At left, the designer and Australian Fashion Foundation award recipient Georgia Lazzaro on arrival in New York seven years ago; at right, Look 17 from Louis Vuitton menswear Spring Summer 2018

A feeling of closeness, or intimacy, is as much a character trait in the collections of Protagonist, the ready-to-wear label that debuted in 2013 under the stewardship of Vanessa Traina’s multi-faceted retail concept, The Line, as precision of cut and exacting fabrications. A striking proposition for a wardrobe of elevated staples posited on the premise that the wearer is, and always will be, the central character in their own story, Protagonist is today helmed by New York-based Australian design director Georgia Lazzaro, whose own story pivots as much around feelings of closeness as it does the intense subtleties of her craft.

“Working in design studios of that nature can [be] very emotionally challenging and fortifying as everybody holds the work very close to their hearts,” Lazzaro says of time spent cutting her teeth under the tutelage of Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein and then under Narciso Rodriguez at his eponymous label.

“I indirectly bring this feeling and closeness with me to whatever work I do,” she tells GRAZIA. “In fact, I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

Lazzaro arrived in New York from Melbourne seven years ago after seven years of university; three spent studying fine arts at Monash, and four devoted to the study of fashion design at RMIT. Hungry, she says, for international experience, Lazzaro, then 25, intended to earn a place interning overseas upon graduating along with many of her contemporaries both at home and abroad. That she should have landed on her feet at both Calvin Klein and Narciso Rodriguez sounds both serendipitous and implausible at best, and in many ways, it likely is for many. After all, first hand exposure to two of the industry’s greats doesn’t come easily. Lazzaro, however, arrived in the Midtown’s Garment District equipped with the inaugural Australian Fashion Foundation scholarship, and with it, connections to a calibre of talent within an already rarefied world that otherwise would have never been feasible, in more ways than one.

“Winning the scholarship has been utterly crucial in my trajectory,” says Lazzaro, who advanced to earn a place in the celebrity/special projects arm of the ready-to-wear division of what was then deemed Calvin Klein Collection, an arm of Costa’s studio dedicated to producing the then-designer’s directional runway collections, as well as those one-off garments produced for the high-profile events of the label’s celebrity clientele. A role as senior ready-to-wear designer at Rodriguez’s label would soon follow after. “I cannot stress this enough as the industry is terribly competitive, and tricky to navigate as a young designer. Firstly, for the fact that any application sent by myself may very well have been overlooked – even just eight years ago Australia felt a lot further away! To have incredibly renowned and highly esteemed industry individuals – Malcolm Carfrae and [stylist] Brana Wolf – recommending you is an incredibly unique and special opportunity.”

The importance of those introductions – the right word whispered in the right ear; an indelible and invaluable piece of advice – is central to the mission of the foundation and its co-founder, Carfrae. A mentor for the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Incubator program and a board member of the Australian Fashion Chamber, Carfrae and founder of VFILES and president of Colac Pictures, Julie Anne Quay, launched the Australian Fashion Foundation in 2008 with a view to propelling Australian grown talent outward into the global fashion industry. The endeavour hinges on the belief that with world class experiences, Australians can return home with globally recognised training and all-important contacts that benefit not only a new generation of talent but, in return, the wellbeing of the Australian fashion industry. The recipient of the fund not only receives invaluable six-month placement at some of the world’s most lauded fashion houses – past recipients have embedded at Proenza Schouler, Alexander McQueen, Thom Browne, LVMH and DVF – but the all-important financial support that makes the prospect of undertaking an unpaid internship in some of the world’s most financially taxing cities a possibility.

“To have had the financial capacity to make oneself available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to both Francisco Costa and Narciso Rodriguez (and not have to work a job on the side to afford to eat) enabled me to not only progress quickly in terms of the skills and knowledge I was acquiring, but also gave me the opportunity to make myself as indispensable as I could,” says Lazzaro, who adds that it was only by gaining a great deal of trust through availability to each creative director and their respective design teams that she was able to gain eligibility as a candidate for full-time employment.

