17 mins reading

Words by Lucianne Tonti

Photography by Saskia Wilson

Over her life, Carla Zampatti’s passion and influence extended beyond fashion into women’s empowerment and advocacy of multiculturalism and the arts. Here, we learn how the brand’s new custodians are embracing the future with renewed creativity while keeping Zampatti’s values alive.

In 1981, a defiant then-38-year-old Carla Zampatti told the National Press Club: “I do believe that most women in whatever level of job they have achieved are usually more intelligent [and] more capable than their male counterpart.”

When she passed away in April 2021, Zampatti was Australia’s longest working fashion designer. Over the course of five decades, she opened 28 boutiques under her eponymous label. She was a founding member of Chief Executive Women (an organisation representing prominent and influential women leaders in the business world), the first female chair of SBS, and served on many boards, including that of the Sydney Dance Company, Westfield Holdings and the Australian Multicultural Foundation. She counted among her clientele some of Australia’s most powerful women: Julia Gillard, Ita Buttrose and Quentin Bryce, to name a few.   

The Press Club address, which would have been just as resonant if it was delivered today (and incidentally, can be listened to in full at the National Library of Australia), reveals an incredible mind working across history, psychology, style, feminism and finance. The address underscores the depth and breadth of the legacy Zampatti leaves behind as a champion of women, multiculturalism and the arts.   

Over the 40-minute speech, Zampatti reveals insights into the impacts of lowered tariffs on the Australian garment industry and rather depressingly foresees the job losses and overproduction they would cause. She describes ambition and drive as the forces that bring businesses to life. She campaigns for women to participate in the workplace and handles questions about balancing motherhood and her career with charm and wit. She says predicting the elusive desires of the marketplace is “the best qualification one can have as a designer”. This ability to step inside her customers’ hearts and minds, to give light to their hopes and form to their dreams, was perhaps Zampatti’s greatest talent.

Reflecting on her legacy, the late designer’s son and CEO of Carla Zampatti Pty Ltd, Alex Schuman, describes his mother’s ability to make women “feel beautiful and powerful and feminine, but confident in whatever they are doing,” as something that comes up repeatedly in conversations with people who wore her clothes. “She was a phenomenal designer who really had a finger on the pulse for contemporary women,” he says. “I think that was the X factor.”   

Her keen insights into the wants and needs of women are impossible to separate from her work as an advocate for women’s empowerment, liberation and participation in the workforce. She found success during a time of immense change for women. In the 1970s and 80s, women were entering the workforce and attempting to juggle the competing expectations of freedom and equality with marriage and family. Zampatti understood the power of an outfit to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, to give women the opportunity to feel like the leader they hoped to be. She created a new kind of wardrobe that made women feel safe to enter the boardroom but did not shy away from the power of beauty.   

“For women trying to succeed in their careers when they’re competing with men, dress is very important,” she said to the Press Club. “The body in the garment must be feminine and comfortable. The line must be flattering. It must be a memorable garment.”   

Karlie Ungar has been the creative director of Carla Zampatti since July 2021. Unsurprisingly, the designer—who previously worked at Saba and Veronika Maine—feels the weight of responsibility to carry Zampatti’s legacy forward. She hopes to continue producing garments that make women feel confident and empowered.

“I think the flattering cut that Carla was so famous for is really important. As well as the sexiness and the agelessness [of her aesthetic],” Ungar says. “A lot of women we connected with felt that this confidence that was definitely part of their emotional attachment to their Carla Zampatti garments; the confidence the garment gave her at the board meeting, the function, the 50th, the occasion she wore the suit to. She always felt amazing in that garment.” In addition to empowering women through the clothes she made for them, Zampatti led by example, building one of the most successful fashion labels in Australian history and participating in public leadership roles—all the while raising her three children and looking fabulous. “Her success allowed men to realise that a woman who is looking amazing and fashionable is not a woman to be trifled with, it’s someone who should be taken very seriously,” Schuman says. For him, that was the impact of Zampatti and her contemporaries, those who founded Chief Executive Women. “They were the first tier of women who broke through the glass ceiling and made it available to everybody.”

In 1981, Zampatti seemed acutely conscious of the path she was forging for generations of women to come. She told the Press Club: “Playing traditional roles of worker, housewife or mother doesn’t mean that as a person you must stand still. My child was very important to me, but I did not want to stay home all day looking after him, even if I could afford to. I believed that I should pursue the qualities I had discovered, the things I possessed, so I went into business.”

