Culture

For knitwear designer Paolina Russo, it’s always sweater weather

Paolina Russo’s designs have found favour among cool-girl celebs like Phoebe Bridgers and buyers at Nordstrom. Not bad for a former fashion blogger from Markham, Ontario.

(Photography by Kate Peters; hair and makeup by Nohelia Reyes)

When Paolina Russo was a teen, every hour she wasn’t at school was focused on fashion. She’d scour thrift stores in her hometown of Markham, Ontario, for vintage treasures, have her mom snap photos of the outfits, then spend four hours a night uploading the shots to her blog, Calur Villade. (That’s a jokey, French-sounding spin on Value Village.)

After high school, Russo applied to study fine art at Central Saint Martins, the prestigious London fashion school that counts designer Alexander McQueen among its alumni. When a scout flew to Toronto to assess portfolios—and review Russo’s paintings, sculptures and, yes, blog photos—he granted her admission on the spot. By her second year, Russo specialized in fashion, specifically knitwear, channelling her love of hyper-saturated video games into futuristic yet cozy clothes. She also became an inventor. Illusion knitting, which creates textiles with images only visible from certain angles, is a technique that takes weeks when done by hand. Using a Stoll industrial knitting machine, Russo computerized the process to produce pieces in under a day.

READ: How Jeanine Brito’s pretty-creepy paintings made her an art-world darling

In 2020, her last year at CSM, Russo won a scholarship from the British Fashion Council, which selected her for a show highlighting fashion’s rising talents. From there, her star rose rapidly: she struck a deal to sell her thesis collection at the Montreal-based luxury retailer Ssense and designed a colourful collection for Adidas Originals, as well as Olympic-themed pieces timed to the Tokyo Games.

Russo’s dream partnership, though, was with fellow CSM grad Lucile Guilmard. “We decided to create Paolina Russo, the brand,” she says. “Four days later, we were touring factories in Italy.” Russo’s namesake label includes an eclectic mix of spandex tie-dye cycle shorts and folksy skirts, stitched together using Russo’s knit method and packed with references from the duo’s childhoods. “Growing up in the suburbs, there’s nothing to do except do crafts and play The Legend of Zelda,” Russo says. “The label feels like an extension of us.”

Less than two years after launch, the brand received a nomination for the LVMH Prize, an award handed out by Louis Vuitton’s parent company; landed a deal with Nordstrom, which will stock Russo’s pieces as of this month; and appeared on cool-girl fashion plates like singer Phoebe Bridgers. Russo, now 28, plans to spend 2024 learning traditional fabric-dyeing techniques, pursuing a patent for her new knitting method and entertaining new creative projects—possibly a vide0 game.

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Russo (above left) met fellow Central Saint Martins grad Lucile Guilmard (above right) when the two rented a London studio together back in 2021. Today, Guilmard is the creative director of Russo’s namesake brand.

POP QUIZ
Early invention: Corsets made from upcycled sneakers. “My mom kept all my old sneakers from when I used to play Timbits Soccer. I took them apart and hand-crocheted them into sporty armour.”
Prized possession: A bear-print childhood blanket from her aunt
London love: “There’s that saying, ‘If you are tired of London, you are tired of life.’ I love London because I love life!”
Dream client: Grimes
Runway remembrance: Marc Jacobs’s Spring 1993 collection for Perry Ellis. “He came out with this really grungy collection and was fired for it. I think it was beautiful.”

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