Our last interview with Australian fashion icon, Carla Zampatti

Tributes have been flowing in from around the world since Australian fashion icon Carla Zampatti passed away in Sydney on Saturday 3 April at the age of 78. Customers, past employees and leaders across various sectors, from fashion and politics to sports and media, have shared their memories of the acclaimed designer.

In October last year, I spoke with Carla for the first time at a Sydney event for Afterpay Australian Fashion Week, when it was announced that the show would make a return as a physical event in 2021. I had spotted her at previous media events before, such as the opening of the refurbished womenswear level of David Jones on Elizabeth Street, and unsurprisingly, she was just as glamorous in reality as she was in fashion magazines – oversized sunglasses, tailored suiting, perfectly coiffed hair and all. 

When I finally got the chance to interview Carla in person last year, she was not only so softly spoken that I actually needed to lean in to hear her, she was lovely and down-to-earth when we discussed how her business had coped during Covid. At the time, she had just celebrated her 55th year in business. After we spoke, I said that I looked forward to catching up with her again for a longer interview in the future.

Here is a transcript of the conversation we had. 

Inside Retail: How has the past year been for the business? Have you been well?

Carla Zampatti: I’ve been very well. In fact, we had to close our stores for a month in March [in 2020] and I just decided I was going to treat it like a holiday. The weather was good and I hadn’t had a proper break, simply because of the bushfires during Christmas [in 2019], so I thought I’d have a holiday. There’s not much point in fighting something you can’t fight and since we’ve opened, we’ve had huge trade. Women are anxious to look good, whether they’re on Zoom or whatever they’re doing. They want to be glamorous, so I’m delighted they come to us and they’re supporting us. 

Life gives you challenges and you have to meet them.

IR: You’ve had such an amazing, long career in the industry. You must have seen a lot of ups and downs, like the pandemic.

CZ: I have. I have been through about three recessions. The first one was in 1969, the second was in 1989 and then 2008, so [this] is really just normal and we usually do quite well during a recession. I think it’s because our brand is wearable and transportable. People have my things in their wardrobe for 30 years, they dig them out and wear them again. They don’t fall apart, they don’t go out of fashion, so they feel quite confident in investing in that quality.

IR: I feel like what you’ve described is very much what people want right now from fashion. They want items that last a long time and are transeasonal.

CZ: Exactly. Transeasonal and trans-fashion. We’re not gimmicky and the quality is always there.

IR: Are you pleased that Afterpay Australian Fashion Week is still happening and the physical event is coming back?

CZ: Totally. I think there’s a magic about fashion on the stage. It’s a bit like ballet, music, the orchestra. I think [fashion] is part of the arts and for it to be on stage is much more important than seeing it in photographs or online. 

Online has played a huge role for us. Our online growth has been phenomenal because women haven’t been able to go into shops, particularly towards shutdown and in this state, we’ve done very well. 

We’ve focused online because I know that’s the future. [Covid] was a wake-up call for us. We’ve been dependent on it for communicating and I think our business has been over 50 per cent online. 

I’m looking forward to when Melbourne opens, it’s our second biggest market and that will make a big difference. But nevertheless, we’re doing really well.

We’ve also just opened two stores in New Zealand and they’re doing really well. I think they’ve been waiting for us for a long time.

A lasting legacy

Italian-Australian Carla Zampatti migrated to Australia in 1950 and launched her business in 1965, the same year that the Sydney Opera House was being constructed. It was here that her first ever fashion show took place. She opened her first boutique in Surry Hills in Sydney in 1972. 

Zampatti was recognised for creating “power dressing” for the modern woman, a chic, wearable aesthetic that continues to this day and is beloved by high-profile personalities around the world, from Princess Mary of Denmark and Dame Quentin Bryce to former Matildas captain Melissa Barbieri and former foreign minister Julie Bishop. 

Zampatti also took leadership roles outside of the fashion industry and was a great patron of the arts. Given her migrant background and support of the migrant community, in 1999, she served as chair of the SBS Board and was a board member for several organisations, including the Australian Multicultural Foundation, the European Australian Business Council, Sydney Dance Company and the MCA Foundation.

Zampatti was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 1987 Australia Day honours for service to the fashion industry as a designer and manufacturer. In 2009, she received a Companion of the Order in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. 

Zampatti was the mother of three children, Bianca Spender, who owns her own fashion brand, Alexander Spender, CEO of the Carla Zampatti business and Allegra Spender, CEO of the Australian Business and Community Network. She was also the proud grandmother of nine grandchildren.

A state funeral for Carla Zampatti will take place in the coming days. 

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