The faceless man of fashion speaks out about diversity ahead of Fashion Week

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While faceless men in politics usually cause an unwelcome stir in the corridors of power, the work of one faceless man in the Australian fashion industry evokes such a visceral response he brings people to tears without saying a word.

After more than 25 years in the business, creative director and stylist Mark Vassallo is considered the Martin Scorsese of fashion. In his trademark black outfits and quiet demeanour, he is one of the most sought after creative minds behind the seams and behind the scenes.

He’s also just as crafty as the Canberra types, having gotten his start in fashion by lying about his age.

“I started at Vogue when I was super young but I actually lied about my age because I was so young. For some reason I thought telling them I was 30 when I was actually 23 would help me get the job,” he said. “And it did.”

He went on to work for the now defunct Australian Style magazine in the 1990s, before working in New York for eight years, shooting for Vogue and dressing Mick Jagger and Sigourney Weaver for the Academy Awards. He returned home to take up style director roles with Oyster magazine, Harper’s Bazaar and Grazia.

Nowadays his Fashion Week shows are not just a gaggle of glamorous models strutting on a catwalk. They are one-act stage shows comprised of 15 minutes of drama, emotion and stunning costumes. It’s an art form he’s been finessing at Fashion Week in Sydney for more than six years.

“I treat my shows like theatre,” he said. “I’m always either trying to pull the heart strings or, not so much shock people, but really trying to bring people into a certain world and landscape.”

For this year’s Fashion Week Australia, which starts in Sydney on Sunday, Vassallo will be responsible for six runway shows. While he and the labels he’s involved with wouldn’t be drawn on how much it costs to produce a Fashion Week show, he said some budgets can be as much as $100,000, but “they rely heavily on sponsors”.

He will be creative director for the final show of the schedule, Romance Was Born, and Dion Lee’s opening night show under the sails of the Opera House on Sunday. He’s also been recruited to style shows for Bianca Spender, Ten Pieces, Vale and Sass & Bide, for the brand’s first Fashion Week foray in 14 years.

This year he has been heavily involved in the model castings and has pushed hard to recruit a diverse range of faces and body types for his shows. Eschewing professional models for faces he’s noticed on Instagram.

“It’s exciting for me that a lot of my models aren’t from agencies. I do a lot of my casting from Instagram. I’ve got a car full of boys, all surfers from Byron, driving down to walk in one of the shows,” he said.

“I think people really relate to that a bit more now too, consumers as well. We’re in the fashion game, we’re always dreaming and wanting to inspire people, but I think we’re in for a bit of a reality check this year and that perhaps got to do with the reality check going on around the world. There’s a lot of realness going on.

“It has certainly happened overseas where there have been more interesting models on a runway, not just all 5-foot-10, long hair, really skinny models. I’ve been doing this for quite a few years but because of what’s happening out there it’s become more prominent,” he said.

As well as a range of ethnicities, Vassallo has also cast models in their 50s and women who wear sizes 10 and 12 (professional models usually range from sizes 6 to 8 in Australia).

“That’s pretty huge for Sydney,” he said “I can’t imagine anyone else trying that one on, but what we’ll really see is a really diverse line up of models, which will be a common thread throughout the week,” he said.

Five things to look out for at Fashion Week Australia:

Lianna Perdis on the runway for Christopher Esber

The 17-year-old daughter of make-up mogul Napoleon will fly in from her base in Athens to walk for Esber in his Tuesday night show. She’ll then return home to resume to sit her high school exams.

Real life Zoolander Jordan Barrett 

Fresh from attending the Met Gala in New York, Kate Moss’ favourite Australian model of the moment will open and close the show for new kid on the fashion block, Justin Cassin, on Monday. 

Kym Ellery’s homecoming

The designer, who made flares happen for a new generation and now shows on schedule at Paris Fashion Week, is returning to Australia on Wednesday to host a 10-year celebration of her label.

We Are Kindred’s bikinis

The luxe bohemian label of sisters Lizzie and Georgie Renkert, who were recently nominated for a BT Emerging Designer Award, will be introducing their swimwear range on Wednesday.

Double Rainbouu’s loud shirts

Toby Jones and Mikey Nolan, former art and creative directors of Ksubi, will launch their new label, which is all about bringing back the Hawaiian shirt. All their pieces are made from 100 per cent rayon. Bring your sunglasses to the show on Monday.

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