Mourning Carla Zampatti: ‘She’d say this is the best-dressed funeral she had ever attended’

Australia’s fashion doyenne has been commemorated in a state funeral her children said befitted her elegant legacy

The beauty and majesty of St Mary’s Cathedral was an apt backdrop for the state funeral of Carla Zampatti, the grande dame of Australian fashion.

“It could be said that Carla Zampatti was indeed a reigning monarch, the queen of fashion,” said Archbishop Anthony Fisher. “I suspect the angels are about to get new uniforms.”

On this earth, the sight of 1,200 monochrome and immaculately tailored mourners would doubtless have pleased Zampatti, who dressed Australian women in her effortlessly sophisticated designs for more than half a century.

Bianca Spender, Alex Schuman and Allegra Spender
Zampatti’s children Bianca Spender, Alex Schuman and Allegra Spender. Photograph: Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney/Getty Images
mourners outside the cathedral
‘The sight of 1,200 monochrome and immaculately tailored mourners would doubtless have pleased Zampatti.’ Photograph: Getty Images

“Nothing made her happier than seeing her garments out in the world,” said Zampatti’s daughter Bianca Spender, who is also a fashion designer. “If she was alive, she’d say this is the best-dressed funeral she had ever attended.”

She was renowned for dressing politicians and prominent businesswomen, and guests at Thursday’s funeral included the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, the former foreign minister Julie Bishop and the former governor general Dame Quentin Bryce.

Three former prime ministers – John Howard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – were also in attendance, along with fashion industry identities including Vogue Australia’s editor-in-chief, Edwina McCann, the former Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Kellie Hush and the designers Kit Willow, Camilla Franks, Nicky Zimmermann and Camilla Freeman-Topper.

Camilla Franks outside the cathedral
Designer Camilla Franks after the service. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images
John and Janette Howard, and Julie Bishop are among the mourners
John and Janette Howard, and Julie Bishop. Photograph: Getty Images

The service in a church filled with white orchids and family photographs opened with an audio recording of Zampatti talking about her life and career, and how she wanted to be remembered.

“It kind of took a lot of courage, probably more courage than I’ve ever had to draw upon, and it was tough but it taught me that I was really, really strong and that I could do it,” she said in the recording.

“I think my children living through my career and surviving – that makes me very most proud. And also helping women do what they really wanted to do and maybe setting an example, that if I can do it, you can.”

Carla Zampatti in her Surry Hills shop in 1970
Zampatti in her Surry Hills shop in 1970, five years after establishing her eponymous label Photograph: Supplied by family

The service was a requiem mass, in line with the staunch Catholicism Zampatti brought with her when she moved to Australia from Lovero, Italy, as a child without a word of English.

After living in the small Western Australian town of Bullfinch, the family moved to Sydney in the 60s. Zampatti established her eponymous brand there in 1965, enduring a marriage breakup and raising her first child as a single mother. She had to rely on a family loan of $5,000 to open her first shop in Surry Hills – at the time a woman in Australia could not get a bank loan without her husband’s signature – but Zampatti was on her way.

In the ensuing decades, she not only created countless collections but became a shrewd businesswoman, an advocate for migrant and women’s rights, a cultural philanthropist and a member of boards including SBS, McDonald’s and Westpac.

Mother to three children – Alexander Schuman, Bianca Spender and Allegra Spender – Zampatti balanced work with precious family time, doting on her nine grandchildren.

Carla Zampatti surrounded by her children and grandchildren
The designer surrounded by her children and grandchildren Photograph: Picasa 3 0/Supplied by family

“Her favourite thing on the weekend was to swim and have her family around her,” Bianca Spender said. “She offered you champagne and croissants at any time of day, with Nutella for the grandchildren, presenting everything on a perfect white cloth.”

At home the business was always referred to as “CZ”.

“It was our other sibling, sometimes the favourite child,” Schuman said.

Allegra Spender said she would miss her mother’s “warm presence, her perspective, her sense of fun, her love and care of us and the joy she took from the world. We are very proud of you, Mum. We are committed to continuing your legacy of inspiring, empowering and supporting women.”

Quentin Bryce speaks at the service
Quentin Bryce speaks at the service. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Zampatti died aged 78 after a fall at the premiere of La Traviata in Sydney on March 26.

“Always and ever for Carla, there was an abiding love of art and beauty,” Bryce said. “[But] Carla always said that her greatest reward was having women wear her clothes. Oh how we loved them, and so we did her.”


Georgina Safe

The GuardianTramp

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