Paolina Russo’s Gym Bag Corsetry

The Designer on Leatherwork and Nostalgia as a Sustainable Resource

  • Interview: Rebecca Storm
  • Photography: Rebecca Storm

I’m sitting in Paolina Russo’s bedroom drinking tea out of a soccer ball. “I’m still not very good at making it to UK standards,” says the Canada-London transplant, “It’s a skill—you can really taste the difference.” The soccer ball I’m drinking out of is a mug, but other soccer ephemera appear around the room. Instead of wedged next to a mower in a dank garage, tacky with grime, or crusted with mud and crammed on a shelf—here, old gear is exalted. It appears in the form of deconstructed equipment, reassembled into pastiched designs. Some of the finished pieces hang on a rack, taking the form of intricate corsetry, or patchworked leather bags with straps of repurposed sports’ medal ribbon. After interning at Maison Margiela in 2017, the 24-year-old designer initially caught the rest of the industry’s attention in 2018, when she won the L’Oreal Professional Young Talent Award for her Central Saint Martins graduate collection, "I Forgot Home"—her technical finesse as a leatherworker and penchant for repurposed materials left a deep impression.

Alongside her use of retired soccer leather, there’s a dystopian subtext to Russo’s process and aesthetic. Ornate bodices and corsets (some of which appear in FKA Twigs’ latest “Home With You” video) feel like retro-future armor, apocalypse-couture. Wardrobes in films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Cherry 2000, and Blade Runner, explore the concept of culling scraps from a depleted ecosystem as a last resort, piecing together once cutting-edge components. Sports equipment often feels sci-fi—sleek and bright, connoting motion, velocity, and dexterity. But if a shoe loses its mate, or a shin pad is ripped of its fastening velcro strap, something hard and fast becomes useless. Russo transforms sports refuse into items that seem gilded, almost ceremonial. “It was really emotional for me,” she explains of her graduate collection and initial foray into what is now her signature aesthetic: “Home had felt so far away from me, since it’d been so long since I’d gone back. I used what was donated to me to create the first collection, and repurposed all the leather.” Mining the energy of these forgotten pieces, these memories, she creates a new, sustainable resource. Now working to complete her MA in knitwear at CSM, Russo continues to explore themes of memory, while creating uniforms she intends to last forever.

Rebecca Storm

Paolina Russo

You grew up in Markham—is this where your interest in fashion started?

I went to a highschool with a special fine arts program. I didn’t really understand the concept of fashion. I didn’t understand the creative world outside of painting or drawing, because that’s the only world that exists in art school. [You think] “I’m creative,” then in school they’re like, “Okay, now paint or draw or sculpt,” and if you’re not good at that then you must not be creative. I visited London when I was 16, and it was the first time I left Canada. I did this summer school short program—performance art, fashion and textiles—and it blew my mind because I never knew creative outlets like that existed. I always loved fashion, but my idea of fashion was going to Value Village and buying clothes. I didn’t know that you could make stuff. I’d make my clothes sometimes, but it never seemed like a job to me.

Did you play soccer? Or how did that aesthetic link happen?

I played so many competitive sports when I was growing up. That is such a rite of passage when you live in the suburbs, because there’s really nothing else to do. I did swimming, soccer. My main sport in highschool was taekwondo—I’m a nationally ranked fighter. When I started my graduate collection, I went home and was sorting through all my old sports equipment, and I was going to loads of thrift shops, collecting crocheted blankets, all of these research items that I thought represented where I was from. My aunt is the head of the Markham Soccer Club, which was great because she put a call out to the community to get people to donate their old sports equipment—sneakers, soccer balls, everything. It was amazing, a community effort. I hadn’t been home in so long, it felt like everything else in my life was a dream. I dunno if you get that.

Yeah, you almost feel confused about who you actually are.

Yes! When I go home everything is exactly the same, so it’s like going back in time. That’s what keeps me grounded. I love going home, I’m really close to my family. When I talk to them about stuff that I do they’re really happy, but they have their own lives. It’s such an amazing perspective that none of this stuff really matters. I used to be surrounded by people who are so zeroed in on fashion and you can get really sucked in, it becomes all you think about and seemingly all that matters. It’s nice to have distance from it sometimes. It helps me stay creative, otherwise I would feel so drained.

Do you think having an outlet from the fashion industry is important to be able to continue—

Staying sane?

Yes [Laughs].

It’s so important! People don’t have hobbies, they forget that you have other interests outside of the fashion bubble. It’s so important to keep the passion alive, I would hate to hate what I’m doing. I would hate to get sick of it, or resent it because I’m too stressed or overwhelmed. When you first move to London, it’s very intimidating because the industry here is so strong and it’s so much about who you know and how you present yourself. But you have to live a good life to do good work, that’s the most important thing. Your work doesn’t just come from nowhere, we’re not just machines that can pump out good things all the time, you have to have a lived experience to be able to do good work. I’ve always felt like that, but when I moved here I got scared because you don’t see that around you. I’ve been stubborn about staying true to how I am, who I am, my lifestyle. “No” is a really important word for me because it’s so easy to say “yes” to new opportunities. The hardest thing to do is to say “no,” and to take care of yourself and take care of your mind. But it’s me first, it’s not that the work comes second, but I have to make sure I’m putting myself first otherwise the work can’t happen.

