As I write this, it’s hard to take in that the last words Carla Zampatti said to me were: “I can’t wait to see our story in the magazine this month”. I was sitting two seats along from Carla at the opening night of Opera Australia’s La Traviata on Sydney Harbour. It was a beautiful balmy evening and we chattered happily about our joint love of Verdi, how thrilling it was to be out once more watching live opera and recollections of the wonderful day I had spent with The Weekly team at Carla’s home just before Christmas.
This story had been in the works for many months as I wrangled the busy timetables of Carla, her daughters and her grandchildren for what would be an unusually personal article about the importance of family to this icon of Aussie fashion.
In what I will always treasure as a very special time, Carla, her daughters, Bianca and Allegra, and her eldest granddaughter, Brigid, shared halcyon memories from their childhoods and paid tribute to their mum and nonna, a role model to each in varying ways.
Carla talked candidly about growing up in Italy, migrating to Australia, her two marriages, and shared her feelings about an ongoing romance with a special partner that had started more than two years ago. She was excited about what lay ahead for her fashion business, refusing to even consider the idea of retiring because she had too much yet to do.
That story was always scheduled to run in this issue of The Weekly, coming out just weeks before what would have been Carla’s 79th birthday, and I feel a deep sadness that she won’t see it. After La Traviata’s final curtain, Carla tripped on the steps while leaving the venue, and her death a week later shocked Australia, prompting an outpouring of tributes from celebrities, politicians and the thousands of women whose lives Carla touched. Her state funeral on April 15 was testament to Carla’s standing in her adopted homeland.
This is the last major interview and photo shoot with one of Australia’s most inspirational trailblazers, a proud feminist who paved the way for young women to follow their dreams.
Carla Zampatti was born in northern Italy in the tiny village of Lovero and though she left for Australia aged nine, the nation of art, beauty, fashion and the Renaissance is deeply embedded in her soul. Her Sydney home could just as well be in Tuscany, filled with exquisite art and statuary and dominated by a stunning central curved staircase. “I think your aesthetics develop early and mine are very much Italian,” she offers, her vowels still uniquely Italian.
As we talk, a caravan of Carla’s grandchildren – Arietta, eight, Octavia, seven, Florian, nine, and Rafferty, four-run in and out of our room. They have just chosen their – white – outfits for our shoot when youngest Rafferty sits down next to his nonna with a huge slice of watermelon in his hands. “Oh gosh, you can just imagine what will happen to that shirt. I’ll have to wash it,” says Carla as Rafferty’s mum – Carla’s daughter Allegra – scoops him up.
Carla and Rafferty have a special connection, she tells me. He already has an Italian sense of style. “Rafferty is aware of beauty. He asks me, ‘Why is this so pretty?’ ... Already he has that aesthetic sense. Mine was always there too. I was very fussy about how my hair was done, what my mother put on me, the clothes I wore. I think it came from the Italian element because around you everyone – even kids – dressed up for Sunday best and they looked fantastic. I loved that.”
Carla was the only girl raised with two brothers, which she says was “a lot of fun”. Despite her passion for clothes, she was a natural tomboy, spending her days climbing trees. “I was the youngest of three, younger by seven and five years, and I grew up very much in love with my two older brothers, who looked after me because my mother was very busy running the family estate. I loved being with them and they were always kind to me.”
Carla’s main role model was her mother. “My father was in Australia, having left just as the war broke out because he wanted to get away from fascism. He thought if he came to Australia we could all move, but then he was not able to come back and we were not able to come over until 1950,” she says. “It must have been very hard for my mother because she had three kids and was running a huge family farm. From her, I learned that women had ability and could do anything they really decided to do.”
Carla recalls being five or six when she decided on her future life plan. It was a personal epiphany of sorts. “I distinctly remember thinking, ‘When I grow up, I not only want to be a mother, but I also want to have some kind of business. I want to be working. I want my own identity’. That’s where feminism started creeping in for me. I thought to myself, ‘Women are really the soul and the heart of a family and yet they’re not given any credit. What they do is not seen as very important. So, when I grow up, I want to be more than a wife and mother – I want to have some kind of personal success’.”
That ideal became a driving passion as ideas about what her success might look like started to percolate. “Creating beautiful clothes was very much in the back of my mind from an early age. Originally, I thought I’d be a good machinist – a dressmaker – and then when I came to Australia and realised that dressmaking wasn’t a business here, I decided I’d become a fashion designer,” she says.
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