Bianca Spender


Bianca Spender


Bianca is an independent Australian fashion designer. This interview is part of the LEGACY Summit x Intent editorial partnership.


Tell us about your upbringing. Were you raised by a family with very strong values? How have your personal values and life experience shaped your work and attitude to the world?

My mum—Carla Zampatti—is a post war, Italian immigrant from a small town. She says we were never poor, we always had things to eat, but we didn’t have a lot of anything. We were brought up in quite an unusual way for a lot of people. Many people didn’t really understand my background, in terms of how we lived and what we prioritised. Back in the ’80s, we lived in a big house that had beautiful art, and both my parents drove Rolls-Royces. That sounds fancy, but they were old cars and my parents just loved beautiful things. And yet, I always grew up with the mantra that everything had to be finished in the fridge, so we often ate leftovers to avoid waste.

There was a real sense of ‘less is more’ in my family; we preferred to have a few really beautiful things and were taught to save up for something we loved. We were also taught the value of wearing beautiful things often, rather than buying an abundance of things that we didn’t really love or feel inspired by. Even now, I have a limited range of outfits I adore and will wear regularly. I’ve always had a very emotional reaction to clothes and have never been able to wear something that didn’t feel right on the day.

Of course, because I’m Italian, the focus has always been on craft and beauty. I never went to church, but we would always be comfortable dressing up on a Sunday; we always had pride in how we wore things and the way we put pieces together. We were very resourceful in how we dressed, meaning I’m now always prepared. I’ll never buy a bottle of water, say, as I always have water in my bag; I’ll always have a piece of fruit on-hand for my kids if they are hungry, so that they don’t end up eating a packet of chips when we’re out. Just as my parents did, I will always cook out the fridge—using up leftover vegetables in a soup, or making a pie out of sad looking apples rather than throwing them away. Beyond food, this resourcefulness extends to the repurposing of almost everything. Every box in our house is turned into some kind of toy or adventure for the kids. And for their birthdays or Christmas, they receive one or maybe two gifts rather than a bunch of things they won’t care for.

Lastly, my family taught me about the importance of giving back to the community. I allocate 10% of my income to philanthropy and have always done so.

The ‘ethical fashion’ movement is often labelled elitist and inaccessible for the everyday customer. What are your thoughts on this?

I totally disagree. Growing up in the ’90s and going to a private school was really interesting. Many kids came from money, but it was the ’90s so it was cool to be grunge and look like you didn’t have much. Everyone was in flannels and jeans, and whilst the jeans could cost $400 or more, no one looked dressed up. I went through the ’90s without a single pair of jeans and only wore skirts. Whenever I turned up, everyone would comment on how posh I looked, when actually my skirt cost less than their pair of jeans. So it’s all about perception—you can look beautiful and have style without money. You don’t need money for style, you just need taste and a love for what you wear. There have been times when every single piece in my wardrobe was either inherited from a friend, or sourced secondhand. I’ve always prided myself on looking good on a shoestring.

Fast forward to the following decades, we have been conditioned into chasing cheap clothes, more often, and seemingly accepted that many items are not made to last. How can we encourage people to redefine their sense of value, look beyond an immediate price tag and consider longer term cost-per-wear?

I will say, you can spend money on fashion and not get quality. But the more you know about fabrications and construction, the easier it is to identify a well-made garment. As a designer, I’m focused on building longevity into each of the pieces that I make. It’s common to buy something from a high street label and suddenly notice it pill after the first wash, or find it disfigured soon after purchase. I do intensive tests on all of my fabric to ensure that when you wash, dry clean or steam my garments, you know whether they’ll shrink or grow. We then do a rub test, where we test how the fabric might snag if it’s brushing up against the crack of a table edge, for example. Then there’s the seating test, where someone has to wear the garment for a full day in the office to understand how it wears and recovers.

I adore my mum’s wardrobe from the ’70s that I grew up with, and I hope that the children of my clients adore the wardrobe that their mums are wearing right now. One of them is going to turn 18 and ask their mum if they can wear that pink suit she bought back in her 40s. I hope that my clothes continue to feel inspiring and relevant, and continue to be treasured.

Bianca Spender

“I remember once telling my team that I needed an entire day to be left alone so I could labour over a jacket sleeve. I needed to get it right, because I had such a desired outcome in my mind. Having the time to focus on something small, yet so important, was a luxury.”

I love that you use ‘deadstock’ in your ranges; this choice makes even more sense now knowing your background and how you were raised. Deadstock, and overproduction more broadly, is one of the many skeletons in our industry’s closet. Can you tell us more about this aspect of your business?

I love this question. When I first started out, I was fortunate to find an agent who only dealt with deadstock. I was so excited, because I could use fabrics that had previously been unavailable to me—many mills won’t turn on a machine to make fabrics unless you can meet their 2,000 – 3,000 minimum. Having worked with this agent for 15 years now, we know each other so well that he can source fabrics based on a description I’ve shared of my collection and desired outcome.

I have made a quota for myself that deadstock needs to make up 50% of the fabric used in my collection. This has shifted my practice—I start with the deadstock fabrics and then build a collection that sits with them. Old and new need to link together, this is how I create a really dynamic and creative story. One of the challenges with using deadstock, though, is that it can be faulty. This just means I need to be very intelligent in how I engage with the fabric. One fabric I found had slippage on both grains, so I ended up cutting everything on the bias because it had no slippage on the bias. I’m a bit of a jigsaw puzzle problem solver, so I actually enjoy the challenge…If you really love something, if something’s really beautiful, and you’re clever about it, you can find a way to make it work. But it has to feed into your design process, you can’t just want to make fabric do what you want it to do. You have to listen to the fabric.

