“Those early, experimental days really paid off,” says stylist Alex Zabotto-Bentley. He went through the early New Wave look with oversized ’50s men’s suit pants from a thrift shop cinched at the waist, a white grandpa shirt, leather cap and a mega teased fringe to shaving his hair into a mohican and his version of Vivienne Westwood’s pirate collection through to the slick mod suiting of The Jam, he says. “I found I had a knack for interpreting trends and creating new looks.” At the same time a lot of Alex’s friends were starting out as photographers so they often teamed up. “The early days were hilarious, and wonderfully creative,” he says. Alex would raid friends’ wardrobes and op-shops, and discover up-and-coming designers, and the jobs kept coming. Increasingly, they were from people he didn’t know, with requests to style products, campaigns and window displays. Then the agencies came knocking. “It suddenly took off like crazy and that’s when I knew I had to drop my studies and commit to this exciting new career move. It just felt right,” Alex says. “It was also rare at that time for guys to be stylists, so I guess I stood out. I also started working on the both the styling and creative side for TV commercials in Melbourne, so styling naturally segued into fashion, art, decoration, interiors, colour selection, and now furniture, events… the possibilities are boundless.”
Perhaps one of the biggest highlights was when Vogue Australia editor Nancy Pilcher flew him up to Sydney from his native Melbourne to be offered the position of men’s fashion director. “That moment I realised, ‘Hey, this is real!’ I was being recognised for my attention to detail and design knowledge, my photographic styling, my taste level and my own style,” he says. “It was a wonderful moment, and I will never forget that time, creating life-long connections within the Sydney fashion and creative world. It was truly humbling that Nancy had seen something in me, and wanted to help me reach my potential.”
Which five words best describe you? Passionate, generous, insightful, intuitive, spiritual - a typical Leo, really.
How did you get your career start and what path have you taken since? I was at uni in Melbourne simultaneously studying for a psychology degree and another in classical studies - I’ve always been a multi-tasker, and I got to the point where I was physically and mentally imploding. At the same time, I was lured by the creativity of Melbourne’s early club scene: iconic clubs like Inflation, The Chevron and Chasers, mixing with other club kids who were all unique and creative in their own right. I felt so inspired by this amazing subculture that was drawing me in. And so, I deferred uni - forever, it seems! - and moved into this new world of styling and creating. I was living with friends in a massive disused top floor space right on Flinders Street, mixing these amazing people. We were all starting out, so it was really exciting and supportive. Those connections became the foundation of my career. Many of those people are still close friends and have become incredibly successful in their own right.
What’s the best lesson you’ve learnt along the way? Passion is only part of the equation to success. You need dedication and consistency, with a real understanding of business.
What’s your proudest career achievement? Actually there have been a number of milestones for me. With every project I commit to, I make sure there is a pinnacle - something that I strive for - so that when I hit it, I am overcome with joy. It helps in the difficult moments to look up to that goal. Creating these mini milestones is really gratifying and valuable over the course of a career. It means that no single moment is the proudest, but when I reflect back, I have a life filled with so many high points. I love thinking of it like that. It also means there’s no resting on your laurels – it’s always on to the next challenge!
To name a few: creating the label FASHION ASSASSIN and selling to 38 stockists and David Jones in the first month of trading, was a real “pinch me” moment. Being the opening night show of MAFW, with an audience of over 1000; styling Prince, Kylie, Delta Goodrum, INXS… More recently, flying 280 fashion delegates in from Europe for an amazing weeklong road trip to launch the international collections of Diesel, Levi’s, Nudie and Lee. Receiving the Gold Prize for Design for the interior design, build and creation of the Masterchef Pop-up restaurant and bar at the 2013 International design awards. And more high points to come.
What’s been your best decision? It might sound counterintuitive in such a hectic business, but I make sure I take one month off every year and travel to a distant location and immerse myself in the culture. It might be Buenos Aires, Brazil, Barcelona, Italy, Greece... I need that time to recharge and get inspired.
Who inspires you? The role call for my inspirations is massive. I draw inspiration from everywhere - from painting to music, authors to architects, visionaries to philosophers. I look at the works of great artists: from Caravaggio to Picasso, from the classical sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome, to Alexander Calder; thinkers and writers from Genet to Plath, designers from Gio Ponti to Philipe Starck, and architects from the Romans to Mies van der Rohe. As you can imagine, I have a big library. I glean from all sources. I love to get right inside an idea or a movement, study it thoroughly, understand it completely, and then distil the essence – and that’s what I take with me.
What are you passionate about? I am passionate about creating beautiful, immersive environments. It could be an interior, a pop-up or an experience. I love connecting with people on an emotional level with something I have created. People are the essential extra elements in all my designs; that interaction and communication is my biggest buzz.
And I must confess, I am also very passionate about hugging. It might sound a bit odd and new age, but ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you about my AZB hugs. Life is precious and fleeting and I want to make sure everyone knows that they are important to me with a hug. It’s great for the soul!
Which person, living or dead, would you most like to meet? Actually Salvador Dali, if I could speak his native Catalan. To experience that man and his mind for even a couple hours would be magnificent. Oh, and Freddie Mercury - just to hear him sing again. What a performer!
What dream do you still want to fulfil? I want to renovate a glorious, crumbling old, Italian palazzo - in Italy, of course.
What are you reading? I’m usually reading at least two books concurrently. At the moment, I’m obsessed with biographies and autobiographies. I’ve just finished reading Just Kids by Patti Smith; it’s the poignant story of the creation of two wildly talented artists/poets: herself and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, these magical misfits who gravitated towards each other; beautiful, inspiring and sad.