new exhibition explores how Carla Zampatti viewed her designs as a tracker of feminism

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The late Carla Zampatti is celebrated in a splendid Zampatti Powerhouse retrospective at the Powerhouse Museum. Planned long before that of the fashion designer premature death last year, the unveiling of his legacy will be bittersweet for his many fans.

Zampatti is often referred to as “Carla” by friends and those who worked for her, rather than her brand name, Carla Zampatti. Here, the simple name “Zampatti” takes the emphasis of Zampatti as a designer away from a simpler statement: businesswoman, mother, philanthropist-entrepreneur.

It’s a move as deft and elegant as the rest of the exhibit picks.

In one of the finest fashion show designs Australia has seen, creative director Tony Assness offers a dynamic take on clothing punctuated with bright red (one of Zampatti’s favorite design choices) that encourages excitement and discovery. Clothing is categorized by theme – jumpsuit, jungle, graphic, jacket, power – rather than date.

Curator Roger Leong is drawing on his years of experience to do something relatively new for Australian museums: telling the stories of clothes through the stories of the women who have worn them.

‘Animal’ group with close-up of beaded ‘Carla’ cape, 2016. Zampatti Powerhouse exhibition.
Photograph by Zan Wimberley.

A migrant story

Zampatti’s story is a story of Australian migrants. Born Maria Zampatti in Italy in 1938 (not 1942, as is often believed), she did not meet her father, who had emigrated to Fremantle, until she was 11 years old.

In Australia, she was forced to change her name to Mary. It was claimed that the other children could not pronounce Maria. She didn’t finish school. When she moved to Sydney in her late twenties, she reinvented herself as Carla.

The fashion business started on a kitchen table in 1965 under the ZamPatti label. By 1970 Carla had bought out her business partner husband and was the sole owner of Carla Zampatti Pty Ltd.

Zampatti thrived in fashion. She had her finger on the pulse, was in the right place at the right time, and knew that a more glamorous role was possible for a fashion designer than the industry’s “ragman”.

Zampatti Powerhouse exhibition.
Photograph by Zan Wimberley.

By the 1970s, markets were suggesting that ultra-expensive haute couture was on the verge of disappearing, to be replaced by informal ranges created by a new type of designer often referred to as a “stylist”. It was the decade of flower power, retro dressing and ethnic borrowings.

Until the 1960s, fashion was dominated by the rise of haute couture and the “dictator-designer” system – mostly men who determined hem lengths and women’s silhouettes. But in 1973, the French body governing haute couture added a new layer of designers, creators (literally “creators” or designers), who only produced ready-to-wear.

In 1972, Zampatti opened her first boutique in Sydney, inspired by the informal boutiques she had seen in St Tropez. Zampatti offered women bright jumpsuits, art deco looks and peasant-inspired ease.

Model promoting the Carla Zampatti Ford Laser and Ford Meteor, 1987.
Photo courtesy of Carla Zampatti Archives

It aimed to provide women with clothes they wanted to wear. She draped the fabric and colors over herself. Like many designers in the past, she was conscious of how her clothes looked and felt to clients. Zampatti remained the in-form role model for the entire line and would not produce anything in which it did not look and feel good.

Zampatti saw her “clothing as a tracker of feminism.”

The 1980s cemented Zampatti’s rise to prominence. She became a household name, even designing a car for women. In this era, personal expression became more important than unified looks dictated by designers. Zampatti’s Australian design coincided with a new development in Italy: the stylists. Focused, fashion-conscious, quality-conscious small family businesses flourished. It was an approach that emphasized quality and glamour.

Zampatti identified the talent. She employed well-known fashion designer Beril Jents in the workshop after falling on hard times. She then employed Jents to improve the fit of her designs.

Zampatti continued to enlist the services of stylists and other designers, including Romance is Born, who she believed could take her work to the next level.

Carla Zampatti prepares models for the Spring/Summer 2010 show.
Photo courtesy of Prudence Upton

clothing stories

Worn equally by politicians and their circles on the right and left, Zampatti injected more than power dressing into women’s wardrobes. She inspired the feeling that women wore the clothes, not the clothes themselves.

In this exhibition, we are given many examples, from Linda Burney’s red pantsuit worn for her parliamentary portrait to a dress worn by Jennifer Morrison at the White House.

Zampatti Powerhouse exhibition.
Photograph by Zan Wimberley.

The exhibition viewer can turn away from the serried rows of brilliantly styled models and step into large “listening pods,” projecting brilliantly edited videos in the style of artist Bill Viola. The women, including Dame Quentin Bryce and Ita Buttrose, discuss Zampatti’s creative spirit or reflect on their own Zampatti wardrobe. They are some of the best “talking heads” I have seen in a museum.

Like many designers, Zampatti was not very interested in her own background. It has not kept substantial archives and documents, which testifies to the know-how demonstrated by the museum in presenting this exhibition to us.

Zampatti never turned her back on her personal history, but she was a futurist, looking forward rather than backward.



Read more:
How Carla Zampatti pioneered wearable yet cosmopolitan women’s clothing and became a fashion icon


Zampatti Powerhouse is Powerhouse Ultimo, Sydney, until June 11, 2023.

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