the generation game
For over 50 years, one family has grown a fashion
empire from New Zealand. Today, Sabatini
is one of the nation’s best exporters, with Europe its latest conquest,
writes Kiran Chug
issue 20 of Lucire
COUPLE Zarko and Sonja Milich came
to New Zealand and founded a knitwear label in 1953, they had no
idea that a fashion empire was in the making. Today, more than 50
years on, their children and grandchildren have set the family business
well on its way to becoming one of the most soughtafter New Zealand
labels in Europe.
The story began when Zarko and Sonny came here
as refugees and started the Sonny Elegant Knitwear label. Apart
from growing into one of the longest-established and best known
knitwear labels in the country, Sonny was just the beginning.
In 1990, their son Tony created the Sabatini
brand, and opened our eyes to just how sexy knitwear could be. Since
then, a family dynasty has flourished.
Sabatini has drawn accolades from far and wide
in recent years, but Tony admits that the brand is now moving into
its most exciting chapter yet.
In 1997, the brand proved itself as a successful
exporter to Australia when it won a Trade New Zealand Export Award.
Five years later, Sabatini was listed among the top 100 exporters
in the country, and Tony knew the world stage was just waiting for
the brand to make it big.
When government agency New Zealand Trade and
Enterprise asked Sabatini to fly the flag for the country and participate
in the Tranoi Paris Designers Show at Paris Fashion Week last year,
Tony didn’t hesitate. With his sister Margi Evans-Milich, Tony took
Sabatini to Europe, and he still hasn’t had a chance to look back.
‘We started getting orders as soon as we showed
our collections in Paris. We ended up with $700,000 of orders just
from those trips,’ he says.
The Sabatini collection took the European fashion
scene by storm, and while most designers have to show for two or
three seasons before getting any orders, Tony was inundated.
‘It is unbelievable, people are asking us for
more and more. All the boutiques we sold to have reordered because
everything has sold out,’says Tony.
He says they have made London, Dublin and Milano
their key focuses, and with celebrity boutiques like the Cross in
Notting Hill selling out, Sabatini is dressing some of Europe’s
most stylish shoppers.
As their clothes hang on racks next to pieces
by the likes of Chloé and Dolce & Gabbana, Tony admits ‘it’s
quite a thrill’.
He puts some of the success down to the creativity
of the Sabatini design team for coming up with unique knitted dresses,
coats and layers unlike anything else on offer in Europe’s high
But there is more to Sabatini than style, and
Tony thinks the fact that every piece they sell in Europe has been
made in New Zealand also adds to their appeal.
‘We have our own knitting plant and make our
own fabrics so we have an individuality that no one else can have.
We are also very pleased that we can say that everything we export
is made in Mt Roskill.’
Tony is also proud of the brand’s high fashion
status that comes from their fresh approach to knitwear.
‘We are not exporting anything like cardigans
and jumpers because we have nothing to do with mass market. Those
things are being imported into Europe very cheaply from China.’
Breaking onto the haute couture scene in Europe
does not come without its difficulties though, and Sabatini have
had to overcome a range of hurdles along the way to getting their
clothes into boutiques.
Every designer needs an agent in Europe, all
of whom charge commission, and extra taxes also mean prices are
pushed up. But Tony did his homework, or what he calls ‘some testing
and tasting’, and the results are that Sabatini has cracked it.
‘The key is to understanding what they want from us. It is not enough
to believe in ourselves because our designs are so different. We’ve
also had to overcome all the other problems that come with selling
In part, it is these difficulties that convinced
Tony to take Sabatini to Europe. He knew that the quality of the
Sabatini brand would be exactly what Europe’s discerning fashionista
would be after. ‘High fashion over there is the most difficult arena.
You have to have something very special to make it. We are making
it, but we are not doing it for just one season. We chose Europe
because it is just about as hard as it gets.’
It is this kind of determination that has resulted
in Tony and Margie heading to Paris this month for the fourth time.
Tony’s plan is to get 100 Sabatini outlets in
Europe and he is already more than half-way there—not bad for a
knitwear company who first stepped onto the Parisian catwalk 18
But while Tony and Margie find more and more
European boutiques desperate to put Sabatini on their rails, they
have not forgotten that we still want to buy their clothes here
in New Zealand.
‘One big problem is that we can’t be in Europe
and at Air New Zealand Fashion Week at the same time,’ laments Tony.
But he insists we won’t be missing out.
‘We are going to be launching our newest collection
right here in Auckland at the end of the month [October] and we
can’t wait,’ he says.
The new collection, which Tony describes as being
all about ‘swing shift dresses’, sounds divine.
‘The dresses have a beautiful shimmer to them.
Put them on and there is a lot of movement to them—they are very,
very sexy!’ says Tony. Many feature pleats, and all will look good
with leggings, just in case we don’t dare to bare. So while we enjoy
a summer in Sabatini’s knits, the family behind the label can rest
safe in the knowledge that they are doing something very, very,
Perhaps it comes from working together, and doing
what they have done for many years, muses Tony.
As Margie heads the label in Australia, the brother–sister
duo makes frequent trips across the Tasman and works very closely
together. But the family connection does not stop there.
‘My daughter Anja is my right-hand person, my
son is in charge of the stock room and warehousing, and Margie’s
daughter has her own boutique in Sydney,’ says Tony.
His parents, now well into their 80s, still keep
an eye on what the kids and their kids are doing.
‘We all slow down as we get older, but their
interest in the business they started has not slowed—that is still
there. They are really proud and startled by the fact that we are
exporting back to Italy, as it is from there that we emigrated to
New Zealand in the 1950s.’
Zarko and Sonja must, indeed, be very proud.
Their family is working together to come up with refreshingly new
styles, while remaining true to the fabric they built their empire
on. As a result, men and women from Christchurch to London are in
knitwear so seductively sexy that it makes mass produced cardigans
and jumpers look like a bad dream.
Family dynasties rarely get as glamorous as this.