He’s an ex-accountant, the last of 11 siblings born to Australian immigrants (and the only one born in the Land Down Under) and the grandson of Birkirkara band club leader Giuseppe Busuttil, who just happened to be the original composer of what has now become the Labour anthem ‘Ma Tagħmlu Xejn…’
Jason Grech will be helping out with Birkirkara’s feast this weekend and has a special surprise in store for those in attendance.
He is more than just the Australian award-winning fashion designer we’ve grown accustomed to heralding in Malta though.
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His mother and father relocated to Australia before he was born, but despite being so far away from Malta, he grew up speaking Maltese at home. Because of this, Jason can read, understand and speak Maltese as fluently as any homegrown local.
Being from a large family meant that every big birthday would roll around with a holiday to the island; a chance for his parents to keep him in touch with his heritage.
The decision to move from accountancy to fashion was one that came to him at the age of 21.
After parting ways with his first love, 1997 saw Jason heading back to Malta to figure himself out.
With the understanding of digits and numbers and how they interact with each other, it only made sense to build on what he had already learned. After returning to Australia in 1997, Grech chose to study at the Kangan Institute, where he was one of their inaugural inductees into the institute’s hall of fame alumni.
As Jason puts it, he had “found a way of transforming numbers from their 2D forms into something three-dimensional”
While studying, he sought out work experience with Barbara Wilson, a well known Australian designer whose receptionist had initially declined his offer to intern. Never one to back down, Jason called back immediately and asked to speak with Barbara herself, who only leapt at the chance to take him under her wing as a pattern maker.
Five days turned into 10, and those 10 days wound up scoring him a part-time job at the studio. After only a month in the position, he was offered a full-time stint with the label where he juggled his studies with a four-day work week.
Jason joined the team as a junior and worked his way up to the position of designer.
When Jason had graduated, he wanted to ride the momentum of self-appreciation and booked himself on a self-motivation course shortly after grabbing his certificate.
“I learnt to stop limiting my self-belief, it really helps you stop being unreasonable with yourself about what stops you: your fears.”
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Jason returned from the retreat with a fresh outlook on life, and in 2003 decided to break away from his work with Wilson’s label and burgeon on his own path.
Jason Grech’s mother always told him to write his name down in clothes so he wouldn’t lose them.
And he took the advice to heart when deciding to use his name as the moniker for his brand.
Jason worked day and night, seven days a week for the first six years, with the realisation that stopping operations for even a second could result in a loss of capital. Agencies were refusing him potential store locations, and being a relatively new brand wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to work with in the early days of his career.
Jason labelled himself a big risk to the industry and instead went in the direction of wholesale.
He managed to get into 13 of Australia’s biggest stores at the time. His first big break came when he was recognised as Caulfield Cup Designer in 2004 as a Mercedes Benz Start-up finalist.
As the story goes, a judge at the event had requested Jason bring his collection to her hotel room where she then styled herself in five of his pieces and it was in that moment he realised things were not about to slow down for him.
Jason jumped into his van and drove straight into Sydney shortly after.
Cold-calling on a list of ideal stores fit to resell his collection, he took an early break and called up Channel 7’s wardrobe department, who introduced him to their stylist who dressed some of the biggest names in TV hosting with his attire.
Wholesale was suffering in the current state of the economy, so naturally, Jason sought a new venture.
Leasing a small store, he set up shop targeting the female 18-25 demographic for party wear and dressed woman in Australia for their birthdays, formals and other huge events. It was during this stage of his career that Jason was asked by a friend to design her wedding dress, to which he gratefully obliged.
“I was approached by a number of women who wanted me to design their gowns which is how the wedding dresses came into the equation.”
Jason then directed his focus on evening wear and basic bridal – something a lot more elaborate than he was used to.
When the global financial crisis hit, Jason found retreat in an old horse stable outside of Melbourne where he based his operations from home.
With Jason living upstairs, he always finds it hard to separate himself from his work. The downstairs atelier also has a personal bar for guests and clients to relax in during fittings and consultations.
“Life is still very much surreal,” Jason tells us. “I was the first designer to partner with IBM for their Cognitive Couture collaboration,” a collection that started with Jason and IBM analysing the data spat out by algorithmic systems to predict up and coming trends in patterns, colours, materials, cuts and all.
After ending a 15-year long relationship, Jason found himself at a somewhat of a low point
His partner was tied up in the brand and while it wasn’t exactly a messy split, he still felt like Tina Turner’s one divorce request was very much relatable.
“All I wanted was my name. My soul was on fire, I was being born again.”
It took him a very long time and it cost him an absolute fortune, but with his hard work and determination driving him, he rose back up from the ashes. His father’s words echoing in the background, “do what you want but, whatever you are left with, take risks”.
“I didn’t want people to place orders and not have me able to fulfil expectations,” Jason lamented of the dark space he found himself in. Being alone for the first time in 15 years was taking its toll and to combat this, he went and met Jaxson, his adorable pooch who he takes everywhere these days.
“I was vulnerable, I’d just moved the workspace around and needed something to fill the void,” he says of the time surrounding his breakup. “And dogs just don’t judge. They’re always warm.”
