In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Nearly three decades in, Zimmermann has cemented itself as the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of Australian fashion. The brand has created and disseminated the dream aesthetic for a comprehensive beach vacation or special summer occasion, thanks to its elevated approach to swimwear, a ready-to-wear line full of pretty prints and embroidered lace dresses, accessories and a recently released, limited-edition line of men's board shorts.
The Sydney-based label has also become synonymous with relaxed, resort-inspired celebrity style. Its fan base includes fellow Aussies Margot Robbie and Jessica Hart, as well as influential stars like Kendall Jenner and Beyoncé; Kate Middleton notably drove sales when she wore Zimmermann's white Romer day dress during the Royal Couple's much-photographed tour of Australia in 2014.
Unsurprisingly, the origins of the brand are just as charmed as its past 27 years in business. After graduating from East Sydney Tech (now The Fashion Design Studio at Ultimo TAFE) in 1989, Nicky Zimmermann set up a stall selling her designs in Sydney's Paddington Market. A friend and fellow graduate who joined the Vogue Australia staff happened to wear one of Zimmermann's embroidered Western collared shirts to work, which resulted in a two-page feature in the magazine.
The exposure led to a slew of domestic wholesale orders and the brand's first brick-and-mortar store in Sydney's creative, hip Darlinghurst neighborhood. Her sister Simone came on board quickly thereafter to complement Zimmermann's design creativity as creative director with her acumen for "all the practical things — getting things done and actually working out a proper business."
A store on Oxford Street, Sydney's main retail thoroughfare, followed, along with a debut at Australian Fashion Week in 1996. The line of tops and dresses gradually expanded into denim and a full ready-to-wear collection. Swim was the next obvious step, but Zimmermann presented the category in a then-revolutionary way: She introduced swimwear as part of fashion-forward ready-to-wear, a move that would eventually put the Aussie brand on the international map.
"I wanted to add swim to the ready-to-wear line and, in those early years, it was an absolute turning point because it definitely garnered [international press]," Zimmermann says, over the phone from Sydney. "Elsa Klensch from CNN did a full story on us that played throughout America, and from there, we picked up an agent in New York, who called as soon as she saw it."
A Stateside debut at Miami Swim Week followed. Fast forward to 2018 and the Zimmermann brand now has 30 stores around the world, including a newly-opened location in St. Tropez. (The brand declined to discuss revenue numbers for this story.)
During Zimmermann's early morning (for her), evening (for us) call, she looks back on why her vision for changed the then-staid swimwear category, how the sisters took the brand from homegrown Aussie darling to international powerhouse and the Kate Middleton effect. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
How did swimwear become such a game-changer for the Zimmermann brand internationally?
Our swimwear was intrinsically intertwined with clothing. In the '90s, that was not how swimwear was looked upon. In the beginning, for some people — particularly in the States — it was a little bit difficult to understand. A lot of the department stores didn't want to put clothing with swim. Our first department store order was Harvey Nichols [in the U.K.], who were prepared to do something different. They actually hung our swimwear with our clothing in the clothing department. It was a really different idea and it obviously worked. We really built that out, then we separated our ready-to-wear and were able to take that to a completely new level, in so far as design. We were able to still do what I love and mix in more relaxed, but still obviously very detailed clothing, but within a swim collection.
You also were one of the early brands to join Net-a-Porter, when luxury and designer brands were still wary of e-commerce. How did you know it was going to work out so well?
Net-a-Porter approached us at the time, even though it was really early. It's been 13 years we've been selling to them, so it was early on in their business as well. But they were then extremely and obviously well-known and defined what their business was going to become. Again, I would say that they were a game-changer for us just for the worldwide exposure. The fact that they embraced what we did so well and understood it and loved the authenticity of it. They've always had a clear understanding of what our brand is, what the product is and what it can do for them. So we've always been able to be great partners and they never tried to shift us into anything else.
When and how did you realize it was time to grow globally?
Coming from Australia, actually [going global] was extremely unusual, mainly because of the seasonal challenges. We were prepared to swap our seasons and completely work within a Northern Hemisphere program, which for us, design-wise has worked out perfectly. We did that very early on. As soon as we sold to Net-a-Porter, we had to be selling the exact same product around the world. We couldn't be delivering something to us [in Australia] and then they get it six months later. It just was not viable and design-wise not appropriate or what we wanted to do. So, it shifted our business, in what we did and how we plan and how we design and it really just moved forward from there. But the idea of having a global business has always been something that we wanted to do right back from that first Australian Fashion Week and it's exactly why we did what we did. We just didn’t know it would evolve into this [laughs].
