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Paolina Russo on new directions, future relics, and The Legend of Zelda

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The innovative knitwear designer and former Dazed 100er’s AW22 collection took an unexpected turn – here, she explains why

Anyone present at the Central Saint Martins BA graduate show in 2018 remembers the moment Paolina Russo burst onto the scene. Driven by a need for self-reflection (and a hint of nostalgia), the Canadian-born designer had spent her final year at the revered school exploring her teen hobbies and revisiting the sports kits she used to wear to run, jump and kick her way across the field. Her graduation collection repurposed the sneakers, socks, and shin guards of those uniforms into vibrant sneaker corsets and structured body-con minidresses. 

The collection was loud, bold and feminine, winning her the prestigious L’Oréal Professionnel Young Talent Award. It didn’t take long for Rihanna to custom order her spectacular designs, or for John Galliano to name her the muse of his SS17 Artisanal collection for Maison Margiela. Soon after, Russo joined CSM’s MA course, where the energetic playfulness of her work was refined, and the designer leaned further into her exploration with technical knitwear. This was where she developed her signature knits, which have the illusory effect of holographic images. Multiple collaborations with adidas Originals followed, where she honed her practice with the support of the sportswear giant and added a sleek, futuristic sophistication to her aesthetics.

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By the time she was ready to graduate in 2020, the restrictions put in place in response to the global pandemic brought numerous challenges Russo’s way, right as she was setting about getting the label off the ground. Factories were closed and there were no events to promote her collection, but ultimately, Russo claims the isolation and calm that came with retreating from everyday life only benefited her work. The designer found she had time to reflect and find an alternative to the well-trodden path of the typical London-based indie creative. Her SS22 collection was celebrated with a multimedia experience created in collaboration with creative director Ben Ditto, which took place at Milan’s Corso Como concept store during fashion season.

“I love the fantasy [of Legend of Zelda] and I love that they reference historical garments and architecture in this futuristic world. When you look at my work, it feels new but there are always elements of the past. I’m trying to create relics – something that feels known, that has a form of familiarity to it” – Paolina Russo

Now, Russo has a good grasp on who she is and how she wants to work. Her universe is defined – it’s sporty yet sophisticated, sleek yet playful, futuristic yet nostalgic – and all she needs to do is expand it. Ahead of creating her AW22 collection Relics, Russo lost herself in legendary computer game Zelda: Breath of the Wild. “I love the fantasy, and I love that they reference historical garments and architecture in this futuristic world,” she explains. “When you look at my work, it feels new but there are always elements of the past. I’m trying to create relics – something that feels known, that has a form of familiarity to it.” 

Where previously she had always favoured high-tech materials to express her warrior world, post-pandemic marked a turning point, as she went searching for something more wholesome. This meant weaving natural fibres through her work for the first time ever, to reflect the manual skills that built the history of knitwear. Still, her latest collection feels as futuristic as ever – there’s always a confrontation of past and present in the work of Paolina Russo. Here, she explains why wool, nostalgia, and The Legend of Zelda proved the ideal tools to marry the two.

Hey Paolina! Could you talk us through your references for this season’s collection? 

Paolina Russo: There is always such an eclectic range of influences, so it’s always a challenge to edit them down. Video games are a massive influence. They allow me to escape, which is what I love about it. One of my main influences was obviously The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Playing that game was my main hobby this whole year. I still haven’t finished it!

I love fantasy, and I love that it references historical garments and architecture in this futuristic world. That’s what I want for my collections. When you look at my work, it feels new but there are always elements of the past. That is also where the name of the collection, Relics, comes from. 

Are there any key pieces that really marry these ideas? 

Paolina Russo: The earrings, for example, which are inspired by Beyblades. I worked with artist Yuma Burgess to take something from our childhood that is very plastic and make it into something that feels ancient, even if it’s from the 2000s. I’m trying to create relics – something that feels known, that has a form of familiarity to it. That is why I always try to look into my past and bring it to the future. That is what makes people recognise my work without being able to place it straight away. 

“[On the shoot] my boyfriend took the photos, one of my best friends modelled the clothes, my dad would be holding the lights, my sister was assisting, holding the model’s coat in between shots, and my mom made snacks. Even one of my neighbours showed up to bring us a heater because he saw we were cold!” – Paolina Russo

You went back to your roots in more ways than one this season, and your hometown played an important role in both the designs and the communication. Can you tell us why? 

Paolina Russo: I grew up in a city near Toronto called Markham. My work is always inspired by my upbringing, and this season especially, I dived into that suburban nostalgia. It had always been my dream to see my work in the place it originated in, so I organised a shoot on the street where I grew up. 

