When you spend three months making a dress, as Bianca Spender often does, having it debut to the world in eight seconds on a catwalk can feel like a gross injustice.
The celebrated designer loves nothing more than seeing her clothes move on the wearer's body. But traditional fashion shows, with their linear runways aimed at the photographers’ pit, are troubling Spender as she marks a decade in business.
“Turning 10 creates a really reflective space for me. I am very much a birthdays person. I love thinking of the perfect gifts, writing really long cards – I am thinking about that for the brand, what it represents, the stories it wants to tell, and its future,” she says.
I'm meeting Spender on a muggy autumn day in Sydney's Bondi at Italian trattoria Totti’s, the newest jewel in the Merivale hospitality crown. While the premise of the lunch is to interview Spender about her milestone season and her plans for the upcoming Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, the 42-year-old has other ideas. She wants to probe me, to help decide whether she should stage a show at all.
“I don’t think I can capture everything I want to in a traditional show format,” she explains. “My runways are never straight.”
Last year, Spender staged one of the standout shows at Fashion Week, featuring a diagonal series of catwalks that snaked through the crowd. The critics loved it but photographers hated not being able to capture the perfect front-on shot.
Over a shared meal of grilled whiting fillets, a dish of fregola with seafood that is like a more chewy risotto, and salads, we discuss the “front, back and sides” view of fashion, as more people explore fashion through two-dimensional images, often on their smartphones.
Spender believes social media, specifically Instagram, has “had a huge change on the way people can market ideas. I feel lucky because my clothes are better in movement. When online shopping first came out and everyone was straight front, back, sides, I was like, ‘You don’t have any idea how that skirt floats or feels’, and I was really struggling with working out how to translate my ideas.”
Movement is at the core of how Spender designs and produces her clothes, joking that skirts must pass the “Martin Place test”, named after the notorious wind tunnel in the Sydney CBD. Since becoming a mother to two sons, now aged seven and 10, those tests have expanded to include the “carrying the baby” test to determine dress lengths (Spender doesn’t own a pair of jeans).
Spender’s obsession with movement was put to the ultimate test recently, when she designed the costumes for the Sydney Dance Company’s 50th-anniversary production of Cinco, under artistic director Rafael Bonachela. Some of the dance movements were so physical that three costumes ripped during rehearsals, and there were many repairs required.
“Each [costume] fitting, the scope of movement was amazing and even if I had mimicked it … I couldn’t mimic what would happen to the costume when it was on [the dancers],” she says.
Spender said the project, even if it has forced her to sacrifice other work this year, was a dream come true for the one-time ballet student.
“Every family photo from the age of five to 11, I am in my ballet costume. I loved it so much I wouldn’t take [my costume] off,” she says.
I call myself the tortoise. My mum loves running fast and loves winning.
Spender's gazelle-like physique and flowing strawberry blonde hair means she could easily pass as a professional dancer, although she admits age and the way she moves has taken its toll on her body.
“I only recently realised at the physio when he asked how I move … everything is always very extended, I am not holding my core very much," she says while demonstrating how she would pick up a vase off a table, arm outstretched. "I love how everything looks when it’s long but then you don’t protect your body.”
Spender grew up in Sydney the middle of three children to fashion icon Carla Zampatti and John Spender (her parents separated in 2010). She recalls living in “big, spacious houses” where classical music was often playing and small talk was non-existent, the family preferring to tackle politics or business at the dinner table, sometimes to the bemusement of Spender’s classmates.
At school she would demonstrate her eccentric fashion taste on mufti days, but it wasn’t until Spender reached adulthood that she truly understood her family’s notoriety in Sydney's cultural scene.
“Only years after I left school and I [reflected on] certain conflicts with certain kids that I’d never understood. People would say, ‘Well your mum is Carla Zampatti, and I was just like, ‘Oh’.
“My mum is pretty normal, she’s a postwar immigrant. What that means to me is you have to finish all your food, you live in a beautiful house but you understand the value of money.”
For a pre-teen Spender, that meant school holidays spent working at her mother’s inner-city office, doing every job from tea lady to banking clerk.
“I am the most ridiculous jaywalker because I have been walking around the city since I was eight,” Spender jokes.
A firsthand apprenticeship in the Carla Zampatti offices, coupled with her family’s work and social ethic, meant Spender had quite a feminist upbringing. “I never felt the need to answer to a man, dress for a man, or been dependent on a man for anything. They don’t have to approve of how I talk, what I wear, what I earn, what I spend my money on.”
Last year, Spender reached another milestone when she and Zampatti divided their businesses into separate entities, including a new head office in Rushcutters Bay for Spender. The pair are clearly close, often travelling together overseas or to fashion shows in Australia (both brands are carried at David Jones, for example). But when it comes to their work practices, Spender admits they are quite different.
“I call myself the tortoise. My mum loves running fast and loves winning. She has racing car blood in her family (both Zampatti’s brothers were race-car drivers) … but I am about the journey. It’s not that I don’t want the end result to look great. You can get a good result and have a terrible journey but that doesn’t mean the same to me. I am [about] the long game.”
Which comes back to Spender’s Fashion Week dilemma. She has a big vision of a project involving 10 women who have influenced her, dressing 10 other women, using her carefully archived collections. It’s still morphing but she knows it won’t be ready by mid-May, when fashion week takes place.
“I am probably being too ambitious in what I want to achieve out of it. But at least if I am pushing myself to strive for something. I won’t do what I expect – and I’ll find that new form.”
(A week after our lunch, Spender phones to say she has decided to sit out of Fashion Week and will instead stage a solo, more intimate event in early May.)
Recently, Spender has experimented with salon-style showings, where she revels in getting up close with the clothing and the customer. As someone who’s more comfortable at a dinner party for 10 than a cocktail function for 300, Spender’s aversion to big-production shows is understandable.
At least if I am pushing myself to strive for something. I won’t do what I expect – and I’ll find that new form.
“At a big party, my partner’s wings will get bigger. Whereas if you have me at a dinner party, I am passionate – put me around lots of people and they are asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’
“I am so not a show pony – I find shows an incredible creative process but the way you only get eight to 10 minutes to present your world … I remember once saying 12 [seconds] to [stylist] Mark Vassallo and he said, ‘No, 12 is way too long.’ And I said, ‘That dress took 12 weeks to get right and I can’t have it on stage for eight seconds. I want to challenge that.”
One point on which Spender and her mother are in lockstep is on the retention of Australian fashion talent (Zampatti funds a scholarship for a UTS graduate to study overseas, with the intention of them returning home). Unlike some of her peers, Spender, who worked in France and Italy in fashion for four years after completing a commerce degree, has resisted aggressively chasing sales or the limelight overseas.
“We know we [Australia] are leaders in sport compared to our population … in fashion there’s still a, ‘What’s everyone else doing?’ attitude. New Zealand has a very strong vision for its fashion with a small population but Australia is often very outward looking. We need to find a bit more confidence in ourselves and our own vision and our own style.
“Our need to be revered by overseas comes from our lack of supporting ourselves and our culture … Whenever [a journalist] writes on a designer, it’s ‘X is stocked on [e-tailer] Net-a-Porter’. Do they need to be stocked there for you to love them?
“A lot of people go bankrupt trying to catch the overseas dollar. I am focused on building my Australian market. If my international market comes quicker, great, but I am not running after it. I don’t need it to prove to myself that what I do is unique and has a strong vision.”
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