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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Carla Maria Zampatti (1942–2021)

by Glynis Traill-Nash

from Australian

When she was a very small girl in rural Italy, Carla Zampatti always wanted to keep up with her two older brothers. In her autobiography of 2015, she described how they would scramble up a hill, the boys yelling back to her: “Dai, Carla, e possible farlo!” “Come on Carla, you can do it!”

The determination to climb hills or overcome obstacles stayed with Zampatti her entire life, helping her to forge a career that was the most enduring and celebrated in Australian fashion.

Even at the age of five, a “mere farm girl” growing up in Lovero, Zampatti had dreams of being a fashion designer. She recalled a visit with her mother to a dressmaker, and seeing a “treasure trove of wonderful things — mannequins draped with exquisite fabrics, ribbons, lace, silks, satins, a sewing machine, a thousand different-coloured threads, and the most glorious dresses I had ever seen. I knew right away this was where beauty and magic were created and that was where I wanted to be”.

In 1950, when Zampatti was nine, her family made the four-week sea journey to Fremantle, where she would be reunited with the father she had no memory of. He had gone ahead of the family to start a new life in WA’s burgeoning mining industry. Bullfinch was as far from the lush hills of Zampatti’s hometown as possible — just “endless acres of red dust” and the occasional eucalypt.

Starting at her new school, Carla Maria Zampatti was dubbed “Mary” by her teacher; the name stuck until Zampatti started her own label in 1965, reclaiming her identity. She left school at 14 and started selling “cheap clothing” at the local general store, next to the hardware and paint. When the family moved to Perth four years later, her next job at a clothing manufacturer gave her valuable insights into the running of a fashion company, from business skills to the importance of cut and fit.

But Sydney was calling, and in 1963 Zampatti packed her suitcase and sewing machine and headed east with four girlfriends, eager for adventure.

Her first job was as a cashier at Fletcher Jones, but the breakthrough she was waiting for came with her second job, for Nemco Fashion Products. A chance meeting with its founder on the 369 bus (which Zampatti called “destiny on wheels”) led to her getting a job as his “Girl Friday”. Her determination once again came to the fore, and she started designing her own blouses. Within a few weeks the boss put her in charge of product design for the company’s range of blouses.

Success gave Zampatti the confidence to strike out on her own in 1965, using the contacts she had made to get a heads-up with local retailers. The first to sign up the fledgling designer was Rodney Levis, who was buying pieces for his parents’ fashion store in Sydney. (Levis went on to launch Cue three years later, and remains head of the company.)

“At that stage she was very young,” Levis tells The Australian. “She had a sense of trendiness with sophistication, but she always had her own style … when everything else selling at that time was a bit silly, (with) Carnaby Street and Biba, when everything was a bit mod and expendable.”

Another chance encounter on the 369 bus introduced Zampatti to a new social circle, and with it a dashing Dutch immigrant, Leo Schuman. He convinced her to use her first name, Carla, and encouraged her to follow her dream and open her own business, also investing in it himself.

They had a son, Alexander, born in 1969, but there were signs the marriage was not going to survive in the long term, due largely to Schuman’s infidelities. Zampatti decided to leave him, telling him simply, “Leo, I really don’t want to be married to you anymore”.

The relationship was one thing, but the financial entanglement was another. Schuman had a half-interest in the business, and Zampatti had to fight for “the sole and undisputed title to my own name, Carla Zampatti, as a trademark”. She signed over the Redfern factory and current stock (which he cleared under a different label) and she kept their two apartments, with mortgages. But she also kept her name.

Zampatti said the divorce was “the very lowest point of my life”. She threw herself into work, relaunching her brand in 1970, on her own, with a $5000 loan from her cousin, Mick Caratti. His one proviso? “You run this new enterprise entirely on your own.”

Success soon followed, as Zampatti understood the changing attitudes and needs of women, with her mantra of “clothes that look expensive yet are affordable”.

While those first years were spent wholesaling her collections, she soon realised that she needed to open retail stores to sell the whole vision — and cut out the middle man. Her first boutique was in Sydney’s Surry Hills, and quickly attracted an influential clientele, including Anna Murdoch and Susan Peacock.

Over the next decade Zampatti opened more stores in Sydney, and expanded around the country. Today, there are 26 boutiques, including 12 concessions in David Jones, where Carla Zampatti remains among the top-selling fashion brands.

In the late 1980s, Zampatti opened stores in Washington and New York, and bought a building on Lexington Avenue, which she intended as a showroom. She later regarded her US expansion as “foolhardy” and after that she kept her business in Australia. Hers is one of the few fashion businesses to have continually manufactured its designs in this country.

In the early days of her relaunched brand, Zampatti found love again, with barrister John Spender. They married in St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, in September 1975. In typically unique style, she chose not a traditional wedding dress but left it up to a young designer in her company to come up with something “really adventurous”: a diagonally striped silk dress held together with ribbons at the shoulder.

Daughter Bianca was born in 1976 and Allegra in 1978.

