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Woman in business - designer Carla Zampatti

01 June 2015

carla portrait

Carla Zampatti (above) is convinced retail is entertainment. She has come to her realisation over time both in business as a fashion designer, and through her other corporate experiences, including as Chair of the multicultural broadcasting channel SBS, a position she held for 10 years from 1999 to 2009.

To understand what she means Carla, who recently revealed her new designs for Westpac’s corporate uniform, provides a quick verbal sketch – a comparative analysis of fashion design and media, noting that in business you need to be agile.

“After I took the role at SBS I began to realise media and fashion share elements in common: fashion has clients; media an audience. Fashion has products, and broadcast media, for example, has programs. The two areas can experience similar issues. A program may not be well accepted and so it might be moved from prime time. An item in a collection can suffer the same fate.

“In my business life, the experiences I’ve had outside my own business have been invaluable.

“When I was on the board of Westfield – a massive global phenomenon – it was exciting because of its size and the fact that here is this publicly listed company run by a family who cares about shareholders’ success. There is a personal element in why and how things are done and that benefits shareholders.

“If you can engender that family feeling in an organisation - the essence of that - I think that is important.”

And as a member of McDonald’s board, where everyone’s part of the McDonald’s family, she learned the value of staff training: “When people are happy working with each other, they give much better service to clients.”

For half a century Carla has successfully designed and produced two collections a year for her audience. It’s the sort of unflagging enthusiasm that marks her out as a pure and passionate fashion devotee. She also does it because she loves the challenge and the fact you can’t take anything for granted, which “keeps her young and tuned in”.

Her interest in fashion goes back to the attic of her family home in Lovero Italy, northeast of Italy’s fashion and design capital, Milan. She remembers playing for hours here on her own as a tiny girl – “fashioning and dressing my dolls, talking to them, bossing them around, running the shop.”

In 1950 at the age of nine, she moved to Australia with her parents. Astute enough, even at that age, to notice the difference between what ‘fashion’ had been in Italy and what it was in Western Australia, Carla grew to understood Perth wasn’t going to be where she could become a fashion designer.

“My first job was in PR for a white goods business. It was a wonderful experience and really taught me about customer service but I was desperate to get into fashion.”

In 1960, with a group of girlfriends, Carla arrived in Sydney.

“There were five of us in a 2-bedroom apartment, which was really very crowded, but a wonderful experience, full of great optimism.”

One day on the bus Carla found herself sitting next to a man called Mr Miller: “His business was Nemco Fashion products, and his secretary had just married, and in those days, when a woman married it meant leaving her job.

“He asked if I knew anyone who might apply?

“I answered, ‘me’.

“I wasn’t a good secretary but he could tell I would give good advice on styling, which I did. I redesigned his collection, which was essentially blouses, and sales rose immediately.”

In 1965 Carla set out on her own in business and she has some simple advice that has held her in good stead ever since: “I was never very competitive when it came to games, but business, that’s another story.

“Understand what you love and what you are good at. Understand where it fits in the marketplace and what it brings to the market and do it slowly.

“I know people don’t want to do that today, go slowly, but remember, think long term. I didn’t realise I would be in business 50 years on - that my career would expand that long - but I also knew that it wasn’t a short term commitment. I knew fashion was something I loved and I was quite good at it because of the response from the public. I also knew I had very little money and that I couldn’t indulge and grow overnight, so when I made a mistake I made it at a point where it wasn’t fatal. I always try to learn from mistakes. We all make mistakes. I’ve made lots of them. The thing to try and do is not make the same mistake twice.

“I think people must stretch beyond what they think they can do, especially women. You need to take risks because without them you can’t succeed. The people I’ve met who’ve been successful have all, at some point, taken a risk.”

Carla’s risks have taken her in unusual directions. She was one of the first Australian designers to introduce swimwear into her collection, was commissioned to create the first designer eyewear for Polaroid's range, produced two fragrances and redesigned a car: the Ford Laser.

A glass half full gal, women’s development and how society has come along with that development fill her with optimism: “The attitude, I see today, is that if a woman wishes to do something she can. Education and examples of other women have helped that. It is so exciting to observe.

“I live the life of my clients. I know what a difference it makes if you are wearing something you love. It makes you feel your best and then you can go off and meet any challenge that comes your way.”

carla and staff

Westpac’s new range of clothing won’t be known as a uniform but labelled the “Westpac collection”. Carla describes the collection, which is still in sketch form awaiting staff feedback, as “exciting with many options”. The new-look wardrobe will be trialled by some 200 staff over the next few months. It will be formally launched in October 2016, ahead of the bank’s 200th anniversary in 2017. Westpac has consulted with other large companies that have large numbers of staff, including QANTAS, to get a feel for what works and the best process for trialling, testing and achieving a final result.

The designer Carla Zampatti, centre, flanked by Westpac’s Rodalyn Brookes and Mitchell McClennan (left), and Jason Yetton (right).