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Love, Light, Laughter: Camilla Franks

By Madeleine Gray on September 30, 2016 in People

Photo: Simon Lekias

Photo: Simon Lekias

Where are you originally from?
I grew up in the magical Watson’s Bay and have since made the Eastern Suburbs my nesting grounds in spots likes Bondi, Vaucluse, Paddington and now Woollahra.

Where do you live at the moment?
I’ve been living in an amazingly renovated terrace in Woollahra for the past three years, and I love it. I really haven’t had to do much to it, but of course I have totally ‘Camillafied’ everything – from writing mantras on the front windows to hanging dream catchers and wind chimes everywhere. As a little girl I grew up on Glenmore Road and went to preschool just around the corner, so Woollahra really feels like home to me. It is also close to everything I need, with my head office in Surry Hills, two of my busiest stores in Bondi and at The Intersection in Paddington, the beach and the Bondi-Bronte walk just 10 minutes away, and, of course, Centennial Park for my training and walking the dogs. Coming home or leaving the house each day, there is always such a vibe here too as it’s such a major café, pub and retail hub. I won’t be moving anytime soon.

What do you love about the Eastern Suburbs?

I love the vibe it attracts with its beaches, people and energy of the ocean. Close to my heart and home is Centennial Park, where I spend time with my dogs. I visit the cliffs at North Head for some quiet time and also to the little nooks of Watto Bay. This side of town is also the home to my first store, the CAMILLA Beach House – a very sacred place!

Do you have any favourite local haunts?
There are too many to mention, but Bistro Moncur, Catalina, and the Watson’s Bay Hotel are always my go-tos. 

You began your career as an actress. You’ve also said in the past that “an Academy Award wasn’t going to happen any time soon.” Can you tell us about some of your most memorable/hilarious acting gigs?
I cannot tell you how many crazy revues we did! I travelled the country with an acting troupe and we had the best time. It was also when I created my first kaftan – talk about a silver lining!

How did the transition to fashion designing come about?
I wanted something free flowing and vibrant to wear while travelling, rehearsing and in between gigs. I took a few cues from my mother’s kaftan collection and created one for my needs. From then, everyone wanted one and from there a business was born. 

You started the CAMILLA Beach House in Bondi back in 2004, and now you have 17 retail stores, warehouses in Sydney and India, hundreds of wholesale accounts worldwide, and of course various ‘CAMILLA Worlds’ in David Jones stores. How do you keep the authenticity of the bohemian Bondi vibe as the brand continues to evolve into a legitimate global corporation?
It’s my DNA and we stay true to the brand. Everything about CAMILLA the brand has and always will be an extension of me. My collections are loud and vibrant, colourful and creative, but they are also global in their reach. The business has grown organically, but I also had and still have a fierce determination to be heard, to create something that is unique to me and to my customer. I travel the world all year on inspiration trips and take thousands of images that become my designs. I collect artefacts, textiles, furniture and more that we use for design and that we then cycle into my home, showrooms and stores. 

What is the Australian fashion scene like? Is it as ‘back-stabby’ as films about the industry would have us believe, or is that simply not the case?
I think every industry has its politics and competitive nature, but I have also had huge support from industry folk who I now regard as friends and mentors (they know who they are!).

The CAMILLA brand is immediately recognisable. Unlike other brands, a CAMILLA dress or kaftan is unmistakably ‘a CAMILLA. Was creating such a distinctive style a strategic move, or just something that naturally evolved?
I created kaftans as I wanted to wear them. I love art and colour and I have never conformed to what is deemed as on trend. The kaftan will always be the beating heart of my collection, but each season we’re branching out and experimenting with different silhouettes like kimonos and palazzo trousers.

Part of CAMILLA’s appeal is that women of all different body shapes can wear the designs. There is a freedom and movement and vitality that celebrates, rather than constricts, the female form. Can you tell us about your diverse demographic?
CAMILLA’s vision is to awaken the adventurous heart that resides within all of us (no matter who we are), because we believe that everyone has a right to experience freedom and feel joy. I want CAMILLA to be considered and celebrated as a way of being rather than a label that is defined by age, race or culture, and my philosophy has always been that all women have the right to look and feel beautiful no matter their age, colour, size or origin. Our CAMILLA tribe really is the mother, the daughter, the grandmother and the granddaughter. She crosses generations and celebrates life. It is so enriching walking into my stores and seeing mothers and daughters shopping together, and often grandmothers as well. Age is no restriction to still feeling and looking fabulous these days, and CAMILLA will always celebrate all demographics. CAMILLA embodies the soul of one woman and every woman.

