From fairy queen on the stage to kaftan princess of the catwalk, Camilla Franks epitomises glamour. The designer, name and face of Australian fashion label Camilla launched her first collection in 2005 and has seen her label grace the racks of department stores as far afield as Dubai, Greece and Japan. With agents in Paris, Milan and the USA, Franks’ flamboyant leisurewear is carried in boutiques in some of the world’s most exclusive hotels and on cruise ships that travel the globe. Franks began her career as a stage actress in exotic roles such as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Finding costume integral to creating character, she started to design her own. "I’d waft off stage wearing this fabulous costume and people would ask me where I got it from," she laughs. "All of a sudden no one paid any attention to the acting and the label was born." Before long, she was making pieces on demand for fashion socialites, including Hermés Australia’s managing director Karin Upton Baker, and took the next step of designing a range to showcase in a pop-up stand at Mercedes Fashion Week, which was the start of a "rollercoaster ride" for her fledgling label. Some United Arab Emirates buyers picked up her label and before long Franks had an agent in Milan selling direct into that market. "Dubai really chose me. What I make is perfect for their culture," she says. When British luxury department store Harvey Nichols launched in Dubai in 2006 Franks was invited to close its inaugural fashion parade. "It was sort of a domino effect. You get placed in the right stores over there and then the other stores want you. Word of mouth!"
The next year, Franks opened a flagship store in North Bondi, which instantly became a destination for overseas celebrity visitors. With other Sydney stores in Mosman and Woollahra, as well as floor space in David Jones, the Camilla label is also available overseas in fashion showrooms in Milan, Paris, the USA, Greece and Japan. "The real buyers travel to a lot of these showrooms," she says. "When they see you in all these different locations it just drills into their heads that I’m an established label." Continuing with the travel theme, she deliberately targeted high profile cruise liners and successfully lobbied The World for an invitation to showcase her range aboard the cruise ship, winning further exposure to the international set. She leveraged her entry into the luxury travel market to access other niche markets, starting with the Huvafen Fushi six-star resort in Dubai. "We contacted them and they loved the collection. That was fantastic because they’re a chain." Franks staged a fashion parade at Huvafen Fushi's Maldives resort and, for VIP guests, customised kaftans with Swarovski crystals as part of a cross-promotion with the established brand. "We’re very proactive, so I might be reading Condé Nast or Vogue Traveller and I’ll see a resort that has a similar synergy to us." Franks and her team then turn on the charm, sending out look books and press kits, making phone calls, holding Skype conferences and exploring cross-promotional ideas. "We have to come up with interesting ways to get them excited. When we dealt with Qualia [a Hamilton Island resort] we designed an exclusive print for them; with Huvafen Fushi in the Maldives we built a catwalk over the water."
Franks has cleverly used collaborations and cross-promotions to extend the reach of her label "from just about day dot". Camilla is aligned with Audi (cars), Tempus Two (wine), Swarovski (crystals) and even 20th Century Fox, with her 2010 Rosemount Australian Fashion Week show based on an Avatartheme. In these partnerships she takes a strategic approach that creates publicity for her partners through PR buzz and organised coverage in magazines. Don’t be surprised if you spot bottles of wine sporting Camilla print labels in your local liquor store or your new Sunbeam iron comes with a complementary headscarf, if you haven’t read about it first in a fashion magazine. Cross-promotion opens up new markets and raises the profile of the label. "It opens up your database and it builds awareness of your brand in different worlds," Franks says. Designers can’t sit back and rely solely on their designs, she believes. "The bigger your profile gets, the more people start contacting you." She now employs a full-time cross-promotions manager. Camilla designs have been seen on the international red carpet more than once. Celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe is a devoteé of the lavish Australian label-"she just put in an order for like 30 pieces!"-which means it now has an established profile in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. "That just reaffirms that we have a strong label now. We have the Bette Midlers wearing it, the Paris Hiltons, the Beyoncés, the Lily Allens, so different shapes, sizes and personalities. That just reaffirms the brand philosophy that every woman has the right to be and feel beautiful no matter what age, shape or size." It’s an approach that has served Franks well. Her brand has a universality that appeals to women across borders and oceans. Her youngest clients are in their teens and her oldest buyer is in her nineties, she says.
With such a large distribution, Franks’ designs have evolved to suit different markets. "America is very denim-based so we go into shirts. In Australia we have long summers, so it’s very resorty. Playsuits and kaftans have really worked here but they might not work overseas. So keeping the scope of a collection together with the different silhouettes is really important." Keeping up with the growth of her label has been her biggest challenge, she says. Some experience in the advertising industry gave her "a production brain" and clearly some marketing smarts, but "I had no idea what I was doing," she says. "I learned the hard way how to manage staff. It’s been a big eye opener because it’s like having children, it’s important they get nurtured. I’d never managed a team before but it’s part of running a successful business." With an eye to her overseas markets, Franks is launching her first winter collection as summer hits Australia. "We don’t just do kaftans! You have to keep progressing, and the way that I do that is going into new silhouettes. We’re doing leather leggings for the first time this year." Also on this year’s wishlist is a move into swimwear, two more Australian stores and scouting locations for a flagship store in Dubai. In the long-term future, Franks hopes to develop a lifestyle brand and open Camilla Bondi beachhouse-style concept stores around the world. Constantly on the move between her factories in China and India, as well as servicing her markets, the vivacious entrepreneur believes her personal profile has also helped to develop her label. "It’s so different to years ago, you didn’t really need a face behind the brand. But a lot of consumers now love buying into the actual person. They love the story behind the label, so it’s important they get to know you." As Camilla grows, however, Franks expects she may to have to let go of everything but the design and her role as ambassador for the label. "But I’m a control freak!" she wails in mock despair.