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fashion: feature

Sabatini: the Generation Game Sabatini: 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
From issue 20 of Lucire


WHEN CROATIAN 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 fashion market.

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 into Europe.’

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 months ago.

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, right.

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.•


Main photograph: The family celebrates: Anja Milich, Danielle Evans-Milich, Tony Milich, Margi Evans-Milich. Inset: Models for Sabatini White at Mercedes Australian Fashion Week. Bottom left: David Jones shop window touts New Zealand’s Sabatini as Australian. From top: Spring–summer 2007. Autumn–winter 2004. Founders Zarko and Sonja Milich. Antony Milich. Autumn–winter 2004. Autumn–winter 2006.

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