Early in her career Zampatti felt guilty about her son, Alex, as she was trying to run a business on her own — at the time, there was a double stigma about single, working mothers. A psychologist reassured her that quality time spent with Alex was better than being present but not engaged. She took that approach with each of her children, who grew up in and around the company. Even as young children they did odd jobs and deliveries in school holidays.

Today, Alex Shuman is the chief executive of the company, Allegra has previously been managing director, and Bianca has followed in her mother’s footsteps to become a celebrated designer in her own right.

Former governor-general Dame Quentin Bryce, a close friend since the 1970s, recalls there was much discussion between them on the subject of juggling work and children. “I think she had a very good dose of the Italian mama,” Bryce tells The Australian. “It was a very high priority, having her family together. There’s a lot of bonding among women especially of my generation who, in a way, were pioneers at the forefront of working full-time, breaking new ground and trying to be good mothers, because there was a lot of guilt in the air around it.”

John Spender, by now a QC, entered politics and won the seat of North Sydney for the Coalition in 1980. Zampatti found herself as a political wife as well as a business owner and mother. Just before the election — and so that she could vote for him — Zampatti finally gave up her Italian passport and became an Australian citizen.

From 1996 to 2000, Spender was Australia’s ambassador to France, and for years Zampatti divided her time — month on, month off — between Paris and Sydney to keep her business running. Spender and Zampatti separated in 2009, at his instigation, and they divorced the next year.

But 1980 would be a turning point for Zampatti for another important reason: she was named the Bulletin/Qantas Businesswoman of the Year. She said of this particular honour: “It was regarded as a significant step forward in the nation’s progress towards gender equality.” The recognition propelled her into the corporate arena, as she took up roles on industry bodies, and as a non-executive director of major companies.

Zampatti had become a household name, and other brands and companies wanted a little of her magic to rub off on them.

In 1983, Ford asked her to reimagine the Laser to appeal to women, and her touches included woollen upholstery instead of acrylic — so a woman wouldn’t “end up at her destination with her dress clinging to her skin” — and the addition of a vanity mirror on the driver’s side. She collaborated with Polaroid sunglasses, and more recently had a successful line with Specsavers. In 2005 she was one of six designers to be celebrated on the Australian Legends postage stamp series; two years later she designed uniforms for Australia Post, one of a number of corporate uniforms she would design for various companies. In 2013 she even designed a vacuum cleaner for the 100th anniversary of Hoover.

“Fashion, to me, was a symbol of dignity first and foremost, and a dress something more than just the cut, the cloth and the colour,” Zampatti wrote in her autobiography, My Life, My Look. “Good clothes instilled a woman with the self-confidence to explore new opportunities, to feel comfortable in any given social situation.”

Zampatti offered both a wardrobe for and a mirror to the changing faces and needs of Australian women. So what was the Carla Zampatti style that resonated so strongly with them?

In a nutshell, it was her ability to know exactly what women want at every point of their lives. It’s one of the reasons her customers were so fervently loyal; she had dressed them for their first day of work, for their parties, their engagements, even marriages. And as they started out in the working world, and rose through the ranks, she was there — in their wardrobes and by their side.

When women broke free of the constraints of expectation, when the Pill was introduced and sexual freedom was coming into its own, Zampatti dressed them in sensual jersey, daring cuts and bold patterns to kickstart the fashion revolution.

Then, as more and more women joined the workforce, Zampatti could see their need for clothes that gave them confidence and power. The 1980s was known for broad-shouldered blazers and power dressing, and Zampatti came into her own as a designer who had long championed women in the workforce. Her simplicity of cut and exacting tailoring — always with a feminine approach — were the absolute go-to.

Today, there is not a successful woman in front-facing media, politics or business who doesn’t have Carla Zampatti pieces in her wardrobe, some collected over decades.

“I can remember as a cadet reporter saving up enough money to be able to go to the Carla sale in Manuka, Canberra and buy a piece,” Melissa Doyle tells The Australian. “I know people use the word investment a lot, but truly you could buy her pieces and you knew you would have them forever.”

Zampatti reflected the trends of the times, whether power-dressing and shoulder pads in the 1980s or silk slip dresses in the 90s, but never at the expense of women. It was always to empower them.

“Yes, she wanted to help women look elegant and powerful,” former SBS Insight presenter Jenny Brockie tells The Australian, “but she wanted us to be elegant and powerful as well.”

Zampatti’s good friend and contemporary, Ita Buttrose, was a trailblazer in publishing at the same time Zampatti was rising through the fashion firmament. “She was part of a change that happened,” says Buttrose. “Before the 70s, we looked overseas for designs, as there wasn’t really an Australian fashion label that stood out in the crowd. Carla was the first of many and it happened around the 70s when women’s liberation was underway. She was unique in that her style was distinctive and you could run into women anywhere and they would say, ‘You look fantastic’. And you could say, ‘Yes, it’s Carla’.”

But after work comes play, and Zampatti, with her sensual approach to design and flair for drama, knew how to create occasion pieces that could dazzle and disarm. She had a personal love for marabou capelets, which brought a sense of giddy glamour to a simple trouser ensemble. And nobody cut — or wore — a jumpsuit with such aplomb as Zampatti.

