Carla Zampatti retrospective at the Powerhouse Museum reveres the late fashion designer as a champion for working women

Simplicity. Strength. Elegance. These are the design principles that underpin hundreds of garments made by the late Australian fashion designer Carla Zampatti over nearly six decades.

Known for their bold colours, clean lines and Italian sensibility, Zampatti’s designs are unmistakable — and they’re the subject of a major retrospective at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, which opened this week, called Zampatti Powerhouse.

It comes almost two years after the Italian-born designer’s unexpected death in 2021, and features 100 outfits designed over her working life. Affectionately called “Carlas”, the garments are accompanied by stories from the broad church of women who wore them.

“I design for a woman who is not afraid of something a little daring,” Zampatti wrote in 1975.

Those women include Cate Blanchett, HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Nicole Kidman and former prime minister Julia Gillard.

But they also include ordinary working women, like Zampatti herself, who made her first foray into fashion during a period of significant legislative change to Australian women’s working conditions.

a woman looking at and holding pleated fabric
Zampatti (pictured) opened her first boutique in Sydney’s Surry Hills in 1972, when she was 30 years old.(Supplied)

She launched her first collection in 1965, a year shy of the abolition of the marriage bar in 1966, and four years before the equal pay ruling of 1969.

When she established her eponymous label in 1970, the total employment rate among Australian women was 41.7 per cent. (By contrast, the current participation rate for Australian women is 62.4 per cent.)

At the time of her death, Zampatti was Australia’s longest-working fashion designer.

Among her many accolades, she was named the inaugural Australian Business Woman of the Year in 1980, awarded the Australian Fashion Laureate in 2008, and was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1987 and Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2009.

This is Carla Zampatti through three of her most memorable designs, featured in the Powerhouse retrospective.

‘Fashion Flare’ top and pants — worn by Linda Burney

A portrait painting of Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman with dark hair wearing a vibrant red top and matching pant suit.
“The simplicity of Carla’s style, her choice of block colours, meant that you could invest in her clothes,” says Linda Burney (pictured).(Supplied: APH)

In 2019, a portrait of Labor MP Linda Burney was unveiled at Parliament House in Canberra.

It was commissioned in acknowledgement of Burney, a proud Wiradjuri woman, who had just become the first Aboriginal woman elected to Australia’s House of Representatives. The portrait by artist Jude Rae now hangs alongside paintings of Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to parliament, and Senator Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous man.

A white mannequin is dressed in an asymmetrically cut red top and matching red pants.
“[Red] has a richness that makes blondes look interesting and brunettes sensational,” Zampatti wrote in the SMH in 1991.(Supplied: Powerhouse/Ryan Hernandez)

In Rae’s portrait, Burney is wearing a blazing red asymmetric top and matching pants, designed by Zampatti.

“There was never any question about what I was going to wear in my official parliamentary portrait – a striking design by the wonderful Carla Zampatti,” says Burney, who is now Minister for Indigenous Australians.

Made from acetate and polyester crepe, the vibrant red ensemble was created for Zampatti’s 2017 Autumn–Winter collection.

“Red is one of the most powerful colours and the colour of my party,” says Burney.

Although yellow was Zampatti’s favourite colour — she drove a bright yellow Mercedes — her customer base was less enthused by the hue, preferring red, black and cream. In the exhibition, Burney’s outfit is part of a plinth curated around these three colours, which were staples of Zampatti’s collections over the decades.

“She did colour really well, but she wasn’t into over-complicating things. The words that come to mind are simple, strong, clean and bold,” says the exhibition’s curator Roger Leong.

Leong began curating the retrospective before Zampatti died. He spent six months surveying some 700 garments from her home archive, another 300 from her label’s Sydney headquarters, and close to 500 contributions from the public — 1,500 in total.

“She was charming and very warm. She exuded a kind of quiet confidence that is very reassuring,” Leong says.

This assuredness translated to her designs, which also maintained a sense of femininity, he says.

“This [Burney’s outfit] is a really good example of what [Zampatti] did; she’d design a pants ensemble that had the effect of a gown. Here, she’s cut it to flair and drape with these asymmetric lines, which gives it a much dressier look.”

Two podiums in a gallery space that feature multiple mannequins dressed in red, white and black garments.
Although she occasionally worked with florals, many of Zampatti’s designs feature block colour.(Supplied: Powerhouse/Zan Wimberley)

Zampatti refined her structured approach to power dressing in the 90s, rejecting the brassiness of loud 80s prints in favour of pared-back elegance, with an emphasis on block colours and clean lines.

It was in the early 90s that major department stores David Jones and Grace Brothers (now Myer) began stocking her womenswear.

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Listen: Zampatti CEO Alex Schuman and curator Roger Leong on ABC RN Breakfast

Zampatti was constantly questioning and refining her sense of what made women feel confident.

Former editor-in-chief of Harper’s BAZAAR and close friend of Zampatti, Kellie Hush wrote in 2021: “Carla had long been celebrated for making people feel confident in what they wore – and this was never a fluke. She closely observed and listened to women, and she still had that curiosity at 78.”

‘Titania’ jumpsuit — worn by Tina Arena

Tina Arena with dark hair slicked back wears a black jumpsuit with plunging neckline and holds a microphone on a stage.
Tina Arena was honoured in 2015 for her contributions to Australian music over a career then-spanning 40 years.(Getty Images: Zak Kaczmarek)

Jumpsuits have been a cornerstone of Zampatti’s collections since the 70s. They are widely regarded as her “signature”, Leong says.