In December 2015, Lazzaro was appointed design director at Protagonist, a fitting culmination of her exposure to and experience working alongside two of the industry’s great minimalists for whom a purity of form is paramount. It’s an ethos readily discerned in her work for Protagonist, a label that takes a pragmatic approach to luxury that eschews seasonal ephemerality in favour of a wardrobe of discerning and rigorously studied classics. Lazzaro now finds herself in an enviable position, having made the leap from being dependent on patronage to pursuing her life’s work in earnest. Can she foresee a time when she returns to Australia?

“I think perhaps the location of where you design and work is becoming somewhat redundant as the industry evolves,” says Lazzaro. “I think it’s more about the particularities of how a brand looks and feels and connects with you emotionally, as opposed to where it is based. And then and even more important discussion to be had is really about the location in which you chose to produce the clothing. Not necessarily where you design it. That said, being in a community or environment where you can feel motivated to make work is paramount.

“I do think it is a great shame that Australia loses many great talents to the allure of international experience and this happens across all industries. However, I also feel that that great curiosity and open-mindedness is intrinsic and unique to the Australian psyche and something we should feel proud of. That adaptability is what gives us a unique kind of currency allowing us to situate ourselves and build successful careers in completely foreign contexts. [The Australian Fashion Foundation] does a beautiful job of recognising this and creating tangible outcomes and opportunity for this great curiosity and ambition we have. It situates us on a global level, which is utterly crucial for designers to gain a competitive edge in the current market and make relevant work to reflect this.”

It’s a sentiment shared by another recipient of the fund, Alexander Oscar Kelvy, who was awarded the scholarship in 2014 and received placement with luxury conglomerate LVMH. For Kelvy, the Australian Fashion Foundation award was front of mind from the time he also commenced studying fashion at RMIT, making the experience of realising that dream all the more poignant. Kelvy, a menswear designer by trade whose past work experience included formative time spent at Pageant, Calvin Klein and Wootten, landed in the leather goods department at Louis Vuitton courtesy of the fund.

“It was a total upheaval”, he tells GRAZIA. “The first six months and for quite a while after were massive learning curves in most aspects of my life: routines, language, how people interact, weather, how I spent my days at work and outside of work.” Kelvy has since been employed as a men’s footwear designer at Vuitton, exposing him to a whole new world of product, and with it, a new world of considerations to take into account given the enormity of product included within the scope of the division across mainline, pre-collection and runway. “Whilst I have worked very hard, the scholarship has been critical to my success so far,” says Kelvy. “I really don’t know how I would have got here without it.”

As for the chances of stemming the cultural crisis of Australia’s cultural brain drain, Kelvy likewise remains optimistic that a time will come where developments bring Australia’s fashion industry even closer in alignment with patterns of the global market. “I think it’s hard to compete with the amount of learning [and] experiences that come with high density cities and countries with big culture related industries,” says Kelvy, “But I do also feel the landscape, especially supply chains and systems of production, are going to change considerably in the near future. I think this will present opportunities that will be easier for Australia to take advantage of.” Until then, Kelvy – and Lazzaro alike – implore those hoping to follow a similar trajectory simply embrace an ethos that is quintessentially Australia: give it a go.

“Work hard, be kind to yourself and be authentic,” says Kelvy. “Sit down, think about what you want and talk to people about what you want, and then work towards putting yourself in situations where there are opportunities for learning things you need to get you there.”

“[Do not] doubt oneself for a minute and go for it,” says Lazzaro. “Every application is studied in depth, and by multiple figures in the industry. To have that degree of exposure to the judging panel alone is a great thing. It’s a wonderful opportunity for exposure of one’s work, irrespective of winning.

“It is that uncertainty and unknown that makes the experience so formative and so exciting.”

Applications for the 2017/18 Australian Fashion Fund Scholarship Awards close November 30, 2017. Two recipients will each receive a $20,000 grant and a six month internship with a global fashion powerhouse in New York City or Europe. More information is available here.

Tile and cover image: Courtesy of Protagonist