Nicky Zimmermann on 'The Postcard' resort 2022; opening in Cannes and making it from Australia
Australia, a country known for punching above its weight in sport, literature, cinema, media, wine and the pursuit of happiness, has tended to underperform when it comes to fashion.
One can count on one hand the names of Australian designers which smart people can name at dinner parties in London, New York or Paris. One of the many reasons the remarkable success of Zimmermann is so impressive and remarkable.
Founded 30 years ago, Zimmermann began life as a clothes stand in Paddington -- the exuberantly scrappy party zone of inner-city Sydney -- when an energetic design college graduate, Nicky Zimmermann, began selling her ideas at weekend markets.
Today, Zimmermann boasts flagship stores in London, New York, Beverly Hills and Paris, a massive following in the great department stores of the world; and wide-ranging product choices on Net-a-Porter and MatchesFashion.
But, more importantly than that, Nicky Zimmermann has created a highly distinctive aesthetic; a chic blend of the Lucky Country exuberance of her homeland; marvellously upbeat prints and boldly beautiful beachwear, while retaining something of the cool bohemian aesthetic from the earliest days in Paddington. Zimmermann shows had become must-see events in the New York Fashion Week calendar until the pandemic shattered our world. And, tellingly, nearly all the audience at her shows seemed to be wearing Zimmermann, an acid test of a designer connecting.
An inveterate voyager, Nicky hasn’t left Australia since dashing back there in March 2020, as the global lockdown took hold. But the brand has certainly been busy, shooting ebullient show videos and opening new boutiques – satellite stores in Cannes and Forte dei Marmi, on the Tuscan coast. All told, Zimmermann boasts 42 stores worldwide.
Like all its stores, Cannes was designed by Don McQualter; its 125-square-meters finished in organic lime wash at 11 rue des États Unis. Kitted out with an artwork collection of risqué collages and sketches, including a 1974 ink drawing from Sydney pop artist, Richard Larter, famous for his nude paintings of his wife Pat, and pieces by Naata Nungurrayi and Gaetano Pesce.
The house also unveiled its latest cruise collection, entitled 'The Postcard', with flouncy dresses, full skirts and voluminous blouses incorporating the artwork of James Northfield, the source of many iconic Australian travel posters of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
Three decades after opening, it's still run like a family affair, even if Italian investment vehicle Style Capital acquired a 70% stake in late 2020. Sister Simone, is the company COO, while Nicky’s husband Chris Oliver is the CEO. The house does not release annual figures, though its valuation last year was rumored to be close $250 million.
So, we caught up with Nicky – a hyper energetic mum of two teenagers – in a morning zoom from France, as the sun was setting behind her in Sydney harbour.
FashionNetwork.com: Why a store in Cannes? And why now?
NZ: The first time I saw our Paris store was one of the most exciting things for me ever – such a beautiful store and position. Being an Australian brand opening in Paris is a dream. But, be it in Paris, New York or Sydney or holiday locations, our girl likes to travel, just like we do. So, we love to have city stores and then open satellite boutiques like in the Hamptons. We have been wholesaling to multi-brand shops and online retailers for decades – so we have fantastic insight where our customer lives and what she shops and where. That gives you a great insight wherever you open. So she is travelling to spots like St Tropez, Cannes and Forte di Marmi, and we open in those places.
FN: Do you make stores site-specific, like say in Forte dei Marmi?
NZ: Our design store designer John McQualter has done every single one of our stores. He is a great friend and obviously someone whose work we love. John’s main idea is how to dip into an environment in a slightly more casual way. So in Forte di Marmi we worked with a local ceramic artist to add a local aspect and we brought things we love from Australia – paintings and sculptures.
But, of course, it’s really important they have a more relaxed feel like in Cannes. Our stores have to be very acceptable to people and very welcoming and comfortable. There should be a feeling of being relaxed and in a room for families and kids.
Retail is how we started. Back in Paddington – a night club area, with strip clubs and bars, when I was a design student in Darlinghurst in the late 80s. It was an area of great creativity and fun; and those early days are still in my head. Driving a van and setting up the stand. I can still set up a store; and am very practical and hands on. Within two years of starting we opened stores – and I loved that connection to our customers.
FN: What was your inspiration behind your latest resort collection?