“[Zampatti] loved jumpsuits, and she wore them a lot. For her, they embodied everything — and they’re practical,” he says.

“She didn’t want to design ‘fussy’ clothes. She wanted to make clothes for women that made them feel confident, not just in the way they look but also in the way they feel.”

In balancing strength, femininity and comfort in her designs, Zampatti was dressing a version of herself, Leong says.

“She tried on every single design she produced, right up until she died. Nothing was put into the collection if she didn’t like the way it felt or the way it looked,” says Leong.

Included in the retrospective is the ‘Titania’ jumpsuit, worn by Tina Arena when she was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2015.

Tina Arena performs with The Veronicas and Jessica Mauboy at the ARIA Awards.
“This jumpsuit has a bit of a 30s feel to it with the caped sleeve effect,” says Leong.(AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

Arena used her acceptance speech to call out gendered discrimination in the music industry.

“Women and men of all ages have something interesting to say but what I have struggled with is the complete ostracisation of a woman at a certain age,” she said.

“I want to acknowledge that ladies over 40 are still in the game … Keep doing what you do best ladies because we will decide when it’s time for us to stop.”

The black jumpsuit she wore is taken from Zampatti’s 2016 Autumn–Winter collection and is made from acetate and polyester crepe, with nylon mesh bridging a plunging neckline.

Zampatti personally fitted Arena for the occasion.

A white mannequin is dressed in a long-sleeved black jumpsuit with a plunging neckline.
“[Zampatti] was queen of the jumpsuit,” says Leong.(Supplied: Powerhouse/Ryan Hernandez)

“I was calling out ageism in the music industry, especially as it affects women. The media focused on the ‘bold’ neckline, but age is no barrier to looking good and that jumpsuit looked great,” Arena said in a statement included in the exhibition.

The singer was 48 at the time and garnered some — it’s fair to say — eye-roll-inducing media attention because of the outfit.

“[Zampatti] was very good at flattering women of all ages and accentuating parts of their body. That plunging neckline with the mesh shows off cleavage in a safe way, but it’s also quite dramatic,” says Leong.

As well as being simple, strong and elegant, Leong says Zampatti’s designs were characteristically sexy.

“She liked carving out these bits of the body and showing off a bit of flesh. She didn’t shy away from showing cleavage or cut-outs from dresses, and she knew how to do it in a way that was very flattering.

“It sounds a little prosaic but I think she married comfort with style. That’s what the jumpsuits are about — comfort, style and a bit of excitement,” says Leong.

A female model with auburn hair wears dark glasses and a black and white striped suit while reclining on a red Ford.
“She knew how to cut a very good jacket; one that is confident but also a bit sexy,” says Leong.(Supplied: Powerhouse)

Shawl detail jacket and pants — worn by Christine Holgate

Along with her jumpsuits, Zampatti was also lauded for her bold power blazers.

“Her clothes gave a whole generation of women a very beautiful but very strong look,” says Christine Holgate, former chief executive of Australia Post and longtime friend of Zampatti’s.

Holgate knows all too well the importance of dressing with confidence. It was a Carla Zampatti design she donned for perhaps the most consequential moment of her public life: the Australia Post Senate inquiry of April 2021, during which she gave evidence alleging she had been bullied and unlawfully stood down from her job.

Christine Holgate standing at a senate committee hearing, she is pictured with a white blazer
Holgate (pictured, at the Senate inquiry) told the committee she was forced out of her job as CEO.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

“It was Carla’s idea for me to wear that jacket,” Holgate recalls.

“It was pretty daunting to have to go to parliament and take on a prime minister. She [Zampatti] said to me, ‘Darling, what are you going to wear?’ and I hadn’t thought about it because I was busy writing a submission,” Holgate says.

Zampatti had strongly urged Holgate to front the inquiry and give evidence against former prime minister Scott Morrison, and chair of Australia Post Lucio Di Bartolomeo.

She recalls Zampatti saying, “You have to look fabulous.”

“Her [Zampatti’s] point was: Come the day, your clothes are like armour; they give you strength … The last thing you want to be doing is worrying about what you look like,” says Holgate.

“And she was absolutely right.”

A white mannequin wears a white blazer with a shawl-like tie detail at the front and slim black pants.
Holgate has donated the outfit (pictured) to the Powerhouse’s collection.(Supplied: Powerhouse/Ryan Hernandez)

The jacket Zampatti picked for Holgate was made from acetate and polyester crepe, designed as part of the designer’s 2021 Autumn–Winter collection. Long associated with the suffrage movement and a symbol of female solidarity, the colour white was intentional.

“She [Holgate] was projecting an image of purity and she looked confident — quietly confident in the way that Carla [Zampatti] was, because she did nothing wrong,” Leong says.

This is one of countless power blazers Zampatti designed throughout her career.

“It’s a power blazer but it’s also feminine, in a way. It’s got good, strong shoulders that are nicely cut to glide over the torso so that it’s not too tightly fitted. It’s flattering, but also gives a sense of comfort,” Leong says.

“It [the garment] says, ‘I’m comfortable in my own skin — don’t mess with me.”

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