The sad passing of fashion designer Carla Zampatti last week was followed with the news she will be honoured with a state funeral, as is befitting.
Carla was Australia’s most successful designer, a trailblazer for 55 years and savvy businesswoman, who built a retail empire of more than 30 stores and concessions around the country.
Sales reportedly spiked at Carla Zampatti boutiques last week, a lovely tribute from the people who mattered the most – her loyal customers.
I recall my early introduction to Carla’s designs via my mother, who had a small but trendy boutique in Cronulla in the mid-70s.
She not only stocked Carla, she rocked Carla: some of my favourite outfits were Mum’s button-through red jersey maxi dress with matching hot pants, and a fabulous tapestry coat in black, red and gold with black faux fur trim at the collar cuffs and hem – a tad Dr Zhivago.
Carla’s designs were very fashion forward in the ’70s, but in the ’80s and beyond the collections went in a direction that, to my mind, was ultimately more important than being revolutionary.
She designed clothes to make us feel empowered.
Women were heading out into the workforce like never before, rightfully trying to make their way into top positions in the corporate world and into politics, edging their way into the boys club.
We wanted clothes to make us feel powerful, but not masculine, pulled together, but not too showy, to give us confidence, without attracting undue attention.
This is where Carla reigned supreme. In many so cases, give me a woman’s notable career highlight and I’ll suggest she did it in a Carla Zampatti pantsuit.
One of my close friends, a top media executive, says she wore one of her pantsuits every day for decades. Carla understood us. She knew we loved fashion, but she realised that we were fighting to be taken seriously in the boardroom.
She also recognised that we were not all a sample size 8. Her cuts were generous and flattering, she knew we had bosoms, and bums, and babies.
My friends and I used to joke that we were a “Carla size 10”, which actually meant a 12 or 14, but didn’t it make us feel good.
Her wool crepe pantsuits folded beautifully into a suitcase, without crushing. You could dab them clean because you had to rush between home and office and dinner.
She wanted to make our lives easier, and the same cannot be said about many ‘famous’ designers. Carla made what we called in the fashion magazine business “solution” clothes: tuxedos and long black skirts and satin blouses for black tie events; glamorous (and very forgiving) opera coats and marabou jackets, nothing tricky or too seasonal.
She was not only the epitome of chic (nobody looked better in a black jumpsuit than Carla) but she was kind and funny and gave great advice to so many people coming through the business.
We used to lunch regularly when I was the editor of Vogue and I remember lamenting a career mistake I had made.
“Oh Kirstie, you’re only 40,” she said kindly.
“Don’t beat yourself up. You don’t know what you know until you know it.”
That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. And what I do know is that, Carla, you were extraordinary.