It’s hardly surprising that celebrities including Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Delta Goodrem flocked to her designs.

“There’s a powerful movement in women at the moment and I’m delighted,” she told The Australian in 2019, almost foreshadowing the current swell in the women’s movement. “It’s been so long coming, I hope it doesn’t slow down.”

Zampatti was a champion of the women’s movement at the very beginning. When she started her business in 1965, women were unable to take out a bank loan in their own names. With that signature determination, Zampatti not only forged a career path for herself, but also ensured that others could follow.

“She was a founding member of Chief Executive Women,” says Buttrose, “way back in those days when women didn’t have any networks and so we formed Chief Executive Women so that we could network.”

Another of the 18 women in that first group of women was Bronwyn Bishop, who regards Zampatti as a “brilliant businesswoman who wanted other women to succeed — she was a beacon for others to follow”.

Zampatti started her boardroom career with positions at the Dante Alighieri Society, McDonald’s, the Australian Multicultural Foundation, Westfield and even British American Tobacco. The most significant of her directorships was as chair of SBS. Appointed by then prime minister John Howard, she was the first female chair of the multicultural broadcaster and stayed in the role for 10 years.

Zampatti recalled that not everyone was thrilled at her appointment: “As it turned out, there would be those prepared to judge me even before I held my first meeting, expressing doubt that a woman, and a mere fashion designer at that, could properly oversee a network notable for its news and soccer coverage. Here we were, fast approaching the 21st century, yet the idea of a woman in authority still raised eyebrows.”

In her decade at SBS the broadcaster increased the number of television productions that featured “a decision-making female in the lead role”.

Her corporate life dovetailed with her philanthropic interests. Her love for the arts was profound, and it saw her take board positions with the Art Gallery of NSW, the Sydney Dance Company, the Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation and the Sydney Theatre Company Foundation Trust.

SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela says Zampatti’s boardroom manner was as impressive as her personal style. “Carla’s great skill was always choosing her words wisely,” he says. “She didn’t feel the need to fill a silence for the sake of it, and when she spoke, her words were always considered. It meant people actually listened to those chosen words.”

Patrick McIntyre, executive director of Sydney Theatre Company, says Zampatti’s contribution to the broader arts community cannot be overestimated. “Philanthropic revenue is fundamental,” he says. “Carla helped create the culture of arts philanthropy we have in the country now. She was certainly a giver to STC and other arts organisations and I’m sure other charities, visual arts as well. As a public figure, her advocacy for the arts has been really influential and obviously as a fashion designer hers was a creative persona as well so she was a great spokesperson for the arts.”

Zampatti is often referred to as the matriarch of the Australian fashion industry. The outpouring of affection from Australian designers, both well established and emerging, since her death on Saturday is testament to how respected and loved she was by all in the industry.

“Carla is and will always be a legend in my life,” says Toni Maticevski, one of Australia’s most revered designers. “Always checking in to see that I was taking care of myself and my business. I was protected and empowered to continue my work.”

Designer Rebecca Vallance recalls the invaluable advice Zampatti gave her on a regular basis. “She mentored us,” says Vallance. “She used to say, ‘You’ve developed this wonderful business, but never change your aesthetic, your design or DNA for any stockist. Know who you are, know what makes people buy the brand and stick to that’.”

In 2018, Zampatti formalised her support for the industry by introducing the Carla Zampatti Foundation Design Award. The cash prize of $25,000 — the second-most valuable award after the International Woolmark prize — to support a fashion graduate from the University of Technology, Sydney. It allows the recipient to study overseas for a year and take up an internship with the team at Carla Zampatti on return.

When she launched the award, Zampatti said: “I’ve been in business a very long time. I support talent in dance, in theatre, in art — why not fashion, the career that has given me such a wonderful experience, such a wonderful success?”

The award’s first recipient, Sarah Lim, graduated from Parsons School of Design in New York last year, and is now working there. “Studying overseas in a big city is a huge financial ask, and I couldn’t have done it without the award,” Lim says. “It really helped to alleviate the stress of tuition and living expenses and gave me a better mindset to focus 100 per cent on my studies. Seeing her generosity and how it helped me to achieve something I thought wasn’t possible will stay with me for my whole life — I’d want to take her example and be able to pay it forward to other designers in the future.”

Zampatti’s legacy will live on not only through her own generosity — of spirit, love and more practical means — but through the generations of designers, women and business people who knew her. Just as her brothers encouraged her at the beginning, she not only climbed the hill — she did it all.

She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1987, and elevated to Companion in 2009. The Italian government in 2004 appointed her Commander in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

Among other honours, in 2008 she was awarded the Australian Fashion Laureate award for lifetime achievement.

Zampatti died on Saturday after suffering a fall at an outdoor performance of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour on March 26.

She is survived by her three children, Alex, Allegra and Bianca, and nine grandchildren.

Original publication

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Citation details

Glynis Traill-Nash, 'Zampatti, Carla Maria (1942–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

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