If you thought Carla Zampatti was slowing down in her later years, you’d be wildly mistaken. Glimpsing her in action was enough to prove this force of Australian fashion could continue forever, just like her timeless designs. Two years ago, I snuck backstage to wish her luck before her epic solo show at the Melbourne Fashion Festival. Carla was hosting the Grand Showcase, the festival’s major event and also the largest parade of her career complete with 500-plus exquisite pieces and a rousing performance by singer Dami Im. Behind the curtain was a frenzy of activity, except for Carla, who stood calmly in the eye of the storm, directing the models while meticulously making finishing touches on each and every outfit. Carla hardly needed my luck – right after the show, she received a 15-minute standing ovation, the crowd erupting into rock-star hysteria as she lapped the runway. She was 76.
With the shock death on Saturday morning of Carla Zampatti, Australia has lost its most loved, enduring and famous designer. Many say it’s impossible to imagine the Australian fashion industry without her, especially as her eponymous label continues to thrive to this day. For 55 years, she’s remained a mainstay on the style scene by never veering from her core belief that clothes are meant to make women feel confident and empowered. From her trademark jumpsuits and perfectly tailored jackets, pants and power dresses to her successful eyewear collection, millions have a Carla Zampatti piece in their wardrobes. She’s dressed politicians, dignitaries, royals, CEOs and celebrities – a veritable Who’s Who of Australian powerhouse females – but Carla’s greatest pride and joy was designing for the “ordinary” woman, ensuring everyone felt like girl bosses in her clothes, no matter their age, size or background.
I was lucky to have met Carla decades ago when she befriended my parents in the early 80s. As a kid, I remember Carla arriving at our home for raucous dinner parties in killer pantsuits, chunky jewels and a Dynasty-style jacket slung over one shoulder. She was this impossibly glamorous enigma with a deep, lilting voice. But beyond her impeccable style, Carla was a hugely successful businesswoman and fiercely independent single mum, quite different to the women I knew at that time. I was in awe, and overcome with child-like shyness whenever she visited.
It wasn’t till much later in life, when I edited InStyle and then marie claire, that our paths crossed more frequently. I interviewed her for work often, but we’d always glide off-topic to discuss life, love, women, fashion and family, always family. Talking to Carla was a revelation – I’ve never met anyone who knew resolutely what she wanted, and was determined to get it, but always achieved her goals with grace and good humour.
Like her, my father was an immigrant who arrived in Sydney with nothing, so we often discussed the impact of those early years. Carla moved from Italy to Freemantle at the age of nine with her miner father. She’d cultivated a love of fashion and art during her youth in Lovero, a small town 120km north of Milan, and these passions never dissipated, finally spurring Carla to buy a one-way bus ticket to Sydney at the age of 19. She married Leo Schuman in 1964, and launched her first small collection the year after with her husband as business partner. When the marriage failed in 1970, Carla lost her factory but importantly retained the rights to her name, so launched her first tiny boutique in Surry Hills in 1972 under the company name, Carla Zampatti Limited. (Years later, Carla told me her greatest business advice would be not to take a business partner: “You can do this yourself!”). By the mid-70s, Carla had launched 30 boutiques across Australia, and was soon after awarded Telstra Businesswoman of the Year.
Throughout her career, Carla never forgot her Italian heritage, bringing that European sensibility to her life and work, but she was equally appreciative and proud of Australia, even becoming the first female chair of SBS for a decade.
Beyond fashion, Carla was a self-confessed “culture vulture” and fierce patron of the arts, holding positions as trustee of the NSW Art Gallery, Sydney Dance Company and MCA Foundation, to name a few. When my brother and sister launched the Australian World Orchestra, Carla generously opened her home to many fundraisers, keeping the champagne flowing while charming potential doners. “She was the most extraordinary supporter; nothing was too much trouble or off limits. Her home almost became our second office, albeit with much better views,” says Gabrielle Thompson, the head of the AWO. “Everyone in the orchestra is devastated by this news; we’ve lost one of our own.”
Others admired Carla for her limitless reservoir of creativity, kindness and curiosity.
“Carla was always curious and fascinated with how modern women lived their lives,” remembers Kellie Hush, former editor of Harper’s Bazaar. “She would often ask me, ‘What do women want today?’ I loved that about her. That curiosity. Most recently we were debating what women would want to wear post-COVID. She strongly believed we’d all want to dress up again. I didn’t think we were ready. The chicest woman I know would believe that! Personally, she was a beautiful friend. So successful and strong publicly, but privately so warm and generous. I’ll miss our chats and cups of tea in her sunroom enormously.”
Similarly, Jackie Frank, founding editor marie claire, will miss their many catch-ups and deeply admired her trailblazing attitude about women’s rights, as well as her ability to constantly tap into the zeitgeist by meeting young talent. “She was a mentor to many, and inspired generations of young designers, but also learned from them.” Instead of being fearful of competing creatives, Carla embraced them, working alongside fashion brands such as Romance Was Born and Dinosaur Designs, even producing a still-popular collection of glasses for Specsavers. “She surrounded herself with the best and expected the best, but she was also warm, curious and so much fun” said Adam Worling, her former publicist and friend. “She also made my life easy cos she never took a bad photo! She’d do three poses and then say to the photographer, ‘We’re done now; you’ve got the shot’. And she was right.”
Adds Jackie Frank: “She was always the last to leave a party and an absolute speed demon. I remember zipping around Sydney in her sports Merc at a limit I doubt was legal. I was terrified and elated all at the same time!”
During what would be our last interview, I asked her to pinpoint her greatest achievement. “You’d expect me to say sustaining a fashion brand for over 50 years, but really it’s my kids, Alex, Bianca and Allegra. Without a doubt, my children are my proudest achievement.”