I used to have a fashion blog as a teenager and that was really my first foray into fashion. It was really cringy, but also fun and innocent. I would look at designers like Marc Jacobs and just try to recreate the looks through vintage and photograph myself in my street. I wanted to recreate that feeling, that childlike enthusiasm. 

I’m very used to shoots by now and sometimes it feels like that spontaneity is missing when everything is super planned out. When you work professionally, there are a lot of limits to what you can do. I wanted to feel open and free again – to do things because I like them, not just to fulfil a brief.

It sounds like it was a lot of fun.

Paolina Russo: It was such a community effort, which was really fun and creative. My boyfriend Aidan Zamiri took the photos, one of my best friends – who I met at Central Saint Martins and happens to be from the same town – modelled the clothes, my dad would be holding the lights, my sister was assisting, holding the model’s coat in between shots, and my mom made snacks. Even one of my neighbours showed up to bring us a heater because he saw we were cold! 

How did that nostalgia translate to your designs?

Paolina Russo: I grew up in a very craft-focused community. I used to crochet a lot with my grandmother and participate in craft fairs as a child – everybody around me was always making things. A part of my aesthetics can be traced back to those influences. 

For this collection, we researched the heritage of knitwear. We looked at the old-school techniques, patterns, and stitches of manual knitting. Even if we used a machine for production, we wanted each garment to have that home-made feel. We also used only natural materials for the first time. 

With all that research in old-school knitwear, how did you assure the pieces looked modern?

Paolina Russo: It wasn’t about re-imaging vintage garments, but about re-imagining old stitches and techniques, then translating them to modern designs. My designs are always very sleek and sportswear-inspired and we didn’t change that. Usually, I would use bright colours, so switching up the yarn was actually a very obvious way to innovate. This was the first time we used browns and beiges, everything felt much more muted, which completely changed the image. Paradoxically, the heritage is what brought the newness. 

“As a designer, you’re easily pinned down into one thing and it can be very hard to change. I hope to continue growing and changing” – Paolina Russo

Did you enjoy the experience of working with natural materials? 

Paolina Russo: My specialty lies in technical and sportswear materials, so we had to find solutions to make the natural fibres as tight-fitting as we like our designs to be. There are new techniques to make natural fibres stretchy. Depending on the way you twist it, you can completely adapt the flexibility of the material. That is how we kept our close-to-the-body style. 

It was really important not to lose this feeling of the hand and natural fibres really feel like that. I want the makers to feel visible. It’s easy to forget, but in fashion, there is always a hand – at any stage of the process. I wanted that to be visible in the look. Natural fibres never have that perfect, finished look. There are always imperfections, which I found exciting.

The post-consumer journey was also very important to me. When you use single fibres, it’s much easier to break down and recycle. The material can be shredded and completely reused. That is much harder to do with the mixed fibres. Overall, they also last longer and they age better. Anything I wear that is vintage in cotton or wool looks amazing. I would like my garments to grow with their wearer in the same way. 

Your iconic sneaker corsets were also adapted. How did you do that? 

Paolina Russo: We needed that natural colour palette, so we looked at hiking boots and more functional gear. Everything is still upcycled. There are a lot of similar details, but the materials were less synthetic, so it was very interesting to find that works too. Everything still has this sporty edge, we’re still doing illusion knitwear and playing with functionality, but I’ve grown and changed a lot, as a person and as a designer.

In what way?

Paolina Russo: As a designer, you’re easily pinned down into one thing and it can be very hard to change. I hope to continue growing and changing. I was 23 years old when I first presented my work. That feels like a different me in some ways. I was so close to my aesthetics at the time, I was really drawn to bright colours and sportswear, but recently, I developed a different relationship to colour, which is something I never expected. I enjoy different things in life. 

Throughout the pandemic, I just started dressing and expressing myself differently. I’m now more interested in the fabrication of clothing and the process; how something is made, not just the instant effect. I want to look good, but also feel good. Before I wouldn’t mind feeling uncomfortable in my clothes. Before I was more into the now, whereas now, I’m more into the past. 

Besides knitwear techniques, what other references did you look at?

There is always such an eclectic range of influences, so it’s always a challenge to edit them down. Video games are a massive influence. They allow me to escape, which is what I love about it. One of my main influences was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Playing that game was my main hobby this whole year. I still haven’t finished it!

I love fantasy and I love that they reference historical garments and architecture in this futuristic world. That is what I want for my collections. When you look at my work, it feels new – but there are always elements of the past. That is also where the name of the collection, Relics, comes from. 

Take the earrings for example, which are inspired by Beyblades. I worked with artist Yuma Burgess to take something from our childhood that is very plastic and make it into something that feels ancient, even if it’s from the 2000s. I’m trying to create relics – something that feels known, that has a form of familiarity to it. That is why I always try to look into my past and bring it to the future. That is what makes people recognize my work without being able to place it straight away.