• Karla Špetić is the founder of her namesake's fashion label gaining recognition around the world. (SBS)
Karla Špetić believes the qualities of resilience and determination she derived from her refugee past have bolstered the success of her business today.
Jessica Washington

SBS Small Business Secrets
10 May 2018 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 14 May 2018 - 5:53 PM

Her namesake label has garnered international renown, but the glamorous world of high fashion is a world away from her escape from war-torn Croatia.

Growing up in Dubrovnik, Karla's happy childhood was brought to an abrupt end in 1991, when the Croatian War of Independence began.

“It was traumatising, but we were really lucky to have the opportunity to move to Australia and start our lives again. Mum was a single parent and it was a real struggle, but there wasn't a future for us there,” Karla says.

"When you've been given a second chance, you really strive for it, and just try very hard. You have these fighter qualities within you from going through certain hardships. It makes you want to achieve what you set your mind on.”

Karla's determination has taken her business to the pages of fashion publications around the world, but her intention was never about building a name for herself – it was about fulfilling a simple childhood dream.

“As an 11-year-old, not having much money, I dreamt of being able to make my own clothing. I thought it would be a neverending opportunity."

The clothes she dreamed of making have found popularity in the US and China, but 10 years after launching her label, the brand is still true to her personal story.

“For some reason, I’ve always brought my past into my work, in my collections - there’s a longing and nostalgia,” Karla says.

“In Croatia, we always put dried lavender in the clothes and the wardrobe – that memory made me want to create a beautiful print and bring that into the collection.”

A decade after launching her brand at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, the 35-year-old is well-respected in the Australian fashion industry, but her biggest joy does not come from industry accolades.

“When I see people wearing my clothes, for me, that’s an achievement. I don’t enter awards, the biggest satisfaction is just seeing people respond to my work,” she said.

Over the past decade, Karla's commitment to ethical fashion has grown, and she is dedicated to using natural fibres, and no fur or leather. She’s even endeavoured to cut back on using silk, which used to be one of her most commonly used fabrics.

While Karla has enjoyed success as a designer, it’s a difficult time for her peers in the industry, and that's had an impact on her business too.

International competition is putting a strain on homegrown talent, and even established designers are struggling; Many Australian fashion retailers have gone into voluntary administration in recent years, or even closed their doors entirely.

“A lot of the wonderful boutiques that I used to stock to in Australia have closed because they just could not survive. A lot of these big international brands have really affected their sell-through,” says Karla.

“It's so sad to see these brands close their doors, you always hope they will come back. It does worry me.”

The designer is hopeful Australian fashion can make a revival and hopes that she can support the industry she loves so much.

“I like the idea of creating jobs in Australia, rather than taking them offshore - it’s an Australian brand and it should be made here.”

The Karla Špetić brand has grown over the years, adding swimwear and knitwear to its offering, but the designer said the most important thing is that she still enjoys what she does.

“If I can continue doing what I love, to me that's success and happiness. I don't really think about growing and being massive, I want it to be special and manageable and keep inspiring people,” she says.

“I didn't go into it thinking, I want everyone to wear my clothes, I want to make a lot of money. If it comes from an honest place, you enjoy it more.”

Watch this story at the top of the page, or catch the full episode on SBS On Demand.