You have to have a lived experience to be able to do good work.

There’s pressure, more so now than in the past, on emerging designers. How do you feel about that?

There’s so much pressure about how to emerge, when to emerge, how quickly you should emerge. You can’t just succeed, you have to succeed fast and in a particular way. I don’t know how healthy that is, business-wise or even life-wise. I like to take things at my own pace. I’m stubborn. Right now I’m in the driver’s seat and I want to be here for as long as possible, because I know that won’t always be the case.

That seems crucial, but hard.

It is! Sometimes I find it so difficult. But there’s no point beating myself up about how well I’m doing. With social media, it’s really in your face, this idea of success. But success is such a broad concept—it’s different for each person, and I feel really successful. I’ve done what’s true to me. It’s amazing that people love the clothes, but I love it even more that people understand the vibe and concept that I’m trying to get across, and have that resonate with them. The most rewarding thing for me is meeting other like-minded creative people through my work. And having amazing opportunities to keep creating—I am so thankful for that

Given that you work with materials from team sports, how do you feel about the concept of team clothing? Are you trying to create a sort of team, or community?

The stuff I make is not the easiest to wear, it’s really bright and colorful, many fitted pieces that are quite bold. I love the person who wants to be bold. I don’t know if I’m making a team, but I love the idea of community. I’ll never be the kind of brand that tries to accommodate everyone. I’m never going to be making a trenchcoat or a full collection of coats and dresses. I make what I want to make and then people can have what they want.

That’s good that it comes from an authentic place rather than trying to cater—

Yeah, catering to that cycle. I don’t like this idea of showing and selling in seasons. I love how streetwear brands work—they drop when they wanna drop, it’s not necessarily an obligation to work through seasons. It’s just one massive collection for the year, then the vibe changes. I’d love to do that. There are charities I’m working with that have an excess of garments or excess of leathers that they can donate to me, which is really nice. I love that aspect of my practice, that I’m able to work with unusable materials—single shoes or scratched items, in perfectly good condition but which they can’t sell. Right now, I’m thinking of other ways that I can get that donation happening.

Sustainability is such a contentious topic right now, and so often brands will label themselves as such but don’t actually have sustainable practices.

I think as a young designer, you just inherently must be sustainable because it’s so expensive. Everything you do, as a student too, when you’re buying your fabrics you have to be sustainable, when I was in school I wasn’t out there buying one hundred pound a meter fabric. I’d go to off-cut stores where they have the last rolls of all the fabrics they can’t sell, that’s where you get your fabric. It’s just drilled into my system now, it’s how I work and how I’ll always work.

How long does it take to produce one item?

I worked in leatherwork production, and to make one bag start to finish it takes so long, hours and hours of work. When you split up all the steps and do it almost like a factory line, it might take a week to make one leather piece, but it’d still take me a week to make three leather pieces. I just do the same step together all at once. You stay focused and watch movies while doing it. It’s just labor. I’ve taught my mom how to do some of it so she will help me sometimes. We’ll sit and watch movies and crochet. I find that part really relaxing, because you’re building something from nothing, you start with nothing and finish with a beautifully handcrafted piece—it’s so rewarding. It’s never something I would want to have mass-produced, that’s not the point.

You’ve mentioned the idea of working with fading memory and nostalgia. Does designing with that in mind help you hang onto those memories?

The relationship between nostalgia and fashion, it’s almost a double-edged sword. When it’s in its initial expression, it’s so pure, it’s a direct response to a memory or an idea, and then you forget or dilute it when you see people wear it. It does, in a way, keep the memory alive through the fact that it exists in the world. And when I look back it’s almost like being nostalgic about the clothes that I make—I’ll see them and remember exactly what I was thinking of when I was making that piece.

It’s me first, it’s not that the work comes second, but I have to make sure I’m putting myself first otherwise the work can’t happen.

How do you want your pieces to be worn? Leather repurposed from cleats, or shin pads, seems like it was created to protect.

A huge part of sustainability is that you need to make sure what you’re doing isn’t harming the environment. But if you’re making fashion, you really need to be committed. If I want to make these new things, I need to make sure that they’re good, and that they’re forever. If I’m going to put something on this earth, it’s gotta be forever. I’m not here to make an easy piece. Someone bought it because it’s special, and that’s one thing they’ll have forever. I have those things too, that’s how I relate to fashion. I don’t buy designer all the time, I can’t afford it. But if I buy something that I love, I’m buying it because I want to have it forever. That’s how I treat my creative process. I make all my fabrics myself, it’s all knitted, and if it’s not that, it’s repurposed leather. I’m making things to last.

  • Interview: Rebecca Storm
  • Photography: Rebecca Storm
  • Date: October 28, 2019