Carla Zampatti doesn't look like the kind of woman who would take no for an answer. Celebrating 50 years in business, you can safely make the assumption that the force behind one of Australia's most successful fashion houses is also one of the most determined women you'll ever meet. It was back in 1965 that Zampatti produced her debut collection. Today, there's arguably not a single style-conscious woman in the country who doesn't know who Carla Zampatti is. While other fashion designers are racing to stay relevant, the Italian-born Zampatti, 72, ran that race a long time ago and here she is: her designs more modern than ever.
That's not to say it was easy. When she first took her classic designs to the department stores, she was told they were "too plain" or "too understated". "I found department stores really difficult to break into," she recalls, perched on a luxurious linen sofa in her beautifully decorated 1920s Mediterranean-inspired home in the prestigious Sydney suburb of Woollahra. "I am quite an optimistic person, so I don't allow someone saying no to absolutely devastate me." Regret, she says, is a waste of time. "If you make a mistake, and I have made many, learn from it and don't make the same mistake. You learn so much more from your failures than your successes."
In person, Zampatti is even more elegant than she appears on the pages of glossy fashion magazines. She's warm, humble, eloquent and has a wonderful sense of humour. "It's my favourite hobby," she says, modestly describing what she does for a living. It quickly comes clear that despite the fame and fortune, there's a reason why Zampatti has a reputation for being one of fashion's most likeable personalities. "I haven't changed as a person," she reflects. Perhaps she describes it as a hobby because 50 years later, she's still simply doing what she loves most in life: designing exquisite clothes that make women feel fabulous. "From the beginning, I wanted to create haute couture pieces that women could buy at an affordable price."
This year she is publishing a coffee-table book of her fashion collections to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her namesake label Carla Zampatti. "I look back and I was always determined to be there for the long haul. It was never a frivolous decision. It was never a decision about becoming famous or making money. Making money wasn't a priority and becoming famous wasn't even thought about!" she says.
Zampatti is a mother of three and runs the business with the help of her two daughters. Bianca Spender designs her own namesake line as part of the Zampatti brand and Allegra Spender is responsible for marketing and operations. When Zampatti first set up her brand, her son Alex Schuman was just nine months old. "I had a live-in nanny for 12 years. I think if you have your own business, this is the only solution," she says.
Back in the 60s and 70s, Zampatti says as a working mother, she was in the minority. "There were so few women who had babies who were working. I was the unique individual and I often wondered whether I was doing the right thing. That was really tough. I had to get over that, but that wasn't easy. I felt guilty leaving my children." Though as Zampatti points out, her children have benefited from her hardworking nature. "My grown up children have said to me, 'we could see how hard you were working and that made us realise that whatever you want to achieve, you have to work hard'. They've said this without any promoting and I've quoted them again and again," she says, laughing.
Growing up, Zampatti was the youngest of three children. "I had two brothers, seven and nine years older than me, and I just followed them around because they were such fun. I tried to do everything they did." She credits her brothers with helping her to discover her strength, determination and ability. "I developed that can-do attitude because I wanted to show them I could."
Today she describes herself as determined, independent and practical. "Independence is the strongest need in me. I have to be independent. I am also practical. I like solutions. I don't like problems. If I see a problem, whether it's mine or someone else's, I try and resolve it. Sometimes, people don't want you to resolve their problems, but I will try," she says, with that gentle laugh, which makes her even more endearing.
Looking at her, beautifully groomed and impeccably dressed, you'd assume she was a perfectionist? "To a point," she replies. "Probably not as much as Bianca for instance. When I am working, it can be very untidy, but then I have to tidy. When I'm home, I'm quite relaxed, I don't want to be perfect." And yet again, you discover something else to love about the doyenne of Australia's fashion industry.