It is impossible to reflect upon New Zealand’s fashion history without being impressed by the continued success of Zambesi. Launched in the mid 70s, Zambesi’s collections are a timeless evolution – innovative, edgy and relevant. The brand has always remained at the pinnacle of New Zealand fashion. Portia Campbell spoke with founder and designer Elisabeth Findlay.
N. Zambesi has been a local fashion icon for over 37 years, an incredible achievement in a fiercely competitive industry. Tell us how it began…
I have always loved being around clothes and fabrics. We opened our first retail store in 1975 in Parnell, after working in the industry for around seven years. In 1979 we decided to establish our own label and opened the first ZAMBESI store in Lorne Street, Auckland.
N. Where did the name come from?
Neither Neville and I can remember! Or we both have differing stories! I remember it being suggested and Neville designed the graphic and we thought it looked cool. I like that it is at the end of the alphabet.
N. In 1999, Zambesi was one of four New Zealand labels to debut at London Fashion Week. What was the experience like?
It was an amazing experience and endorsed our presence in Liberty whom we had been supplying for two seasons. Being part of London Fashion Week was incredibly exciting and the exposure was great for all of us.
N. It’s 10am on a Sunday morning. Where would we find you and what are you doing?
At home relaxing. Enjoying my home environment, wandering around in my dressing gown drinking a black coffee. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I get served coffee and toast in bed and get to watch an old movie.
N. If you weren’t a fashion designer, what would you be doing?
I would still be in the industry, either as a stylist or buyer because I love putting garments together and choosing brands that I identify with and believe in. Actually I am doing those things now. So anything to do with textiles and creativity in the industry would be where you would find me.
N. Zambesi appeals to a wide range of ages, from the young to the not so young, an achievement which not many brands can claim. How do you maintain cross generational appeal?
N. Where do you gain inspiration from when designing?
It can come from many experiences, but fabric has always been my main inspiration. I am surrounded by talented, creative people and they continue to inspire me.
N. What is Newmarket’s best kept secret?
Newmarket hosts some amazing stores and cafes. One of my favourites is L’Atelier du Fromage for great cheese and wine.
N. How do you start each day?
Watching the clock to see if it is too early to rise and make a coffee.
N. Zambesi is well known for being a family business, with your husband Neville and both of your daughters being involved. How do you manage working with family?
Because the girls have grown up immersed in the business, working together comes naturally and we all contribute our particular skills. The girls also free-lance. Marissa is an accomplished photographer and show producer, and Sophie creates and directs music videos and curates music for events.If we disagree sometimes it is because we are passionate and care so much! I love that we are working together and I am immensely proud of Neville and the girls.
N. Has blogging and social media changed the way that you work? If so, how?
It has not changed the way I work creatively. It has been a huge transformation though and continues to be. Of course we now are available online at
N. Zambesi is home to sought after international brands such as Rick Owens, Maison Margiela, Bernhard Wilhelm, Vetements and Y-3. How does stocking these international designers add to the Zambesi experience?
It gives our clientele the opportunity to experiment with a curated selection of some
of my favourite international designers whose work I admire. I still believe in the bricks and mortar experience.
N. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would you say?
Forgive yourself your mistakes!
N. Name 5 things that you can’t live without.
Love, family, music, friends and stories.
N. What has been your best fashion investment?
Those around me who have supported my dream and been part of it!
N. And your worst?
My Ann Demeulemeester platforms that I bought in Antwerp many years ago because I cannot walk in them. My fault not hers! Anyway I’ve still got them just in case!
N. What is next for Zambesi?
There are always dreams to realise…