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Central St. Martin’s fashion student and knitwear designer Paolina Russo.

Canadian illustrator and designer Paolina Russo has captured the attention of fashion-world icon John Galliano and her profile just keeps growing

Tales of iconic designers inspired by their famous muses are the stuff fashion legends are made of. So, it was with great curiosity that I welcomed the news that John Galliano, who's been keeping a low profile since taking the helm at Maison Margiela after leaving Dior, named a young Canadian as his latest muse. In an interview with Business of Fashion's Tim Blanks late last year, Galliano cited 21-year-old Paolina Russo, a Central St. Martin's fashion student who has been interning for him, as a great source of inspiration. Russo, referred to by Galliano as one of the "Instagram babes" he follows, was born and raised in Markham, Ont. by an Italian father and a Filipino mother. She took her first trip to the UK when she was 16 and fell in love with the creative energy of London's art scene.

Eventually enrolling in the prestigious Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design, Russo found her calling in fashion. Having just completed her third year, and moved back to London from Paris where she interned at Maison Margiela, Russo is an aspiring knitwear designer and illustrator whose quirky and colourful creations are earning respect among the cognoscenti of cool. She's currently preparing her first graduation collection, but she's already styled videos for London girl band Dream Wife, and has been photographed by Kendall Jenner for the hip UK magazine Love. I spoke with Russo when she was home in Markham on holidays, to learn how she grew into the artistic young woman she's become, what she's learned from working with Galliano, and how London feeds her optimism about the future of fashion.

Paolina Russo's extravagant knitwear designs.

When did you first get bitten by the fashion bug?

My mom has really amazing taste and style and she would bring us to charity shops like Value Village. I would shop a lot of vintage, so growing up, I really liked to dress a bit differently. I was really eccentric, especially in high school, dressing colourfully and dying my hair and cutting up all my clothes and stuff. It was more of a personal thing that I enjoyed for myself.

But when I was 16, I visited London for the first time to do a short course at the University of the Arts London to see what I wanted to do in the future. I was inspired by the city and was learning more about the fashion schools there and what I could do. But it wasn't until I really started studying that I realized I wanted to do fashion. It wasn't a planned thing. Everything kind of happened, just fell into place. I went to Central Saint Martins and the foundation program allowed me to try out everything. I went in thinking I was definitely going to do painting or sculpture, but you get to try different things when you're there. And when I did the fine art portion of my course, I really didn't enjoy it at all. I was confused and let down. But once I got to the fashion part of the course, I was so excited by it. It just felt really natural.

Support from family is always important, and it's wonderful to see the support your mom has given you.

My whole family is extremely supportive because this is not anything that anyone has ever done in our family, especially living so far from home, or going to study art. I mean I'm the first person in my family to ever go to university, so it's a really huge deal for everyone. I'd love to be able to give back to them somehow in the future.

Do you think that there's a shift toward a more artistic sensibility when it comes to designing fashion for a lot of young designers? Or has it become a balancing act of art versus commerce?

Being in school right now, I see a shift toward being more commercial. I can see it in a lot of students and in a lot of the young designers coming out now, because there's this need to be extremely commercial if you want to be successful or be able to sustain yourself by any means. But because I'm in school, I have the most amazing opportunity to express myself artistically. That's something I want to continue doing. In school, there isn't that pressure of needing to sell or needing to be commercial, so we get to be extremely experimental, expressive and artistic. And then we're able to go out and work in the industry interning. I think artistic platforms still exist and there are people still pushing for that artistic expression. But there is also that balance, where people need to sustain their businesses. It's a bit difficult. I've met and worked with a lot of people who are being extremely artistic and expressive, not all in a commercial sense, and are able to continue doing that… so there is some push, especially amongst young people. I can see the push for people to want to continue to be artistic.

Russo interned at Maison Margiela.

John Galliano cited you as a muse and a source of inspiration to him. How do you feel about that?

It was a surreal moment for me. I didn't really know that he was going to say that in the interview. But I feel really honoured because he's one of my fashion-design heroes.

Why do you think Galliano is so amazing?

When I was growing up, I just found all of his work extremely inspiring because it was so surreal. It told such a story, and it really did feel like art to me. I didn't think that fashion could be like that. So it opened my mind up to the idea that fashion could be like a story or an art piece. He was one of the names that I've always known and kept up with growing up.

What have you learned from him, while working at Maison Margiela?

I continually learned things everyday. It was so hands-on. Everyone was so involved with the creative process. We did all the research and made all the samples. It was really a collaborative effort. What I learned the most is how involved everyone can be and how to work with people and collaborate. It's really such a privilege to work with people who have been in this industry for so long as well, because everyone who's working there has worked with John in the past, so just working beside them and having them listening to my ideas or [being able to] listen to other people's ideas – well, it was really amazing. There wasn't that hierarchy. It was really open and everyone wanted to keep building off each other and learning and growing and coming up with new ideas, so it was really cool.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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