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Carla Zampatti and Bianca Spender Carla Zampatti AC, Executive Chairman Carla Zampatti, Bianca Spender, Designer

07 March 2011

\"The last recession was all about the suit. This time our customers are more discerning and thoughtful about what they're spending, looking for one unique piece to bring a new and fresh feel to existing wardrobes. Jackets are still important but women no longer feel the need to reflect a male image. They're more individual in the way they dress.\"

The day after Carla Zampatti was presented her Companion of the Order of Australia, the country's highest honour, she was back at work with daughter, Bianca Spender. (Well, when you're recognised for your leadership and management in business, this would seem the most natural place to be.) The Saturday before that ceremony, Carla attended the emotionally charged opening of the Sydney Theatre Company's \"Street Car Named Desire\". At every sighting over that busy week, it was her calm, professional composure that caught your attention.

Bianca Spender, Carla's 32-year-old daughter, exhibits much of the same: the only youthful giveaway an unruly curl or three.

In the Fashion Headquarters

Inside the company's timber-floored warehouse headquarters, sitting at a large wooden country-style table, surrounded on all sides by racks of the latest collections, we are here to discuss the business of fashion. Bianca is quick to point out – and Carla to confirm – how important a sound knowledge of business and being professional in business is in what they do. That's not to say that design and the fashion take second place, but to push boundaries and to deal in something as 'fickle' as fashion needs the discipline of a strong business sense and ethic.

\"For a young designer to be successful it is important to understand and have the structures of business around them or you could lose your way,\" confesses Bianca.

All three of Carla's children grew up in business, spending school holidays working with her. It has given them a healthy respect for what it takes to succeed. And, as Bianca freely admits, it is a process she not only understands but also enjoys.

\"I find business very analytical. I love design. I understand if you love design you don't have to love business, but it's going to be a lot easier if you get involved.

\"The idea of having my designs leave my fingertips and then I lose all control doesn't work for me. I am concerned with the business execution, the retail, understanding why things sold well or not.\"

Carla agrees: \"You can only stay in business if your product is relevant to the public. Certainly my design decisions are intuitive. I have a particular handwriting developed from an understanding of my customers' needs and lifestyles.

\"Bianca's collection broadens our reach. She brings us a younger perspective, a different dimension. But in all aspects of a collection, it is important to build and maintain credibility of brand and remember the product is hero.

\"In her role as Marketing Director, she has brought a new level of professionalism into all of that.\"

Dynastic opportunities

While there's certainly no Crystal Carrington going on here, it's impossible not to notice this is a tight-knit family business. Mother and daughter will jump in and finish one another's sentences, without making the terrible mistake of assuming they know what one another is thinking and feeling. The clear distinct line between professional business relationship and the deeper more personal family connection never blurs but nor does it come across as cold and distant. These two people are their own individuals who respect one another.

\"It comes down to recognising feedback as not a personal thing. And, as in any business, it is about working through the different creative processes and understanding the reasons why the other person is doing or feeling the way they do, so that we can reach decisions that are good for the business,\" says Bianca.

\"It's a relationship we have to make function on a daily basis. You can't just say - I'm taking a week off, I need some space.\"

For Carla, diversity of thought plays an important part in how she sees the business grow and meet challenges. Just like the collections she and her daughter produce separately, they must meet customer expectation but also introduce those same customers to new thought, new ways of seeing and being.

\"You can't keep the same model going over and over. You must excite, be unique in the marketplace as well. It's finding a balance between creativity and business efficiency to deliver those wonderful ideas.

\"Working together we understand each other at a level we would never have achieved without this opportunity.\"

The shape of things to come

Having successfully navigated her way through three recessions, remained chair of the SBS broadcasting board for the past 10 years, mentored many women in business, headed a successful fashion label since 1965, spent four years in Paris as the wife of Australia's Ambassador to France, John Spender, Carla Zampatti is in a unique position to offer her thoughts on the future of business and retail. She doesn't mince words when she says, business will be tougher, that costs are climbing all the time and a new level of professionalism will be needed in every aspect. She acknowledges, online as the future – a must do area that will have profound effects on retail.

\"Customers who know the product well enough will be able to order online to save time if they are unable to get to a store.

\"Retailing may change to feel more personal. To capture the customer, the shopping experience will have to be a really good one because there are options. We are all so time poor, that the shopping experience will have to be a pleasure.\"

For those working in retail, this means having strong people and sales skills, being well-briefed and able to offer a more personalised customer service than ever before.

Formidable experience

Bianca is in agreement and most excited about the potential of online. A child of the 1980s she chose to start her design career in Paris at Martine Sitbon and was there for three years.

She recalls that it was her biggest challenge and that it was only in the final six months she felt she had grasped enough knowledge to find herself able to give something back.

\"I was a sponge for knowledge. Everyone knew more than I did about design, art, history and so much culture. I had to catch up.\"

It was an experience she saw as important to bring back with her and to use forging a career in Australia, which became her next challenge.

\"Bianca did that on her own. We had left Paris at the time. She likes a challenge,\" notes Carla, whose own cavalcade of business experience speaks for itself and hints at its own challenges.

\"I've had a life of challenges but I think one of the largest challenges for me was in the last recession,\" says Carla. \"I had a big debt with Westpac and convincing my bank manager that I was capable of paying it off and then doing just that and ahead of time gave me great confidence.\"

A dose of youthful optimism, followed up with a lifetime of experience this recipe for success is both born and bred.

Key Achievements


My children

My work, which remains my hobby

My contributions at board level

The design of the Ford Laser in the 1980s


My baby, Dominic

Living in a different language

Loving my work

Personal Passions



My children



Swimming in the ocean


What makes people tick

\"Use one or two special pieces to dress up the basics already existing in your wardrobe.\"

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