20.07.12 | Posted in People I Love
Carla Zampatti is the undisputed doyenne of Australian fashion. She talks to Emma Isaacs about how she has succeeded in a creative business.
Carla Zampatti has a gift – beyond fashion, beyond business, beyond the awards and industry accolades. When she speaks, she makes you feel as though you are the most important person in the world.
“I’m much better one-on-one. I find it totally intimidating to stand on a podium and give a speech,” the diminutive designer admits. “Talking to a room of people can completely terrify me.”
Carla’s introversion is part of her charm. Her quiet, steady voice leads us through a range of subject matter that is so closed-in and intimate, that you feel as though she is sharing these thoughts for the very first time.
“If you are shy, you must really factor this into your business. You’ve got to get over it,” says the iconic businesswoman who has learned to do just that. “You need to be able to communicate at all levels with people around you, to explain your vision, to share what’s in your mind.”
Of course, wallflowers do not run multi-million dollar fashion houses with over 30 stores nationwide. Nor do they simultaneously hold down several high-profile directorships, including Chairman for the SBS Corporation. They also don’t scoop the coveted Companion of the Order of Australia medal by chance. No, it’s no surprise to learn that beneath Carla’s softly spoken exterior lies a determined woman with the tenacity to match.
To get to know Carla, we must flick the calendar back to 1948, to when she was six years old and living in a small Italian village called Lovero; nestled deep within the shadows of the Swiss Alps. It was here that Carla would accompany her mother on regular trips to the local dressmaker – and inside this small space, her future started to take shape.
“I knew then that is what I wanted to do when I grew up – to run a fashion house,” Carla explains, some 64 years on. “I loved the creativity in the dressmaker’s – the visual element. Seeing beautiful fabric, and the dummies, the draping, the discussion, the activity, the enterprise of new ideas. It was all terribly exciting.”
Carla’s family emigrated from Italy to Australia two years later, aged eight.
“It was an adventure,” says Carla. “I found it really exciting. My dad was in mining, and the move to Australia exposed me to adventure from when I was very little.” They settled in a tough-as-nails mining town in remote Western Australia.
“Everything was completely different to Italy. The school was large, dusty and vast – the space was open, wide open,” she recalls. “I had no grasp on the English language, I did not even understand one word.”
Despite not knowing how to speak English, Carla quickly deduced that to fit in, she would need to do what the other kids did: match their lunchbox contents. The strategic move paid off.
“I felt different and I wanted to assimilate. All children want to do this, to be like everyone else,” says Carla. “And so I tried to fit in very quickly by asking my mother if I could have what other children have in their lunch box. She supported me of course, she wanted to help me settle in.”
Risotto was swapped for devon sandwiches and a relatively peaceful few years followed – until fate intervened once more to up the ante.
The life-defining moment took place on an innocuous bus journey, on the way home from school. Carla – by now, desperately dreaming of a sartorial career – met a gentleman who was looking for a PA. His business? Women’s fashion.
“So I applied and got the job,” she says with a matter of fact confidence that belies her soft tones. “I ended up designing and it worked well, it was a big success. They were a hit. It gave me knowledge and confidence – I learnt where to buy the fabric, how to work with suppliers. It allowed me to understand the business behind fashion design.”
Not one to muck about, Carla stayed only nine months before giving an ultimatum to her boss: to increase her pay or have her move on. “I asked him for an increase in pay, encouraging him in a way to say no – which he did. That was the motivation for me to leave and start my own business, because that’s what I wanted to do.”
By this stage Carla knew she was good at design and importantly, she sensed she had the business nous to match. This serendipitous pairing soon led to a series of domino-like events.
In 1965, Carla released her first small line, followed by a national launch some two years later. This frenetic activity took place around the same time Carla Zampatti Pty Ltd was founded, and by 1972 her first boutique had opened its doors. Within the next three years, additional boutiques sprung up in coveted locations, including the flagship store in Sydney’s thriving Elizabeth Street.
Carla’s decision to open her first boutique in Sydney’s then-desolate Surry Hills was considered irreverent by her industry peers, given that most fashion designers then strived to sell their designs direct to major retailers. However, Carla was light-years ahead of her time. She understood the power of market research – and competition.
The move paid off. Not only did Carla meaningfully connect with her target market – her entrepreneurial spirit did not go unnoticed by the powerful department stores.
“The insight [the boutique] gave me into my products and my designs; seeing what really worked for women – it was the best market research.
“A lot of people said if you do that [open a boutique], people will stop buying from you – meaning retailers. But in fact the opposite happened. They wanted to make sure they didn’t have me to compete with, and they weren’t going to miss out on my product,” she says.
Indeed, the pendulum between business and creativity appears to swing effortlessly in Carla’s world. A critical balance Carla says, for any creative person in business.
“If you are a creative person and you can’t turn your business into an effective operation, you will run out of money,” comes the frank advice. “You must balance your creativity with being practical.”
For Carla, being practical means adopting a long-term vision. “I was always in my business for the long term. I really believe you shouldn’t be in business just for the sake of money. You must have a long-term commitment.”
Then comes the polite qualifier. “But everyone is different, we all have our own paths. Just because this is how I feel, it does not mean it is right for everyone.”
One truth is certain – Carla knows what is right for her, and for the business. Three stores grew to thirty over the following decades, and during this time Carla Zampatti – the brand – expanded into swimwear, sunglasses and perfume, with no signs of slowing down.
However, the defining moment in Carla’s career came in 1980 when Carla was celebrated not just for her design talents, but also for her acumen as a savvy businesswoman. This turning point was the Qantas/Bulletin Business Woman of the Year award.
“I was totally surprised, I thought I had no chance,” Carla reflects on her win, as though still in a state of pleasant shock. “It was incredible – just the exposure it brought, especially in the traditionally male world of business.
“I also came to see what other businesses were doing – with all their different sizes, levels and dimensions. It allowed me to look at my business from other people’s perspective, and appreciate what I had done.
“In fact, the whole experience gave me an awareness of just how much women were doing. If you have a brand, you become well known,” she says, reflecting on herself. “But many women don’t have a brand, and I got to know them through the awards. I enjoyed that process.
You get the feeling that Carla enjoys the solidarity of female companionship. This is evident in those early days in the dressmakers with her mum, and also much later in her decision to bring daughters Bianca and Allegra into the business – perfectly balanced with Bianca as the designer and Allegra as general manager.
Carla is clearly passionate about women. Perhaps this is why she spends considerable personal time empowering women in business to take risks, to stretch their personal boundaries.
“Women often don’t like to take risks. This creates caution, and we may not apply for roles that we should go for – whereas men usually go for those roles, they take the risk,” says the 70-year old business leader who now divides her time between business commitments, board directorships, and her first love – fashion design.
“As long as it’s not fatal, risk taking teaches you so much about yourself. If you make a fool of yourself, then so what? You learn the most from your mistakes. You have to accept that you will make mistakes along the way,” she says.
Carla’s candour arouses curiosity about her own regrets. “I try not to look back on my mistakes. I don’t dwell on them,” she says. “If everything went smoothly you wouldn’t learn how to become stronger.”
This article was first published in Latte, the Business Chicks magazine for Premium members and is reproduced with full permission here.