Small Business

Sister act

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Nicky and Simone Zimmermann have wowed the fashion world with their designs. Not bad for a label that started in a garage.

From a backyard garage in Australia to dressing fashionistas around the world, Sydney sisters Nicky and Simone Zimmermann have made the journey to the cutting edge of style.

While it may be presumptuous to add a fashion label to the nation's most cherished exports such as The Wiggles and Foster's beer, the Zimmermann bikini has become synonymous with the sunny Australian approach to life and business. And its sharply tailored women's clothing is crossing borders.

Zimmermann fashionwear is now sold in the US, Britain and Asia and has become famous internationally for its cut, style and eclectic use of colours.

It is a far cry from 1990, when Nicky Zimmermann created the label from her garage. Today, with Nicky still in charge of design and Simone the savvy business manager, the Zimmermanns have struck a perfect balance of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.

Listen to Simone and it is clear that the sister act has been an advantage. "The fact that Nicky and I are family and that we get on gives us a unique position to be able to do business together," she says.

Born to do business

The Zimmermann sisters have slipped seamlessly into the demanding worlds of business and fashion. Simone explains: "You must have some preordained instinct to want to run your own business and make your own enterprise. I don't know what that specific characteristic is, but I think it's either in your system or it's not because it is vastly different to being an employee on any sort of level."

Running a business in the notoriously fickle fashion industry also presents constant challenges.

"I don't have anything to compare it to, but it does seem uniquely difficult sometimes," Simone says.

Judging from the growth of the brand, however, the sisters seem to be handling those dilemmas in their stride. Opportunities continue to land on their doorstep as Zimmermann expands its retail footprint. A third of its swimwear orders are sold overseas in prestige stores such as Selfridges and Harvey Nichols in Britain and Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman in the US. Zimmermann also consults to Marks & Spencer and is part of the Victoria's Secret catalogue that reaches millions of Americans.

In Australia, Zimmermann has twelve stores nationally, while their clothes grace the racks at many other boutiques and department stores across the country.

In good company

Trained at the renowned design studio at East Sydney College - a launching pad for other Australian fashion luminaries including Akira Isagowa, Lisa Ho, Alex Perry and Michelle Jank - Nicky Zimmermann's swimwear designs are cut from a different cloth.

She fuses fashion with functionality to create body-sculpting beachwear that transcends stereotypical swimming attire. As she has often remarked to reporters: "We just never understood why swimsuits and fashion had to be mutually exclusive."

Breaking down barriers, and making it look easy, is the Zimmermann way. Nicky, who had wanted to be a fashion designer from childhood, started the business single-handedly after working for just six months with a swimwear designer. She is the creative force who has overall design control and shapes the label's market positioning. Simone, who joined the business 18 months after Nicky's first tentative steps, takes charge of the day-to-day business demands.

The Zimmermann label's fashion focus is its defining selling point, featuring signature drapes, twists and knots for a Grecian feel.

Never static, the label is a work in progress. The launch of a printed lingerie line in 2001 has provided an irresistible canvas for prints and the exploration of layering. A clothing and swimwear collection for toddlers has captured the attention of fashion-conscious mothers and underlined Zimmermann's ability to identify new markets.

While buyer targets change, testimony to Zimmermann's ongoing commitment to design standards is evidenced in repeated award wins: Best Swimwear at the 1996 Australian Fashion Week; Swimwear Designer of the Year at the 1999 Australian Fashion Week; Best Swimwear Designer at the 2004 Cleo Maybelline Fashion Awards; and Best Swimwear Brand at the 2005 Prix de Marie Claire.

Such awards are welcome recognition for a working lifestyle that sees the Zimmermann sisters work often-torturous hours. Holidays have been few and far between. The motivations are simple: "The challenge and satisfaction."

While she declines to identify a defining moment in the label's success, there is no doubt that acclaim at Australian Fashion Week in 1996 catapulted the Zimmermann label into a different stratosphere.

A collection of trend-driven swimsuits wowed audiences. Sassy and stylish, they featured graphic prints and risqué cut-away designs rarely seen on the catwalk. Buyers were impressed - and an interview with internationally renowned fashion journalist Elsa Klensch on CNN "opened a lot of doors".

A winning partnership

Fifteen years after Zimmermann's launch, Nicky and Simone still have a firm grip on the business reins. Booms and recessions are taken in their stride, according to Simone: "We just tighten our belts and enjoy."

There are no other partners, although highly skilled managers have been brought on board to help handle the rapid growth of the business. The sisters engage consultants when necessary, particularly for sophisticated financial advice.

Simone Zimmermann says creating a desirable work environment has been critical to the success of the business, which employs more than 40 staff.

"Our work environment is crucial for us, so we like to create a workplace that we enjoy coming to," she says. "It is important to us that people coming to work like what they do and that they are satisfied with their job. We choose to work in an environment where people are enjoying what they are doing and they have the same vision that we do and want to be a success for their own reasons as well as ours."

The Zimmermanns' business philosophy is simple: always be prepared to adapt and learn, treat staff with respect, and be organised. If a business arm is not working, they cut it off quickly.

For now, Nicky and Simone continue to enjoy testing themselves in domestic and international markets.

"While we are still doing the same thing, it changes every day in the way that we do it," Simone says. "Fortunately, we are continually growing and we do take up new opportunities all the time."

For lovers of fashion, it is welcome news.

Tips

  • Be willing to adapt
  • Ditch aspects of the business that don't work
  • Create a workplace you enjoy
  • "We choose to work in an environment where people are enjoying what they are doing."

Published on: Thursday, July 09, 2009

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