Zimmermann now shows at New York Fashion Week, starting with Resort 2014, and no longer in Sydney. Why New York?
I guess it goes back to our first agent coming from New York. We've been working in America for 20 years — just being there consistently and building and showing collections. We've been building in America since that first time that agent called us. We seem to be very easily understood; the American market literally latched onto what we were doing and we've never really had to explain ourselves. We spent so much time there and built up so many relationships with media and wholesale. Then we decided we would open our 'head office' in New York and do New York Fashion Week. We talk about New York being our second home. I'm very attached to New York, I've been traveling there nearly 25 years. I love it. I spent half my time there.
Kate Middleton wearing the white dress in 2014 was huge. How did that come about and how did it affect your brand internationally?
Apparently, [Middleton] actually saw it online. We received a request for a dress, but we really had no idea what the outcome of what that was going to be. It was all a complete surprise to us. We literally saw it the same time everyone else did on television. It was an incredible moment and also, for our family and for my parents, it meant so much. We're usually pretty relaxed when celebrities wear our stuff. It's great and we always try and respect their privacy with it: how they came about to get it, all those things you always ask. But this one really was a real moment and the fact that she wore it in Australia — we were the only Australian designer that she wore — and she wore it on the beach running in the sand... it couldn't be more perfect.
How did it affect sales?
It sold out everywhere. People still love that dress. Funnily enough, I was in New York when the style landed in-store and we made a decision to cut a certain amount [of the dress] and not go too crazy. I was in the store that morning and there was a line outside the front door and down the street. It was incredible. The reach was everywhere. She wore it again at Wimbledon. It was just really just one of those crazy kinds of things. Simone and I sometimes talk about these things, and a lot of these things are luck and they are quite game-changers for your business. All we had to do was we did the dress. We had nothing to do with her choosing to wear it or where she wore it.
Zimmermann is also a celebrity favorite. How has that exposure helped grow your brand awareness? How much of your marketing and PR outreach is focused on that?
It definitely has a great effect for the business. I have to say for us, personally, the best ones are the ones when we don't know about and they do a photo and you see it and go, 'oh my god.' Sometimes I don't know how they got the garment. I don't know if they got it online. Some really big stars, they just go in stores like normal people. Quite often, I say to the store girls, 'wow, was that weird?' I think, particularly in Los Angeles, it's not weird. We don't push things. We don't send product to anybody unless they ask for something in particular and we have a relationship with them.
In the age of e-commerce and fear of a "retail apocalypse," why is having so many brick-and-mortar locations so important to the brand?
For us, it's hugely important, particularly being a brand from Australia. Here, we're so well-known. Girls have grown up with us. They know what we do and who we are inside out. Through our international stores, we're able to show what the brand is via how clothes [are presented] and the merchandising. But's also about the experience in store. We have a different approach to most brands in how we work with our clientele and it's unique to us. It's about really showcasing who you are, getting people into that environment and making them feel comfortable. For us, we understand that trying on resort and swimwear, you have to be in the right setting and be in good lighting and be comfortable. You need really great service who know that [when you're] putting on swimwear, you're very vulnerable. I personally understand that. We're extremely aware of that. Plus, infusing ourselves locally and understanding all of that, as well.
And you just opened an outpost in St. Tropez.
A bit of a thing for us is we love having stores in places that we want to go to. When we opened the store in East Hampton, [that's] where Simone and I always loved going in summer and hanging out with our mates. For us, being in those kind of vacation spots, like St. Tropez, it's really about that. I've been there. I've seen our girl: She comes in on a boat. She stays in hotel, she buys a house. They can be in vacation spots and be able to buy things they can wear and want to wear right then and there. In Miami, we have an amazing local clientele that live there and our clothing is perfect for them, but the tourists that come in, people are just picking up things. They want to wear a dress out that night. They want a new swimsuit.
Zimmermann grew into the accessories category and recently introduced a men's board shorts capsule — what's next?
There's no plan at the moment to grow it into a [permanent] men's collection — it's just a fun project for this summer around the Saint Tropez store. But never say never! There's a lot of opportunity for things we can do: the obvious sunglasses and beach towels. We dabble in jewelry and bags and are doing a much more extended line of shoes. But for me, I'm continuing working on those things in the background and partnerships and ways to do them to the standard that we want to do them. No hurry, it's about just doing them and doing it well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage photo: Jason Reed — Pool/Getty Images