It’s hard to say a word when Nicky and Simone Zimmermann are together. Over dinner at Sean’s, the famously kitsch restaurant overlooking Bondi Beach, the sisters finish their sentences, share anecdotes from their travels and laugh at jokes. Their bubbly dispositions seem to belie the seriousness of their business achievements – the reason we met – which include building one of, if not the most successful, luxury fashion brands to come out of Australia. The pair make such a feat look easy.
Stepping into the world they have created is like diving into a pool of sparkling tulle. Zimmermann’s signature dresses are often layered, with exaggerated ruffles, bows and enough gathers to make your head spin. Super flared pants and pretty pussy-bow blouses give off a decidedly 70s vibe.
Zimmermann’s instantly recognizable aesthetic, which the sisters have articulated for over 30 years now, may not be “classic.” fashion tastes, but it appeals to an undeniably wide audience, both locally and internationally. The brand has 52 stores globally, including 21 in Australia and 18 in the US, and is often a top seller on Net-a-Porter and MatchesFashion in the UK and US, especially during the summer months. Zimmermann’s dresses have been worn by Catherine, Princess of Wales, Beyoncé and Katie Holmes, and according to CEO Chris Olliver (who is married to Nicky), global sales have increased by an average of just over 30% each year. over the past five years. In 2020, Milan-based Style Capital bought a 70% stake in the company, which was worth around $363.3 million at the time.
High Tide Lace Midi Dress, £2,650
Leather backless boat shoes, £540
Nicky, the couple’s youngest, started the brand in 1991 after studying fashion design at East Sydney Technical College. She first worked and sold in her parents’ garage in sydney to friends and local customers before graduating from a stall in Paddington’s famous markets. “I started designing shirts with hand embroidery, which was completely impossible because I was doing everything,” says Nicky, who says she was crafty from a young age. The brand’s early success was propelled by an editorial in vogue Australia, where then fashion director Judith Cook gave one of Zimmermann’s shirts a full page.
Simone, who lived abroad, joined the brand shortly after its launch to oversee the business side of Zimmermann. “We always planned to do something together,” says Nicky. They opened their first store in Darlinghurst but kept the Paddington Market stall because it was so successful, the two for two years. “It was a time when everyone was going to Paddington, and it was really fun,” says Nicky. “And that’s where a lot of other designers started – Third Millennium, Dinosaur Designs, Wayne Cooper.”
In 1996 they helped launch Australian Fashion Week, along with eight other designers including Collette Dinnigan and Peter Morrissey. It was a turning point. “We had decided that we wanted a business that was going to be international,” says Nicky. Zimmermann was later taken over by London department store Harvey Nichols, which gave the brand a coveted showcase, and Net-a-Porter, launched in 2000, soon followed as a retailer. Further growth came from the Victoria’s Secret catalog, when it collected products from other brands. “We hit this bikini that was screen printed, and it just went on and on,” Nicky says.
“You couldn’t even believe there were so many people in the world,” adds Simone. “It was a real revelation.”
At that time, Zimmermann’s proposition was unique – and one that some international buyers did not understand. “We decided to make swimsuits out of clothes, which nobody had done at the time,” says Nicky. “It was very fashionable swimsuits, and the prints were the same as the clothes. And it wasn’t kaftans. It was jackets and pants and full dresses, and it was a quite a different point of view.
“In 1996, Australia was not on the world map as it is today,” adds Simone. “He’s considered much more sophisticated now than he was then.”
High Tide Silk Mini Dress, £1,350
Wicker Shoulder Bag, £425
By this virtue, Zimmermann paved the way for Australian resort wear, which today is populated by countless brands, from Matteau to Sir the Label and St Agni, all of which have amassed an international following. “We just have the resort, we live it, we grew up with that aesthetic, and I think Nicky and Simone have mastered it,” says Yasmin Sewell, the Australian-born, London-based fashion consultant turned founder of a brand of well-being. “After seeing them build [the brand] over the decades since my return to Australia, they are gaining confidence in design, taking more risks, being more flamboyant but still so much them.
Much of the brand’s success has come from selling an idealized version of the Australian woman – a beachy, blonde and tanned glamazon from Down Under. But over-repeating this well-honed aesthetic hasn’t always worked in their favour. In 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, social media users criticized the brand’s lack of diversity in its casting as well as an existing guide on “grooming and presentation standards” for sales staff at the a detail that stipulated that workers’ hair should be “soft, textured loose waves or blow-dried straight” with “high buns, top knots, braids, plaits” prohibited. “We’ve really learned, from that moment when things were highlighted, to do better and be as open as possible,” says Simone. “What we took away from that is that we can do things better in everything we do, with the product and the design, the way we operate as a company around sustainability and [also] around diversity and inclusion. It’s something that we’ve gotten better at, that we want to be better at… so we work every day to create environments that meet our humanity goals.
Other shifts include moving from New York Fashion Week, where Zimmermann had been showing his collections since 2013, to Paris Fashion Week where he launched his SS23 range earlier this month. It’s part of a move to expand Zimmermann’s base in Europe, where there are currently 12 stores, with plans to open more. The brand is also expanding further into knitwear, denim and accessories to complement its best-selling dresses. “We can see the path to growth,” adds Nicky. “We’re talking about accessories, doing more product lines, getting better at what we do, while maintaining what the brand is. But for me, the most important thing is the pleasure.
And, of course, embodying the sunny Aussie lifestyle, which Nicky says isn’t something she does consciously. “It just happens, in the sense that the things I gravitate towards are things that people assume to be Australian,” she says. “It’s in the colors, the prints. Sometimes a dress makes me laugh because I think it looks fun – I can just see the girl hanging out and having fun with it.
Simone adds: “For a foreigner, I think Australia is sort of intrinsic to your attitude to life and your own personality. The sunshine, the desire to have fun… I think that all passes. It is a natural symbiosis.