Mark Vassallo has inspired a generation of creatives around the globe. A highly respected creative director and stylist in the fashion world, he has spent nearly 30 years at the top of the industry spanning across borders in New York, Sydney and London. His sharp eye and fashion-forward intuition have seen the Australian icon work with the likes of Vanity Fair, Vogue, Farfetch, Björk, Mick Jagger and Scarlett Johansson, and spend a lifetime chasing shoots and shows across the globe. We sat down with Mark to speak about where his creativity has taken him, the evolving role of the stylist and life in New York's fastest lane.
On being the odd one out
I’m the son of immigrant parents who were given a free passage to Australia in the ’50s as a little bit of an incentive, I think it was £200 or something tiny like that, to go and start life there. I had a simple upbringing in the suburbs of Sydney and was definitely the odd one out with my desire for luxury. We were an uncomplicated happy family, both my parents had straightforward jobs and a simple lifestyle — and then there’s me discovering fashion magazines around the age of 12 and all I wanted to buy was luxury brands. I decided to get away from the suburbs and move to the city to be closer to the action.
On discovering your calling
The universe has provided for me. I trust that I’m on a certain path in life. I don’t want to call it luck, but I was put in the right places and given some great opportunities. I worked super hard, and was super passionate, and obviously had some talent that I was born with. I didn’t learn style, I didn’t study it — I just understood it, I understood what it meant, I could interpret it. I believe that it was in my destiny in a weird way because I grew up in the suburbs with not much money and a really simple life. Not that style is money, and a lot of my style inspiration comes from the suburbs.
On working for Vogue
I found my way into styling as it wasn’t a huge thing back when I started out, especially in Australia. My first editorial was for a magazine called Australian Style, with Simon Lekias, which back then was an incredible publication that was championing Australian talent. It was run by Andrea Horwood who is definitely an EA. Style commissioned shoots with Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave, and all these amazing people. Then Vogue caught wind of me. Nancy Pilcher, who was the editor at the time gave me my break and off I was on the Vogue train. I was completely the black sheep in that world, not from a wealthy eastern suburbs family, not female, and wearing Adidas tracksuits. An ethnic boy, chubby, from the suburbs that was doing shoots and covers for Australian Vogue.
On your desire to move abroad
I was twenty-something and had never left the country. I just knew I had to go to New York because that is where fashion is made. I put some money together, did a three-week reconnaissance and thought, ‘This is me. I need to get back here urgently’. I went back to Australia, then six months later I saved up $800. An Australian photographer, Hugh Stewart, had just moved to New York so he said, ‘Come and stay with me’. I went over there with this little Aussie portfolio full of Vogue tears and got an agent. I said to mum and dad, ‘I’m going back overseas again for a few months,’ then never came back. I was doing big shoots for Neiman Marcus, and L’Oreal, and making heaps of cash.
I was completely the black sheep in that world, wearing Adidas tracksuits. An ethnic boy, chubby, from the suburbs that was doing shoots and covers for Australian Vogue.
On the rise of celebrity culture
I was in New York when we went through the whole transition of celebrities in fashion. That was a big moment in the late ’90s where supermodels were on the way out and celebrities were the new fashion icons. I was doing a lot of portrait shoots for Vanity Fair so I got to meet a lot of them. One of the big ones was Scarlett Johansson. I ended up working with her on quite a few shoots. I remember another person I met through a shoot was Sigourney Weaver, who I ended up working with for a while and dressing her for the Academy Awards. It was a huge deal, she wore Dior, we flew to Paris and John Galliano made her a dress.
On the fashion world’s work ethic in New York
New York really shaped me, it taught me my craft. I already had quite a strong work ethic but in New York you work — there’s no fucking around. You work seven days a week and get paid loads of money. You work all night, and you get the job done and you never stop working, and that’s what New York’s about, really.
On New York’s shifting culture
When I first arrived in New York, I was really into hip-hop and Puff Daddy was number one back then. I did a few shoots for him and his brand, so I was super influenced by that whole scene and it filtered into my work. Then through the years, I got into techno, and I was heavily influenced through techno as well the art scene in New York, which I loved. I used to go to all of the galleries, both big and small and just wander around to escape and come up with ideas for shoots. New York was a very different city back then; it was totally free and edgy. The Lower East Side was completely creative, and people were dressed incredibly — out there and crazy. It’s very different now that it’s become a lot more commercialised.
I already had quite a strong work ethic but in New York you work — there’s no fucking around. You work seven days a week and get paid loads of money.
On fashion vs style
Fashion for me has always been about dressing up, about feeling good and looking good. Fashion changes every six months so it’s about trends, whereas style is something that is particular — someone has a style, or there’s a style of a brand, or a style of a place. For me fashion is about change, about being new; then style is about interpreting it. Everybody has a style, and you take a little bit of what’s happening in that fashion season and make it you just to refresh your style.