NZ: I really wanted a collection that was about the beautiful memories of amazing holidays in my childhood that were relatively simple and easy and about your family. I was looking at the 1950s, and photos of my parents; and artists who did Australian tourism photos. James Northfield’s main body of work were amazingly simple, gorgeous holiday colour posters with a great retro feel. The best holiday is not always the most luxurious – it’s more about creating beautiful memories.
FN: Where and when will you next stage a show?
NZ: That’s a very tricky question. At the moment, I am really enjoying filming our shows. We have incredible show and production teams working here and a very talented film crew. I am working on a September show and going forward – but we don’t know what will be possible. We plan to film and release it during New York Fashion Week, but we are not even sure if we can film it. Our crew often grows up to 80 people, which may not be allowed. And I can not get models from other countries – only girls from New South Wales!
Yet, we get incredible assets from the film – photos and more time to sculpt the show. At a live show you have two hours for hair and makeup and 30 minutes for the look book. Videos are almost more creative – as they leave options open.
FN: For a brand so influenced by travel, when did you last leave Australia?
NZ: Not since I flew home from the UK in March 2020, with my husband Chris, our CEO. We were meant to go to Milan and then had to cut the trip short as the global lockdown happened. In 20 years I have not been in Australia for longer two months. We love travelling!
We always fly out each winter.
FN: Define the DNA of Zimmermann?
FN: I love to create things that make people feel good at family functions, weddings, celebrations or christenings. It’s about creating memories.
FN: Why are you so obsessed with guipure? That’s a haute couture material par excellence.
NZ: I love craftsmanship – and I feel like I can make anything. I began by sitting in front of the TV as a very young person and making things. So, as a designer it is impossible for me to be minimal. And my team has the same mind set – making fabric flowers and hand stitching. We love to have the personal touch. Things flying off the dresses when the girls walk. I love movement – and fabrics that enable that.
FN: A decade ago I went to one of your shows in Australia when all the lights went out. Since then you have grown on to become a very influential brand and a rapidly growing business. Why do you think you have been so successful internationally while Oz brands have struggled?
NZ: That was our second last show in Australia – the lights went in the whole city grid – just before the show began! The girls were all in their lineup, but we resisted the suggestion to send them out with torches and when the lights all came back on things worked out in the end.
I think there are a couple of reasons things have worked for Zimmermann. I have had the benefit of working with my sister Simone from the very beginnings. She doesn’t want to be a designer. She gets things done and is an amazing COO – extremely organized and runs HR and production and does a mammoth job. Which means I don’t have to do it and am not good at that. She loves clothes but doesn’t want to do that – which makes an amazing balance, so I could not live without her. That rarely happens – and as sisters we have an amazing bond. Plus, my husband - a lawyer – joined 15 years ago, and added another skill set. We do have outside investors – but run it as a family – and that has helped us get over issues that others didn’t. I’m not saying that other Australians don’t work hard but I work incredibly hard – and have had to be resilient. It’s a tough business and we are very ambitious, and you need to be.
And I believe we can achieve a lot more. We are who we are and sometimes Australians find it hard to map out who they are. We get it from our parents and environment. We came from Southern beaches – from Cronulla – a very surfy town. Today I live in Vaucluse (Sydney’s poshest inner-city suburb, eds). From the Southern beaches to the Harbour beaches, so it’s a little different.
And, we don’t look to other brands for who we are. Now there is a new local generation finding their voice. Even if Australia is not fashion historically – more surf and fun
FN: Who are you three favourite designers?
NZ: I am a beach shopper – I just love clothes, so I might like a tailored piece from YSL, and I love the sense of fun of Gucci. But it would be hard for me to buy a dress.
FN: Where do you want Zimmermann to be in five or ten years?
NZ: Very much steadily on the path we are on now. Lots of stores openings – as I really really love having retail spaces. Yes, our online business is growing hugely but having stores in amazing places – like in Spain or China - to me is incredible. And we have them all mapped out!
FN: Though you are stuck in Oz, why did you have a dinner last weekend in the Hamptons?
NZ: I try not to think about that part of paying for it. The great thing is that we have been going to New York for a long time, almost 20 years of building relationships. So, the people at the party I’ve known for that amount time. They started out at a similar stage, whether editors, actors and actresses. People we work with a lot and they know it will be relaxed, warm, fun and comfortable. That’s the whole point of Zimmermann.
FN: Might you one day show in Paris?
NZ: We’d love to show in Paris and we make fairly organic decisions. But I would feel pretty intimidated coming to show in Paris, even if it is one of my favourite cities in the world. But I would never say never to anything!
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