 This advocacy and support for women never stopped. In the weeks before her death, she counselled her friend Christine Holgate, the former chief executive of Australia Post, ahead of the Australia Post senate inquiry. Holgate had been at the centre of a scandal involving then prime minister Scott Morrison, who had publicly admonished her for awarding bonuses to senior executives that were within her discretion to give. Holgate was to present evidence at the inquiry alleging she had been bullied and unlawfully stood down.   

Holgate told the ABC in 2022 that Zampatti had strongly urged her to front the inquiry. “She said to me, ‘Darling, what are you going to wear? You have to look fabulous.’ Her point was: Come the day, your clothes are like armour; they give you strength … The last thing you want to be doing is worrying about what you look like,” Holgate said. “And she was absolutely right.” Holgate wore a white Carla Zampatti blazer, although Zampatti did not live to see it. The day after the hearings, the jacket was on the cover of every newspaper.

Wielding such power and influence is no small thing for an immigrant from Lovero, a province on Italy’s northern border. When Zampatti arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia aged nine, she didn’t speak any English. Ten years later, she moved to Sydney, determined to pursue her career. It was here she met her first husband who would become her first and only business partner, in 1965. In 1970, they had a child (Schuman), but divorced not long after. She lost her factory but kept the rights to her name. A loan from a family member meant she was able to start the business again. Five years later, she married politician and diplomat John Spender, with whom she would have two more children (fashion designer Bianca Spender and federal politician Allegra Spender).

Her journey from a farm in Italy to the upper echelons of Australian fashion came to represent what was possible when immigrants were able to put their talents to good use and work hard. “The idea that you can arrive in the country as a nine-year-old non- English speaking girl and reach the heights that she did, accomplishing as much as she did, and be honoured in the way that she was, [made her] a beacon for multicultural Australia,” Schuman says.

In addition to the many boards she served on, Zampatti won the Australian Fashion Laureate in 2008, was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1987 and a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2009.   

Zampatti believed Australia’s multiculturalism was a thing to be celebrated because of the vibrant communities that migrants created, and also because they were hard workers. “It’s my favourite subject, resilience, because it’s an important quality to find in yourself. It gives you strength, and makes you feel as though nothing can destroy you,” she said to the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2020. “I felt a bit of an outsider, which I have always felt in my life, which is not such a bad thing. Being an outsider makes you try harder.”   

This sentiment created a desire within her to encourage and support the dreams of other migrants and led to the business establishing a scholarship in Zampatti’s name through the Australian Multicultural Foundation. In 2022, the $10,000 prize was won by Sofia Abel, a 19-year-old designer from Bolivia who also got the opportunity to spend a week shadowing Ungar at head office.    “It’s about celebrating something that’s bigger than Carla Zampatti,” says Schuman, who sits on the award’s judging panel. “It’s celebrating this common value. We’re a country that supports young women from non-English speaking backgrounds to overcome extraordinary adversities and set up their own companies. It’s amazing.”

Schuman is determined that the business will continue to operate in a way that honours the three pillars to which Zampatti dedicated her life: empowerment of women, support for the arts, and advocating for multiculturalism. He describes a collaboration with artist Lindy Lee as a project that encompasses all three. Lee’s Rain and Fire drawings were photographed and converted into prints which Ungar used to design a range of tops and dresses. The project is dedicated to celebrating women in art and recognising the contribution that women from multicultural backgrounds have made to Australia. The prints were presented in February, at the brand’s first fashion show since Zampatti’s passing. Ungar sent an impressive collection of garments down the runway, with the mark of her predecessor’s clean lines and signature silhouettes proudly visible. The combination of billowy blouses, floor-length coats, biascut silk gowns, and blazers with strong shoulders honoured the late designer’s work.   

Although they cannot share details yet, Ungar and Schuman allude to a second artist collaboration and suggest that working this way will be ongoing. “We’re hoping and intending to do that every year,” Ungar says. “It’s exploring ways to have the threads of [Carla’s] legacy and love for the arts run through the business.”    The brand’s commitment to advancing arts and culture also extends to five additional awards and funds in Zampatti’s name, including the Australian Fashion Laureate’s Award for Excellence in Leadership, Westpac’s Carla Zampatti Award of Influence, NSW Premier’s Arts and Culture Medal, NSW’s Women’s Venture Capital Fund and Sydney Dance Company’s Commissioning Fund. There is also a runway named after her at Carriageworks in Sydney, while an exhibition dedicated to her life’s work was recently on display at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum for a six-month run.