On stand-out fashion shows that influenced you
Galliano and Dior back in the ’90s were the ultimate. Also, Comme des Garçons. I’ll never forget a Galliano show for Dior. It was one of the first big shows I went to, where a model came down the runway in a look with a kangaroo puppet. That was an amazing moment, obviously because of my tie to Australia. The Chanel shows back then were still as amazing as they always were. And of course, McQueen, I went to the rain show in London and the NYC hurricane show, mega. The late ’90s were mega.
Collaborations feel like a very streetwear thing to me. I mean, I think that some of the best collaborations have been streetwear ones. Supreme and Vuitton, this was amazing. But the ones that people do just for the sake of it, it’s like if it’s right, and it works, and it’s something that’s an actual collaboration not just someone getting paid a lot of money to do it.
For me fashion is about change, about being new; then style is about interpreting it. Everybody has a style, and you take a little bit of what’s happening in that fashion season and make it you just to refresh your style.
On the evolving role of a stylist
It has been slowly changing. When I started it was just about the clothes, and steaming the clothes, and getting the clothes, but you never had any say in anything. Then stylists got more and more power in image making. So it was like, ‘Oh, the stylist is casting,’ or, ‘The stylist is choosing the photographer,’ or ‘Oh, the stylist is setting the mood’. I went through that whole movement in fashion where stylists became more and more involved in these projects. I felt more empowered and comfortable when I was really involved with something from the beginning so decided to move into creative direction, as did a lot of other stylists. Now I consider myself more of a content maker.
On working at Farfetch
I was given an opportunity to join Farfetch as the global creative director, it was one of those super rare moments where Farfetch was just on the verge of becoming huge. For me, Farfetch is the most incredible retail marketplace in the world. I mean, it’s amazing, it really is. It’s such a clever idea and a brilliant service, it’s all about the consumer and the service and they are a kind and wonderfully conscious company. What Farfetch needed from me at the time was someone to change their style and I had a style that they liked. I was brought in and given carte blanche to go in and do that. I would still be there if Covid didn’t hit. It’s funny because my last big international change of job and country was when I left NYC, after 9/11.
On the new world of fashion
Farfetch represents the digital luxury fashion world, and I wanted in on it. I was hungry to know how this all worked, and what happened, and what does what, and what makes an image right to be published on a computer rather than a magazine. I mean, I’ve spent my whole career making images for magazines so this whole digital world was still rather new. I learnt loads across multiple channels.
On the end of print
It seems all so old fashioned. I grew up with magazines and they’ve really tried the last four or five years, but nobody really relies on them for new and news any more. Instagram ruined that. Magazines shoot editorials and post on Instagram, that’s where they’re really getting the traction, let’s face it. So, yes, there’s a bit of romance still in printing on a piece of paper, but who cares? I don’t think anyone’s there anymore. It took me a while to be able to say that, and I’m not usually that verbal about it… I still shoot for magazines and love it. In fact, I would love to go back to working at a magazine.
I basically grew up on a flight path so I spent my whole childhood lying in the backyard looking up at planes and could literally see the bolts. I love planes, I love flying. It’s total escapism.
On creativity in the digital space
I used to make photos now I make pixels. Basically, it’s become super fast, you’re making an image now that will be seen once, maybe twice, and never seen again. So, you need to make content that’s really impactful and really strong and for it to hit the oddly formatted digital device. It needs to grab someone’s attention instantly. How are you going to get that person to stop for more than a few seconds and engage in that image? And engage with that brand? The whole industry is still learning and working it all out. Basically, what gets a click on a box.
On the appeal of London
I’d never lived in London but besides everything English which I became totally addicted to — like Windsor and the Royal Family — it was about Europe and being in that part of the world. The creatives are very different to American creatives. There’s a certain look about English creatives that I was quite into at the end. When I started at Farfetch, I was more on the New York kind of vibe, which is a bit glossier. But then I eventually started getting into that whole English aesthetic with creatives, which is a lot more real and natural.
On the future
I’m about to embark on what is possibly my last chapter. I’ve had quite a few chapters, and I’ve been around, and I’ve done different things. I tend to go in five year stints, and then I need a little bit of air. I’m home now, I always say this and then I end up going back overseas! I think I really want to stay in Australia, but you never know. All I know is that my last chapter is going to be for me. I’ve spent most of my career being all about the other person, and making the client happy, or making the boss happy. But this next chapter is going to be about stuff that I want to do, and only that I want to do. It might not even be fashion, who knows? I’m super open right now and I just want to see where everything goes.
On a window or an aisle seat
I’m a window seat, definitely. I like to look out. I love clouds. I basically grew up on a flight path so I spent my whole childhood lying in the backyard looking up at planes and could literally see the bolts. I love planes, I love flying, I think it’s the most incredible thing. I’ve spent many, many hours flying. It’s total escapism.
On Sydney in one word
On New York in one word
On London in one word
food and drink
food and drink