by Tina Kovačiček
In 1993, there was still a war going on around Croatia. One of the worst-hit cities with this unnecessary human-led disaster was Dubrovnik. And down there, from the very south of Croatia, Karla Špetić, then only 11-years old girl, had to flee her homeland. That year, Karla and her family came to Sydney, Australia as refugees, and with years to come it became her ‘new home’ which she gladly refers to as amazing.
More than twenty-five years later Karla is a successful fashion designer, owning her own fashion brand Karla Spetic. Her designs have been worn by some of the famous world celebrities such as Solange and Beyoncé Knowles and supported by prominent international bloggers including Natalie Joos, Susie Lau of style Bubble, Leandra Medine from The Man Repeller and Nicole Warne of Gary Pepper Vintage.
We could easily say that the Croatian-born, Sydney-based, Karla Špetić is one of the renowned names on the current Australian fashion scene. We were more than happy to ask Karla how it all started for her.
Tell me more about your childhood and growing up in Dubrovnik; what are your first memories there, how did you grow up, what memories are still alive and what are the best things you can remember from that time….
I remember my Mum opening a big yellow envelope, which had our Australian Visas. Two months later we packed our lives in a couple of suitcases and flew 24 long hours to the other side of the world, Sunshine Coast, Queensland. I was 11 and observing and absorbing everything around me. Everything seemed so alien from the food, warm humid air to the way people dressed. I never saw so many people wearing thongs EVERYWHERE even to the bank. In Croatia, you would only wear thongs at the beach and only in Summer. The weather was warm and there was a relaxed feel, people were friendly with huge smiles on their faces, not a care in the world. The beaches were wild and windy with huge waves, which meant that you couldn’t really swim. Everything was a complete contrast to Dubrovnik and it took me a long time to adjust.
Moments you moved to Australia; how was it, how did you accept your new environment, new culture, was it difficult…
I would like to think that this change made me more independent, eager and resilient in some ways. Having to leave my home so suddenly and begin a whole new life on the other side of the world definitely instilled some ‘fighter’ qualities, which I think have helped me along the way.
How did you get involved in fashion?
As a child, I spent a lot of time drawing and being creative. Making things from clay and anything art and craft were right up my alley. Then I got bored and wanted to make clothes because I figured I could wear them and in turn feel good. I think I was around 16 years old… So that was the start and I soon realized there was so much more to it than just making clothes so I really couldn’t get bored.
In one interview you mentioned how your family was also into arts as well…
I have fond memories of my grandmother being a home-maker and a true creative. When she passed away and when we visited her home we found all these beautiful embroideries that she made on various cut up pieces of an old Hessian bag. They were these intricate colorful floral arrangements. Also, little bags, belts and dresses that she pulled apart and re-created in her own way with different fabric panels, embroideries and colors. I definitely drew on these moments and they filtered through my work because they are such fond memories that I hold dear to my heart. As a child, my mother was very creative and made little clothes and shoes for her dolls and always dreamt that one day she would be able to make her own shoes. My father is an artist who loves to sketch and make beautiful intricate oil paintings that depict his surroundings of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic lifestyle. I would say I definitely inherited the genes from my family who was creative in their own different ways.
Living in Australia, being removed and far away from the rest of the world really shows how creative you can be and not be so dictated by trends. Also, everyone is more gentle and carefree with the approach to fashion here so there is a sense of a relaxed style that is still unique in its own way without that hard edge.
Tell me more about how did you start building your brand, since the Australian market is quite wide and challenging and big at the end…
The beginning of my business was quite surreal because I really had no industry experience and was not business savvy, I was straight out of fashion school. I really threw myself in the deep end and had to learn very quickly how to run a business and grow my label. I made so many mistakes but they were, and still are, my best lessons. I’ve been running my label for 12 years now, yes I know hard to believe still! My days start by checking emails, writing a list of what I have to do for the day. Going into my studio and managing everything from Sampling a collection, Patternmaking, Toiling samples, working on production, dealing with online orders, shipping, dispatching, social media. Emailing with stylists and loans for Editorials, fashion shows, etc.
Last year you opened a store in Sydney, with more brands involved…
In March 2019 I opened a Multi Brand Concept store, aptly named Our Store, with 5 other brands so my days were quite full. This was an idea I had for some time and I was so proud of that. Now I will be also adding retail to my list of things to do and managing the store and growing that side of the business. In addition to that, I was teaching at FBI fashion school in Glebe in 2019. It’s a private fashion college where I was casually taught business classes as well as a Design class each Tuesday. It was so rewarding and I love that I get to share my knowledge and experience with young creative that wish to work in the industry.
What are the main things you tried to focus on in your life and the best things you have learned so far?
My creative process is different each time. Sometimes I don’t draw the idea because if I do, I see it in front of me, and I get bored with it. So in turn I either drape or make the pattern or simply put the fabrications together to bring that idea into reality. Then the rest flows.
This is the hardest way because you never know what you are going to get. What’s in your head does not always work in reality and sometimes you can’t realize it right through due to lack of resources.
Lately, I have been forcing myself to draw the design so that it’s always clear and so I can follow through with it efficiently otherwise I’m all over the place and it can be tough. So my processes are always different depending on my moods and time frame. I look forward to each season because I’m always learning something new and this makes me happy. Since my first show in 2008, I feel I am more in tune with my own aesthetic, more comfortable and less afraid. Not less afraid of having a show though, this will always frighten me. I try to be honest with my work and work from within so that whatever I’m feeling, experiencing or thinking about I put that into my work. I find that I can express myself and tell my story through my collections. Each season is different but I think the way it all comes together through color, print, the silhouette has my own feel on it. I love clean lines and feminine silhouette and I’m drawn to visual imagery so these elements are often seen in my work.
For me and for my brand, one of the key rules is to keep my work and my ideas honest. This means that my ideas and stories have to come from within. From my own observations and feelings, which don’t include what others are doing or what is happening in the industry. These ideas are narrative-based and from my own personal experiences, influences, dreams, memories and personal likes. Yes, it can be tricky sometimes to lock yourself in your own bubble especially with social media, which we all observe on a daily basis. When you know what your vision is and where your brand must go then this stays with you and you must carry that through with conviction without letting other influences guide you. Over the years you learn to control this and listen only within.