Award-winning brand Paolina Russo explains how to bring heritage handcraft into a future context
The London-based womenswear label is specialising in craft and knitwear and textile innovation. We meet founders Alex Russo and Lucile Guilmard backstage after their praised runway show in Copenhagen.
11 Aug 2023

For Russo and Guilmard, innovation isn’t necessarily about doing something that’s futuristic or that has never been done before.

— It’s more about understanding craft and how to bring the craft into a future context, Russo explains. For example, a lot of the knitwear in the collection started as hand knitting techniques. All of the knitted corsets have ’cables’. We call them our ’Warrior knits’. When you wear them, you feel strong and powerful — at the same time, they’re soft and comfortable to wear. And our ’Illusion knits’ come with knitwear techniques so as the wearer moves, images appear and disappear. We’ve taken it from a handling technique and developed it to be automised. This is how we see innovation in textiles. 

— A big part of what we do is we take heritage handcraft and figure out how to kind of innovate and bring them into a future context. So for example, the dress that I’m wearing and signature pieces in the show have a lenticular effect and have images that appear and disappear, as you move. It started as a hand-knitting technique that we then developed to be automised, meaning we could do different motifs and graphics and prints every season.

— Longevity over novelty is also really important for us, and to be able to develop the techniques into automated processes to understand how they can exist in the long term, says Guilmard. We’re repeating them from season to season, improving them, and understanding how we can make them better.

You were given the opportunity to show at the official show schedule after winning the Zalando Visionary Award. Do you feel visionary as a label?

— We’ve always had a strong idea of who we are as people and how we express ourselves in our own ’human experience’. Having a brand and this community of other creatives around us, we’re able to express that in so many different facets, whether it’s the clothes, the music of the show, the set, and the cast, says Russo.

— For us, vision is to, at the same time, be comfortable and push what you believe in, and also about being challenged, says Guilmard. The community that is around us — manufacturers, our friends, and everybody that we work with — permits us to have all of those aspects and have the vision pushed forward. The community that we want to create is a very collaborative environment.

The show featured a set design with big Neolithic stone relics, which were 3D sculpted, and so were the earrings, by the artist Leo DMB. The denim featured innovative washes, developed together with Pizarro, a sustainable denim laundry based in Porto.

— All of the prints are laser etched into the denim, meaning they don’t use any water, says Russo. There’s zero wastage using that, it’s a sustainable way to approach graphics into denim. For Spring/Summer -24, we also wanted to explore cotton, cotton as a fibre, and how it can be explored in many different aspects, with denim, jersey, or knitting.

— Mono fibre is really important for us — here, we’re exploring the versatility of a single material and what we can do with it, says Guilmard.

3D sculpted earrings by Leo DMB. Photography: Lasse Bak Mejlvang

The so-called more sustainable fabrics can also be more expensive. It might be hard for an emerging brand to source those materials. How do you work?

— We work very much on the factory floor. It’s about us explaining what we want and how we want to develop the pieces and work the prices down. The human hand and the community are very important to us and so is having this very strong relationship with the people who are making the clothes with us, understanding their expertise and bringing the ideas. The mix of the two is what we believe will push craft into the future, says Guilmard.

— We work closely with a knitwear studio in London called Loop Studio, Russo explains. They’ve been working with us ever since we were still students on our BA (at Central Saint Martins, Ed’s note). Over time, they’ve seen us grow and we’ve developed products together. We are taking our time and working closely with our manufacturers to make sure that we do something that is sustainable and responsible, a product that we’re happy to put out, and achievable for people to buy.

And how is the reception when you reach out to these industry players? They still need to make a profit, are they open to collaborations with emerging brands like you, instead of working with bigger companies?

— I think so, says Russo. As an emerging brand, what we’re bringing are new approaches to how the industry should look. So we’re just really excited to learn from their expertise but, at the same time, bring our new ideas and what we think should change in the future. People also forget that these companies seem really big but behind them, there are just people. So, actually, it’s all about human relationships.