Zampatti’s love of creativity informed the view she had of fashion and art as elements that can provide a high point in daily life. She described fashion’s “responsibility to take people out of the ordinary [to] give us, if only momentarily, a sense of glamour… to elevate our spirit and transform us into something, which a short time ago, we were not.”  

This passion for beauty and the expression of it bled into everything she did. She famously loved yellow and enjoyed driving her yellow Mercedes fast. Her garden was full of palms and magnolias, branches of which ended up in vases around her house. She was glamorous to the very end, often wearing a blazer with nothing underneath, intimidatingly coiffed with her perfect blonde bob and oversized sunglasses. In an interview with Vogue Australia in 2022, Zampatti’s designer daughter Bianca has described her mother’s loves as the three Fs: food, family and fashion. “Fashion has reached out to influence the colour of our houses and what is inside them. The sunglasses we wear, sheets, towels, motorcars,” Zampatti said at the Press Club. “Fashion is simply the expression of the need that we have for change [that] lends a little bit of glamour and aura to our lives.”  

This sense that fashion is pervasive reinforced her conviction that it was a vocation, and helped her capitalise on it commercially. She never passed up an opportunity to expand the product offering at Carla Zampatti. “There’s not an item that we can ever think of that she didn’t do at some stage in her career,” Ungar says. “I always joke, there’s not much you could ask for that we cannot produce at the drop of a hat—any sequin, any headpiece, bra, corset, sequin swimsuit—it’s all here.”  

In 1985, Zampatti even designed a car. It was a Ford Laser that featured two-tone paint and tan upholstery with a Carla Zampatti signature print running diagonally across it. The print is still used in the business today.

Schuman says the car is a great example of how, even though she was an incredible designer, “she was a businesswoman, first and foremost” and “the most extraordinary brand ambassador any company has ever had”.  

Zampatti was renowned for connecting creative minds with businesspeople and offering up-and-coming designers advice about how to capitalise financially on their talent. Schuman recalls her chastising a now well-known Australian designer when he was just starting out. “He was making these dresses and she [told him to] stop fussing around, simplify it and make money out of it,” he says. “Giving business advice to the artistic was one of her favourite things, and so was giving creative advice to businesspeople.”  

Her business acumen was already well honed in 1981. “The first and foremost ingredient to success in my business is design,” she said at the time. “If you don’t get the fashion equation right every time, you will soon find there are few easier ways of losing money than to be stuck with a collection the public doesn’t want to buy.”

Even then, her commitment to local manufacturing—which has been on the decline in Australian fashion for decades—was strong. She dismissed suggestions from the Press Club audience that she go offshore to bring down the cost of her garments and explained how she would have to produce a lot more clothes to meet the minimum orders required, which would change the way her designs were perceived. “Mine are specially designed garments; I don’t compromise,” she said.

As a business, Carla Zampatti remains committed to Australian manufacturing. Schuman says that aside from the silk, leather and denim pieces, everything is still made locally. “It definitely gives us an advantage,” he says. “It allows us to be much closer to the market, [which] reduces our lead times. This prevents over-ordering and having to dispose of what doesn’t sell. “Mum was very frugal and really loathed waste. So, it was a model that really suited her, [because it means] you can manufacture for the demand at the time, in the colour or size that the market wants. She was very shrewd in that way.”

This determination to remain close to the market made her eternally inquisitive about women and what they wanted, and exceedingly good at predicting their needs. Her garments have been worn across generations of Australian women, from politicians to popstars.

“We’re not always what people see us to be,” Zampatti said more than four decades ago. “It’s the fashion designer’s task to cater for both the real person and our dream of what we would like to be and achieve a harmonious blend between myth and reality.”

There is no doubt that Zampatti’s multifaceted legacy across multiculturalism and the arts will live on in her children, grandchildren and the company that bears her name.

But her story is primarily about a woman who believed in herself and the women around her, who made clothes that emboldened them to dream, and who, over the course of her life, did everything she could to help those dreams come true.

This legacy feels safe in Schuman and Ungar’s hands. Their commitment to honouring the life and work of Carla Zampatti is evident in the depth of their thinking and the broad strokes they are employing to encompass it.

“I am lucky that she was so complex and such an octopus,” Ungar says. “We’ve got this insane body of creative work to explore. But we’ve also got women’s culture today evolving at such a rapid rate, and she was such a champion of that. If you bring the two things together, there’s no end of input and inspiration. I think it’s so important, because for Carla Zampatti, creativity doesn’t stop with the garments and the product, it’s really in everything.”