning techniques from his Italian grandmother.

In 2007, the then 17-year-old launched the first Paolo Sebastian collection with 63 garments sewn with a domestic sewing machine in his parents’ living room.

Before long it was clear the young designer was destined for the world of couture when he travelled to Milan in 2010 to study at world-renowned design house Istituto Europeo di Design.

“I did that when I was 19 and that was a really hard experience for me because I was quickly removed from my family and my friends and everyone who had ever supported me and what I loved,” he says.

“I kind of realised how lucky we are here in Adelaide.

“So I thought I’m going to finish my study, I’m going to take what I’ve learnt here, bring it back to Adelaide and implement it in Adelaide so that we can benefit from it.”

With the power of social media and word of mouth among brides who fell in love with his gowns, the Paolo Sebastian team has grown to 18 staff.

In 2014 Paul received his first big nod from Hollywood, after becoming the first Australian designer to dress a celebrity for the Oscars red carpet.

In 2016 he was the first South Australian designer to showcase in Paris with his couture collection Gilded Wings.

In January 2017, Paul received the ultimate pat-on-the-back when he was named Young Australian of the Year.

Despite these highlights, Paul says he often faced doubt about his ability to run a successful couture label outside of a fashion capital.

People told him Adelaide wasn’t the place to make his fashion mark and that he must move elsewhere.

But with the support of friends, family and “the whole state”, Paolo Sebastian gowns hang in closets worldwide from Australia to the Middle East.

“When I first started it was hard and a lot of people said to me, ‘you’re not going to be able to do this, you’re going to have to move or you’re going to have to work with someone else, your dream is just not possible’,” he says.

“I’ve had the whole state behind me since day one. The success of Paolo Sebastian isn’t just mine.

“We’re only successful because of South Australia.”