Findlay and Robertson made the leap into their respective boutiques near-simultaneously and still take buying trips overseas together. Their aesthetics are complementary but individual.
The sisters grew up as part of a family of six children in Dunedin.
Margi was the first child born in New Zealand to their Russian-born Greek mother Zinovia and Ukranian father Peter Gladiadis. Liz and an older brother were born in Greece before the family moved to Dunedin during the 1950s. They were close, says Liz, because there was no extended family to fall back upon.
Zinovia was a machinist and passionate dressmaker who taught the sisters a lot, particularly about the importance of family.
“Family is first and that’s how I feel, and I think our girls feel like that too,” Liz says. “Family first.”
Both Liz’s daughters are involved with Zambesi, and a brother does IT work for she and Margi.
Liz moved from Dunedin to Auckland when she was 21 and got her first job in the fashion industry. She had previously done some modeling in Dunedin and worked for a department store in the school holidays.
In Auckland, she worked in administration at The Derek Corporation, a prominent apparel business which supplied New Zealand-made garments to large retail chains.
“I was kind of, not knowing, educating myself for what I do now.”
Learning to balance creativity with the practical necessities of business was invaluable, she says.
After The Derek Corporation, Liz worked for a fabric importer and a retail boutique, spending the next seven years “working around the industry”.
One of her roles was with fashion industry dynamo Walter Hart under the early days of his Vamp label. The workroom was at upper Queen Street: “I just did anything that was required in the workroom.”
She also bought the Elle Boutique brand from Wendy Ganley.
Eventually, people, especially her husband Neville, started to tell Liz she should think about opening a shop of her own.
“And then Margi said, ‘I’ve decided to open a store in Dunedin,’ and that was just perfect. I said, ‘I’ve been thinking about opening a store too.’”
“I can’t remember who opened first, to be honest.”
The buying connections Liz had retained from her days working at retail boutiques were invaluable in setting up her first store, Tart, in Parnell during the 1970s.
In a reflection of the times, Tart and all its neighbours had highly suggestive names. Tart was situated near a boutique called The Snatch Factory. Also in the area was Roots, Shoots and Leaves, a plant shop, plus And So To Bed, which sold antiques.
“At the time it didn’t seem all that weird,” Liz says.
Tart’s logo featured Betty Boop, and it was an edgy, hip affair: “It was fun, it was kind of crazy.”
She stocked Australian label Jag in the early days, plus Marilyn Sainty and Vamp. Tart also sold on behalf of Miranda Joel and a label called ZouZou.
Three or four years down the track, Liz was pushed into opening Zambesi in 1979 when several of her suppliers opened their own stores.
“And we thought, ‘Oh my God, how do we protect ourselves from this happening?’”
As it turned out, Liz was already designing clothing at home and was just a hop, skip and a jump away from establishing a label.
“We thought, ‘Let’s just do this because nobody can take it away from us.”
Zambesi was launched in 1979, the year the Findlays’ second daughter Sophie was born. Firstborn Marissa was two. Liz says when Marissa was 18 months old, she had a serious guilt trip: “You know, ‘Am I going to be a great mother if I carry on with this?”
At this stage Neville was an engineer, but Liz says he was unhappy with the direction his career was taking - he was being moved further and further into boardroom roles, which he didn’t like, and he was becoming more interested in Zambesi. He decided to give up his job to support Liz in raising their daughters and running the label.
“He felt he could be there for the girls,” Liz says.
Both parents worked from home while the girls were growing up. Marissa is now Zambesi’s art director and Sophie directs and compiles the music at the label’s shows.
Zambesi has organically grown over the years, Liz says. It has gone through phases of being a bigger business than it currently is, but the Findlays are now keeping it at a “manageable level”.
Producing Zambesi designs in New Zealand is very important to Liz, who says it’s essential to maintain the integrity of the brand.
“It’s tempting to get bigger.”
Selling to Liberty and other top department stores in the UK is a career highlight of Findlay’s. Having Zambesi being one of the “fab four” Kiwi fashion labels to show at London Fashion Week in 1999 is another. Margi’s label Nom*d was also one of the four.
In addition to the namesake label, Zambesi stores stock other labels from around the world which fit the Findlays’ aesthetic, including global sensation Vetements. The controversial label is selling well: “It’s our most talked-about brand.”
Currently on Liz’s plate is a move in Melbourne. Zambesi’s Melbourne store was located on Flinders Lane for 10 years, but has had to shift after the landlord doubled the rent. Luckily, a stylish - albeit “more intimate” - space has been found on the same street.
She and Margi share a similar taste and aesthetic, so their collections tend to be complementary, Liz says. However, their creative processes are entirely separate and they don’t experience any crossover of ideas between Zambesi and Nom*d.
“We don’t talk about what we’re creating each season,” says Liz. “[Nom*d’s] collections work really well with ours but they’re different.”
She describes Nom*d’s look as “darker, more street” than Zambesi.
The sisters travel together to Paris for buying trips twice each year. The trips are about business and bonding, blended: Liz says both sisters are into food, movies, art and architecture.
“We always go, ‘Sisters in the hood!’”
The strong parallels between both their personalities and their areas of professional expertise has made them excellent sounding boards for one another. There’s a level of honesty expected, too.
“When we have troubles, we talk to one another,” Liz says. “You know that the listening ear is sympathetic but also objective.”
“We have a great friendship and I admire her in what she does.”
This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 745 August/September 2016