“He’s back home with mum, we FaceTime all the time. He even tries to climb into my bath!”
Jaxson sure is one of the most fashionable pups you’ll ever meet.
The brand turnaround came after the workroom was remodelled
“Visually, I needed to own it,” he said of the revamp. His first collection, Birds of Prey, was due to exhibit at Melbourne Fashion Week, and when those closest to him saw previews he was met with the criticism of “being too dark”.
“This was my rebirth, I had just morphed into a falcon.”
Jason surely turned his weakness into a superpower on the runway, a true metaphor of fashion as a performance of his journey to this exact point. His second collection, Gladiator, was the telling of his acceptance in fighting back at the world. Bronze tones kept things still somewhat dark, but the light was there once more in the reflections cast off each piece.
His third collection was the collaboration with IBM that covered 25 years of Vogue data and what their audience was expecting.
Cut forward to his sixth collection, St. John.
Well received in Australia and pertaining his Maltese heritage, this was his first exhibit in Malta and was put together as a promise to his mother. After making the tough decision to place his father into care, he asked his mother if there was one more thing he could do to make her proud.
And despite the expected but still totally adorable initial response of “you make me proud every day,” Jason pushed his mother for a better bargaining and was asked “to do a show in Malta”.
So with that idea in the back of his head, he called up an old friend and got straight to work at putting the show together.
Valentina, his right-hand woman in the biz, had recalled how she overheard her taxi driver listening to Maltese music around the same time as Jason had mentioned the desire to exhibit in his homeland. She told him that he had to respect his heritage, the uncanny sequence of events meant something bigger than he had initially thought.
She told Jason to figure out what he wanted to de exactly, but above all “respect your culture”.
Jason did just that when he opened his exhibition at Malta Fashion Week 2018 with the iconic Birkirkara band club dress and then continued to wow Maltese audiences with his authentic shoot at the local market.
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Today the feast of St. Helena is celebrated in B’kara, Malta and the Ghada Mużikali Sant Elena which my grandfather lead for 35 years celebrates with its village. I designed this dress, with the a revised version of the bands logo to help celebrate our heritage because together we are one. Congratulations on 99 extraordinary years. The dress here is worn by @giulia__bartoli in the B’kara Market, make up by @jeanpaulmakeup, hair by @zammitneville and shot by @matthewbspiteri. SWIPE FOR DETAILS ?????? #fashion #editorial #madeinmelbourne #jasongrech #malta #fashionphotography
Jason may be an award-winning fashion designer with many great accolades under this belt, but one thing he wants to be remembered for is his good heart.
“I hold compassion over everything.”
He recounts an early morning returning for an event in Melbourne City where he noticed a number of rough sleepers around the streets and as he went to bed that night he says it was the “loneliest I had ever felt in a long time”.
He described the need to help as an “unfair advantage he had never asked for” that required a bit of a rebalance. So, he set out for the nearest department store that weekend and put together packages to help out the homeless.
Without thinking, he posted the idea on social media and the post blew up almost instantly. Thus, Keep Melbourne Warm was born.
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“People know what they want to do, not how, and this has given them the best solution.”
He had the elderly onboard, knitting hats and scarves, sponsors jumped on board like Kmart and chemists were sending in sanitary products. He launched a crowdfunding campaign that gathered a total of AU$15,000 in only four days. His workspace shut down for two months to cover the admin and marketing work for the initiative. Jason worked the hardest he ever had to ensure the walls between society were broken down and helped given an empathic understanding to those who might have come to realise the reality of it all.
It was during this shift of mentality that Jason and his partner began their separation and he welcomed Jaxson into his life. The whole experience of creating a movement back home was something that really humbled him as a person of influence.
Jason is equally humbled by the welcoming he always receives when in Malta.
“I still get tears every time I land,” Jason confessed of the pride he holds of his heritage.
“I think it’s good that people want me,” he explains, “we’re so caught up on people’s reputations and the hierarchy of society that we construct around ourselves.”
Jason is back in Malta this summer to celebrate the Birkirkara feast, where he hopes to leave an impression on his homeland for more than just his brand. Always an open advocate for sharing the human experience with one another, Jason wants to humble the nation in the same way that it has done for him.
“I can see how it could cause issues with people, but we all need to be aware of our mental health issues,” he told Lovin Malta. “A hierarchy of where you are at this moment in time does not equate to any of your own worth. You are your own journey.”
“I respect everyone with the same level at all times. The garbage man helps clean my street, my lawyer helps make sure every clause is kept, but I respect them equally.”
Jason is gearing up to respect himself, his heritage and his family’s culture and traditions with his next collection. He’s stitched together a collection of his own DNA, showcasing an authenticity we’ve not yet seen from the designer.
We’re set for a new monogram that was originally inspired by his father’s family crest of a scorpion, but in the meantime Jason is relaxing ahead of the centenary celebration of the Feast of St. Elena with local Karkariż Glenn Vella and X Factor finalist Nicole Frendo, who are set to take stage this weekend for one of the biggest post-Santa Marija celebrations.