Talk us through the process of developing a collection; how interconnected are the design and manufacturing processes? What do you learn from those who bring your designs to life?

I’ve grown up with makers, having worked in my mum’s office since I was ten. Being an Italian immigrant, she didn’t want her kids, understandably, watching TV all holidays. So if I didn’t have a playdate, I came to work. And if I did stay home for a playdate, I was given a list of chores anyway. I quite liked going to work, because I loved looking at the machines and admiring the craft of roll hems, bindings, French seams—everything. Our key head pattern makers were sample machinists, so the only barrier that they had was language. Sewing is this beautiful thing, though, that has no language. Our makers only need to unfold the sample garment and look inside at how it’s done. We joke that even if we provide spec sheets they won’t use them—the sample must be perfect as that’s the story that tells them everything they need. Having sat down on a machine, I can tell you it’s not unskilled labour. It takes highly skilled labour to sew beautifully, there’s a real art to it.

I have always loved and worked on what we call the ‘Atelier’ side of design, even when I was in France. Downstairs was the showroom where you drew and then upstairs was where the machines were; I was always upstairs where they did pattern cutting and draping of fabric—where it was messy. The machine gives you half the solutions to your problems. I’ve always had an integrated understanding of the value of machinists and craft.

I work very closely with my makers, and am committed to making here in Australia. But there are consequences to that decision—I can’t do everything in French seams, for example, as it takes too long for my makers. Manufacturing here is more expensive than making overseas, and whilst I can absorb a certain amount of that, I need to make sacrifices at a certain point. I’m fortunate that my designs are more about the form of the garment rather than decorative elements, so I don’t need to hand stitch on beading and so forth. What I do need, though, are makers who work in the same city. My designs can require unusual construction that can’t be articulated through a pattern. There is constant dialogue between my makers and I; we’re always sharing knowledge.

Can you tell us how you are protecting the rights of your garment makers?

The people behind fashion are significantly women. We’re women making women’s clothes for women, with women. Many makers don’t have great English language skills or understand all the levels of the law, so the Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) accreditation process has helped us all learn what’s required. To demonstrate how important it is for us that our makers become / remain ECA accredited, we have put in place a very simple bonus system of 10% in recognition of the work involved in filling out all the paperwork. We have also started trialing how long a garment takes to make in our own office, so we can then calculate how much that equates to in hourly wages. Many of our makers are Vietnamese who, by nature, aren’t hard negotiators. Knowing the true cost of something means we can push back if they are underquoting themselves.

Bianca Spender

“To say I’m optimistic is wrong, because I think we’re all really feeling the effects of global warming and we know we’ve started something that has huge ramifications. So it’s not really a question of being optimistic and blind, but more a question of being realistic and determined to make a difference.”

With an ageing workforce, do you worry about the future viability of manufacturing in Australia? How do you plan to future proof your business; are you working with industry and/or government to promote local infrastructure and a new generation of skilled makers?

Yes, I would say some of them are near retirement age. My key maker who is a tailor would be between 55 – 60 years old and his colleagues would be a similar age. Then I have two younger makers who are around my age. When my Italian maker retired, she gave all of her sewing machines to her key Vietnamese machinists. They didn’t know much about running a business, but she introduced them to Carla and I and that’s how I started working with them. They are now my primary makers, so I managed to transition from a generation of Italian sewing to Vietnamese sewing. Now I’m thinking, what is the next generation that is going to come in? Which new refugee population knows how to sew? We went from Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Turkish, Russian, Chinese and then Vietnamese, but I haven’t worked out what that next handover is. I would love to try and lobby the Government so that they focus on supporting the skills required for this industry to continue.

I’m also interested in working with The Social Outfit, as they run courses for people who don’t have strong English language skills. It would be great to support her on a program that transitioned students into sewing. I want to ensure that my key maker is able to transfer his skills to the next generation before retiring.

What are your thoughts on the term ‘luxury’, which is used so often by the fashion industry?

For me, luxury is time. That’s something you never get back and what we all hold as really valuable. If people give you their time, they’re giving you something really precious. And with time, you can either achieve things, or simply have the space to ‘be’.

I remember once telling my team that I needed an entire day to be left alone so I could labour over a jacket sleeve. I needed to get it right, because I had such a desired outcome in my mind. Having the time to focus on something small, yet so important, was a luxury.

If only luxury brands, or more so the fashion calendar, allowed creative directors the time to fully realise their creative vision..

Finally, looking at the future of the garment industry, are you optimistic and/or daunted by what we have ahead of us in terms of the environmental challenges?

I think it’s a really exciting time, because people are listening. There have been times when things have flashed up and then died away, but this isn’t going away. And I’m so excited that it’s not going away. I think with the development of technology, real ideas around transparency are becoming accessible. Eventually, there will be a code on everything where people can scan to find more information about the journey of a garment. Fashion is going to be a very hard one to manage, though. It’s going to take a lot of people working collaboratively together. ‘Consumers’ will need to support this movement too, given the biggest footprint is in the use phase (washing) and then in end of life (disposable).

It’s a very complex system that we’re dealing with and working in. To say I’m optimistic is wrong, because I think we’re all really feeling the effects of global warming and we know we’ve started something that has huge ramifications. So it’s not really a question of being optimistic and blind, but more a question of being realistic and determined to make a difference.



Photography Alice Mahran
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Visit Bianca Spender
Thanks to event partner, LEGACY Summit