CAMILLA has developed a cult following – so much so that the Facebook group ‘CAMILLA Lovers Who Love to Lunch’ has 2,638 members. This group organises lunches around the country where women are invited to attend lunches – the proviso being that they must wear CAMILLA. What do you think of this development?
Humbled! But, that’s not the only group. We have a huge following and I am incredibly grateful.

You also have a huge celebrity following. When the likes of Oprah, Beyoncé, Kate Hudson, Vanessa Hudgens and Jennifer Lopez are strutting about in your clothes, you know you’re doing something right. Are those relationships something that evolves organically, or do you make a concerted effort to form them?
I don’t know any designer who wouldn’t be jumping up and down to see that they have chosen something from your collection. Oprah has been a gift to me spiritually and professionally. And Queen B was everything you would expect her to be. A true honour!

You have also branched out into menswear, home wares and children’s wear. That is a big operation for one person to lead. How would you describe your leadership style? Are you good with delegation, or are you very hands-on in every aspect of the business?
I’m so grateful to have such a talented design tribe. Each of my designers are artists in their own right, and I love seeing their creativity flourish in the realm of CAMILLA. I am hands on, but that comes down to the fact that I too am a creative and CAMILLA is my baby. I am 110% involved with the everyday business from design, to sales, to marketing, to retail.

You are now expanding the CAMILLA brand into the US. What will this involve?
It is big step, but one we have been working on for a couple of years. The US is a huge milestone for the business. We just returned from an amazing trip with the team and there is more to come in this market, there’s no doubt. It is our biggest by far outside of Australia and the traction we have already is hugely exciting.

Your collections are inspired by designs from exotic countries like India and, more recently, Kenya. How do you make sure that the design process is one of cultural exchange rather than cultural appropriation? Can you tell us about your relationships with textile designers and craftspeople overseas?

When I travel for inspiration, it is not a five-star task. My head of design and I get off the beaten path and truly immerse ourselves in the rawness of the local communities. I walk with local guides who speak the language. I ask to sit with the elders of the communities and the tribeswomen to tell me their stories and more. We really do try to become one of them to truly understand their art, creativity and cultural history. We trade jewellery and materials and clothing in return for theirs. All of my collection images and shows use unique jewellery, materials and textiles celebrating the incredible places that have become the touch-points to inspire my collections. Travelling and immersing myself in this way is completely what feeds my soul and each and every one of my collections, and it’s something I will never stop doing.

In December 2013 you were diagnosed with Bell’s palsy. Was that a sign you needed to slow down and take things back a notch after a decade of non-stop work? How did you have to change your lifestyle to dedicate more time to self-care?
It was a major scare. It has taken me a long, long time to process and heal. I meditate, do yoga, exercise, eat well, and the year I was diagnosed I took a huge amount of time out of the business to re-group and focus on the future, not the past. It is still a process, there’s no doubt. We are all on such a treadmill and running a business is intense, no matter how much ‘me’ time you create for yourself. 

After the death of your friend Charlotte Dawson in February 2014 you collaborated with a variety of photographers, muses and creatives to produce a series of photographs to raise money for the Black Dog Institute. Is fashion’s inherent visibility something that impels you to use it for a greater good?

Absolutely, and that project was so, so important to me. Charlotte was a beautiful soul and her death touched everyone in the industry. The fashion and arts industry can be incredible when it bands together. 

Your brand’s aesthetic is visually opulent. It’s all about bright colours, sparkling textures, and more. Is this opulence something that spills into your private lifestyle? If you have a day off, what do you do?

I walk my dogs, meditate, and cook for friends; I love cooking and entertaining. My front door is always open when I’m home as I do travel so much. There are lots of special places that I do go to to escape though, and to just sit. 

You’ve recently turned 40. In a world/industry that privileges extreme youth in women, how have you learnt to embrace your age? Do you see age as an advantage?
With age, comes wisdom! I am so happy now. My god, the life you lead in your 20s and 30s totally leads you to be the best you can be in your 40s. I’ve never felt more liberated than I do now.

Do you have any role models, either in the fashion industry or out of it?

Frida Kahlo has been and will always be my muse and inspiration. One of my most successful collections was my A/W15 ‘Road to the Blue House’ Collection, which was completely inspired by my pilgrimage to Mexico to finally see her home. She is and was such a commanding presence and yet such an inspired spirit, and considering the restrictions she had with her illnesses and injuries her lust for life and colour and fashion and art were and still are an inspiration. She absolutely walked to the beat of her own drum, totally embraced all it is to be a woman, and if I could have one person sit at my table, she would be it.

What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
Don’t overthink it; just go for it and stay true to yourself. You can go to every design school in the world, but if you aren’t’ brave and don’t believe in what you have to offer, who else will?

What does the future hold for Camilla Franks?

Love, light and laughter. Life is good.