Melbourne boy Jason Gibaud has had a bit of a wild and whimsical ride, one that’s taken him from interior design school to Hollywood films to a factory in Ho Chi Minh City.
Along the way he picked up a wife and partner-in-creativity and created three children and a fashion line for kids.
Jason and his wife, Michelle Fallon, met in Brisbane, where they both studied a Bachelor of Built Environment at Queensland University of Technology, majoring in interior design.
But after graduation, they decided interior design wasn’t really for them, so they applied to the prestigious Sydney-based National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), the Australian film school that counts Academy Award-winning actor Cate Blanchette and director Baz Lurhmann among its alumni.
At NIDA, Jason studied costume design and Michelle studied set design, and soon they were working with the stars.
Jason worked on international feature films, including Moulin Rouge, Peter Pan, Scooby Doo and Star Wars: Episode Two – Attack of the Clones.
“We had a bit of a gypsy life,” Jason said. “We went where the films were — Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.”
“Our daughter Veve had lived in 26 houses by the time she was eight years old.”
During this nomadic period of their lives, Jason created the costumes for the extras in Star Wars and was the head art finisher on the 2001 film Moulin Rouge, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two, including best costume design.
One day Jason was reading a magazine that featured idyllic scenes from rural Australia. “I decided I wanted to live in the country,” he said. “So we packed up our house and got in the car and drove to Mullumbimby. We decided when we got there we needed a job, so we started our label.”
Mullumbimby is a hippyish town of about 7,000 people in northern New South Wales, a short drive from the New Age and surfing tourist destination of Byron Bay.
Here, Jason and Michelle formed a network of sewers and cutters, dotted throughout the countryside.
But Paper Wings outgrew Mullumbimby, even after the enterprise moved out of their house and into a local business incubator.
As luck would have it, Jason met an Indian guy, who convinced him that moving their operations to India would give the fashion line the room it needed to grow.
“We worked with a wonderful factory there that was run by nuns,” Jason said. “It was set up around a convent, and employed girls with no family, or with disfigurements that prevented them from marriage. It supported them with a place to live and jobs.”
Jason said the factory, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, was quite an “eccentric” place, especially because the nuns’ reaction to any operational problem was to go to the chapel and pray.
“They were the warmest and most caring women, but it was obvious that managing a business that way was not practical or reliable,” he said.
Unfortunately, the sheer eccentricity of the factory made production unworkable, and friends suggested Vietnam, with its thriving textile industry, as an alternative base.
Jason and Michelle checked it out, and eight years ago they packed up moved their operations and their children to Ho Chi Minh City.
“This place has a great atmosphere and the workers are really skilled and really proud of what they do,” Jason said. “That really appealed to me, that sense of pride.”
“I also found that, after India, things seemed quite organised.”
Even so, growing their Paper Wings business has not been easy, especially for someone like Jason who wanted to be a designer but has ended up a manager.
“I unfortunately have to do the jobs of two or three people,” he said. “Design is often pushed to the bottom of the list, and it’s the thing that gets really rushed.”
When Jason and Michelle first started manufacturing in Vietnam, they used a local factory. But as their business grew, they realised that outsourcing was actually making things less efficient.
Now, they have a small factory in Thu Duc District with 75 employees, knitting machines that makes their own jersey, and a digital printer that puts Jason’s designs directly onto the fabric.
The Paper Wings factory is funky, functional and full of light, overlooking a big beautiful old mango tree. About 100,000 garments a year are made here, almost exclusively for export to the US and Australia.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Jason said. “It’s very difficult to navigate the way things work in Vietnam and also understand the cultural differences in how we are used to working and how things work here.”
Paper Wings has a strong emphasis on sustainability. All the garments use natural fibres, and Jason and Michelle try to reduce waste as much as possible, and recycle everything they can. Fabric offcuts are used to make “patchwork” pyjamas, tote bags, plush toys and cup holders.
Jason’s goal is to make children’s fashion fun, with garments that are comfortable and robust, which look and feel great in motion.
“There’s no reason why children’s clothes should be dumbed down because they’re children,” Jason said. “It’s not just whacking a teddy bear on a t-shirt and calling it children’s fashion. Kids have complex ideas going on in their heads and they’re incredibly imaginative. As a designer, I have to compete with that.”
Paper Wings clothes are also designed for longevity, so the pieces can be worn for many years. Maybe a dress begins as a long dress, then “grows” into a mini, and then maybe it’s used as a shirt, Jason said.
“We know people who’ve bought our products and they’ve lasted through three children and now they’re keeping it for their grandkids,” he said. “Hearing stories like that gives us such a great feeling, especially as we work in a business that’s often an environmental disaster.”
Jason said he’s “forever grateful” for what Vietnam has allowed him to do, developing their business into what it is today.