2017 Young Australian of The Year Paul Vasileff on Fashion, Success and Breaking The Rules

Paul Vasileff may not be a household name to the average Australian male. Though his intricate couture and celebrated gowns are fawned over by females and the fashion elite both domestically and abroad, you can be forgiven for not being au fait with his hugely successful fashion house, Paolo Sebastian, if you’re more of a two-pants-suit-and-business-shirt-kinda-guy.

What you will find interesting, however, is how the Adelaide-born designer turned a childhood dream into one of Australia’s most successful fashion boutiques. From a business perspective, his label has skyrocketed. Through a combination of hard work, resistance to bad advice, and a determination to put his beloved hometown on the map, the energetic Vasileff is already enjoying the fruits of his labour, and all before his 30th birthday.

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As the 2017 Young Australian of The Year, Paul’s profile has gained more and more attention since his win on Australia Day last year, and is now sharing some of his advice on business success with other young people, to inspire and encourage more risk-takers and entrepreneurs.

“I never really saw myself working for anyone. I did a lot of work experience throughout my teenage years, where I could, but I launched my label when I was 17. I really just thought it’s something that I had to give a shot, and Also I was told, from very early on, that it wasn’t something that I would be able to achieve, particularly being in Adelaide.”

Talking to me from his workshop in Adelaide, Paul’s focus is evident not just in his obviously successful work, but in his words, too. His work has been sighted on red carpets the world over (including more than once at the Oscars), as well as on homegrown celebs who know that supporting local is the way to do it.

“Even in Australia, they said, “You’re gonna have to move interstate, or overseas, if you’re gonna wanna make it” and, “You’re not gonna work in couture” or, “Couture’s dying, and it’s not even a real thing, in Australia.”

logical progression for a successful designer

“It just made me feel like I had to kind of give it a go, and give it a fair go, to try and achieve it. Anyone that’s achieved anything started from somewhere–there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Christian Dior wasn’t Christian Dior when he was born. He grew into that. Brands like Chanel have such a rich history to them, and they all, in most cases, started from very humble backgrounds.”

Dressing big names is the logical progression for a successful designer, and Paul’s collected quite the following over the years.

“One moment that always stands out for me is Carrie Bickmore at the Logies, a few years ago, when she won gold. It was such a special night for her–and her speech with the brain cancer awareness … it was just a really big moment, it was a huge honour to be a part of that, and I love working with Carrie. She’s a very dear friend.

“We obviously worked with Kim Kardashian for the boat shoot, which was also really amazing. We made a custom corset for Kim. Also Giuliana Rancic, for our first Oscars, was really special. That was 2014.

“I remember waking up at 6:00 am and seeing a photo of her, and I was just beyond excited, and so, so happy. As a kid I used to watch the Oscars and saw all these amazing dresses walk down the red carpet, I never thought that it would actually be possible for me to have a dress there.”

While most design students fight tooth-and-nail after fashion college for an internship in an established fashion house, Paul’s determination to keep things local and proof his naysayers wrong was an important element in his decision to aim high, and one which has paid dividends.

“I love Adelaide, and I love Australia. I really didn’t wanna move away from home, so I thought, “I’m gonna try and get as far as I can with it.” At the end of the day, I just love doing what I’m doing. Whether I have a big studio space and a team, as we do now, or if I’m still working in the laundry room from home, I’ll be happy, because I’m doing something that I love.

australian designer dress

One of the drawbacks for our economy with many Australian designers is the fact that both talent and jobs end up overseas. Whether it’s a designer settling in Milan, or a new season being produced in a factory offshore, it’s indisputably cheaper and easier to find success overseas. Paul, however, found a determination to rectify this. His love for Adelaide runs a lot deeper than just his own desire to stay in his home city – he now employs a whole team of fashion professionals, all of whom are based in the state capital, and love what they do.

“We manufacture everything, all of our garments are handmade in house. Everything that is shipped worldwide is handmade, here, in Adelaide. I feel it’s really, really important to support the local jobs. Again, when I was first starting out, I was told that it’s not gonna be possible for you, that sort of thing doesn’t exist within Australia, you’re gonna have to move off shore. Hearing that, constantly, I always thought it was so sad that we as a country, missed out on so much.

“Everything gets taken overseas. Particularly in garment manufacturing. So I always though, from the beginning, if I’m gonna do this, I wanna do it from here. It’s really important, I’m really proud that we’re contributing to local economy and creating jobs.

“We employ 18 staff. And that number’s continuing to grow. 18 people, and potentially more, have a place to work. Because there’s so many talented people, here. And they deserve jobs just as much as anyone. The fact that we’re able to provide jobs is, I think, really important, and really uphold a skillset, and a tradition, that’s otherwise lost.”

Whether it’s a general sense of local pride or the fact that he spent hours of his youth learning the craft of needlework from his grandmother, a desire to keep Paolo Sebastian, despite its worldwide acclaim, a local affair is something that he holds as dear as the business itself.

“It’s something that’s passed down from generation to generation. If these people aren’t supported, you lose an art form. I think it’s really important that that skill level and skillset is maintained here.”

While his passion for high-end couture, an obsession that began when he was just three years old, may be the initial driving force behind his brand, there’s a hefty dose of business acumen involved in Paolo Sebastian that has proved to be a helpful ingredient.

women wear fashion dress

“Failures, errors, anything like that, I see them as lessons. Going into it, I didn’t have a background in business, I was just 17 years old. I had a lot of support from my parents, and family, and friends, and a lot of guidance from them, but, certainly along the way you learn, and I’m still learning, each and every day.

“I find that whenever there is something that I’m not sure of, or I don’t know, I find that I always have really wonderful support around me, and my team kind of pick me up. If I don’t know something, or if I’m not competent in a particular area, they might excel in that area, so I think that’s where I’ve been most lucky–I’ve been able to employ people that are really dynamic, and really have helped the business to grow to get to where it is. Every business is gonna have its issues. But I always look at them as areas for learning, or learning curves.”

And as far as winning Young Australian of The Year?

“It was huge shock. I never, once, imagined that I would be receiving that award. Ever.

“It’s been a wonderful experience. And I just feel so grateful, and so honoured, by Commonwealth Bank, and everyone at Young Australian of the Year. All of the Australian of the Year program. Just because, again, it was not something that I had every planned on, ever fathomed, or expected. That, certainly, has been a life-changing experience, a really wonderful one. And I hope I’ve done the role justice.”

With his win comes a great opportunity not just to increase exposure, but to also share his accrued knowledge with other young Australians, or anybody who needs advice in the business world–something he is happy to offer. His parting words of wisdom to anybody thinking of taking their first steps toward starting their own business are expectedly positive, and kind.

“Remember why you started on this journey, and to really not get complacent with your work. It’s not easy–my team and I, we are always trying to challenge ourselves to produce better work, and to push ourselves harder and further.

“It’s … it’s the mentality that you have, and the attitude that you have towards those challenges, and how you face them. That’s how you can overcome them, and succeed.”

For more information on how Commbank supports the Australian of The Year program, click here.

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