As a Canadian from Markham, Ontario, designer Paolina Russo never imagined she would have a career in fashion. “Growing up in the suburbs, I didn’t know anyone who was a designer or even worked in fashion,” she says. Even so, Russo, who is now based in London, still grew up with an innate desire to create—and she often had to get creative in order to produce the ideas floating around in her head. “I always made my own clothes,” she says. “I used to shop at Value Village and try to recreate things that I saw in Vogue.”
One way Russo began experimenting with fashion was by infusing her environment into her designs; in Canada, that meant all things sports—an area that still serves as the major inspiration for her work today. “With all my collections, it’s like this huge Frankenstein mashup of every sport that you played as a kid,” Russo says. “There wasn’t much to do in Markham other than sports. I did soccer when I was really young, and then I did Taekwondo for several years.”
Before moving to London in 2013 to study at Central Saint Martins—first studying fine art, then fashion design with a focus on knitwear—Russo began getting serious about design back in Markham. She would create things made from found objects (she and her sister were majorly into arts and crafts), or piece looks together out of discarded sports equipment. “I love to be able to transform objects and materials into something that you wouldn’t expect, I think it’s really beautiful,” says Russo. “My aunt was the head of the soccer club in Markham, and loads of people there would just donate me all of their old equipment: jerseys and stuff like that.” She ended up using many of these sporty materials in her first B.A. collection at Central Saint Martins, shown back in 2018. “I worked a lot with reclaimed materials: recycling shoes and sneakers into corsets and dresses,” she says.
During her early years in school, Russo interned with John Galliano at Maison Margiela, an experience that further shaped her as a designer. “I got to work really closely with him on the Artisanal team,” Russo says. “Seeing him develop a collection from beginning to end was inspiring, and it really helped me imagine for myself how I would do it.” She soon got the opportunity to do so on a larger scale: in 2019, a year after first showing her graduate collection, Russo’s work caught the eye of Adidas for a special collaboration. Along with two other London-based designers, she participated in a group showing with the brand during Paris Men’s Fashion Week—not a bad accomplishment while still being a student. “We only had two days to do it, it was crazy,” says Russo of the capsule collection, which included her trippy takes on the brand’s performance wear, including optical illusion bustier tops to cycling shorts. They were all made in Russo’s signature: knits. (Variations of these designs are now available on SSENSE.) She also made her shoe debut, too. “Their Super Court Trainer had come out that year, so I transformed it into a boot,” Russo adds.