By Peter Switzer
The name Carla Zampatti has been up in lights for more than four decades and the associated brand has become inextricably connected to top-end design and quality.
An attention to standards and an unwillingness to compromise is a characteristic of most successful people and Zampatti is no different. But what is in her history that explains how she has stood the test of time in a competitive and fickle fashion industry?
Like many high achievers, her story began with a ‘little’ thing called passion. “I always had a passion for fashion, even from my early childhood,” she recalls.
“In my working life I kept trying to get a job in fashion and eventually I did.”
However, it was not long before she had a desire to do it her way and that was when the second characteristic of high achievers kicked in – courage.
“I found out that the market really wanted what I designed so I decided why not design the kinds of things I wanted to design,” she explains. “So I decided to give myself three months and if it didn’t work out I would simply get another job.”
She was then 24 and already getting a taste for the risk that goes with being an entrepreneur.
Being from a battling immigrant family, she had to start small, but Zampatti believes to this day that tough tests are good for you.
“I believe being an immigrant is a great stimulus because you come in without support, any baggage,” she says. “So whatever you do is up to you – you feel like an outsider and so it is important to prove to the country how good you are.”
Zampatti cites the likes of Westfield founder Frank Lowy to prove her case. Another source of inspiration was her original home in Australia – Western Australia.
“The West is remote, a faraway place and also without much competition – it’s kind of a pioneering state and so you feel you can do anything,” she says. “There’s nothing stopping you, but being only a small market … you feel by going to
Sydney you could be a greater success. I think it’s an adventure for West Australians.”
Prowling for opportunity
Was money an initial reason for the entrepreneurial journey to create such a well-known business name?
“I think the core to any kind of brand building is integrity and understanding that you are there for the long-term,” Zampatti says.
“The quality of the product you make has to be good because it is not about making money. In fact, when I went into business money wasn’t something that was terribly important, as long as there was enough to continue. It was about producing beautiful, exciting garments that Australian women could wear and enjoy.”
Such passion runs through the veins of high-achieving business people and it converts into real results. Zampatti has 25 stores across Australia.
While she cannot recall aiming to be an entrepreneur, it is a tag Zampatti wears well.
“It’s a title you can apply to me, but it’s not one I give myself,” she says. “I know fashion is a business and if you’re not making profit you’re not going to be able to stay in it.”
She acknowledges, though, that she has the critical qualities of a successful entrepreneur – being on the prowl for an opportunity and being a risk taker.
“You cannot stand still from one achievement to another … there are opportunities and you have to want to grab them. They only happen occasionally and if you don’t take them, you miss them and they won’t come back.”
Zampatti is a powerful role model for people who have big dreams but feel they do not have the business skills to make them real.
“The vision I had at the beginning was a collection of beautiful garments that people loved and it was quite small,” she says. “Today, it’s about people, the brand, how to maintain the brand and make it more exciting and how to expand it.”
Building support networks
Over the years the technician-cum-designer has grown in business stature and learned to work with strong people.
“You need people who will make sure all of the details work. When I started retailing, it was not my strength, so I took on good retailers and that made the difference,” she says. “Really good people pay for themselves because I have found that the productivity of one good person is about five times more than a de-motivated person.”
Great people can also be advisers, and Zampatti admits to being a keen listener. “The best advice I received came from my cousin when I was considering taking on a partner and he advised me not to,” she recalls. “He even went further and made me a loan which really helped in a particular period.”
Her experience has taught her that partners do not always share the same vision and can be a source of enormous frustration – but she made an exception to bring her daughter, Bianca Spender, into the business about four years ago. It was done in a very professional way, showing the value of lessons learnt on the job.
“We handled it in a very pragmatic way,” Zampatti confesses. “We decided to try it for three months to see if it worked out for both of us because I think it’s important for individuals to discover what they are talented at and I think working for your family is not always easy.”
Forging family ties
The gamble paid off and Zampatti believes the challenge helped the pair understand each other better.
Proving the strength of the entrepreneurial genes, Spender later established her own eponymous label and a flagship store in Sydney’s Paddington.
Spender suggests the family traits helped take both to higher levels. “I’m very pushy and Mum has very high standards,” she says. “We both push each other and it is a good thing.”
Retirement is not on the radar screen for Zampatti. “I recently met Giorgio Armani for the first time and he is around 76 and I thought to myself that I have a few years left,” she jokes. “Designers are a bit like artists – they don’t necessarily retire young.”
Zampatti believes her robust brand will help keep her in the game. For others thinking about going into business, she is encouraging.
“I say have a go, what do you have to lose?” she asks. “Do your research, work in the industry you want to be in, make sure you understand the business and try to learn from others who have been successful.”
And one last tip from the master designer: “I love change. I like the excitement of the new. As a fashion designer you need to come up with new ideas every six months. I like new avenues of experience and I adore travel and meeting people is also exciting.”
It is all about being adventurous, like an entrepreneur, and even the older ones can shock the younger ones.
“Mum has always been more daring than me,” Spender admits. “She seemed to never wear a bra when she was young. She wore the lowest cut tops and the most see-through tops I have ever seen. I would never be so adventurous.”