It’s an unseasonally warm winter morning in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Alexandria. I’m sitting in the cool headquarters of luxury fashion label Camilla, watching women float by on a sea of the softest silk splashed with vibrant prints and dotted with shimmering crystals.

In every corner of this quite remarkable warehouse, with its exposed brickwork and sky-high ceilings, I spy exotic artefacts and antiques – a two-metre urn, an arched wooden swing, pillars with intricate detailing – and colourful swatches of fabric, here, there, everywhere.

Have I been instantly transported to some exotic location – Tibet, India, Mexico, Morocco… wait, am I at Coachella? No, I’m just observing the Camilla Tribe in their natural habitat and let me tell you, it’s quite something to behold.

“I’m so inspired by Camilla Franks … She refuses to be influenced by anyone or anything around her in terms of creative vision. This delivers our uniqueness in a crowded market,” – Jane McNally

Enter Tribal Chief, aka CEO, Jane McNally, who embodies everything the brand stands for: vitality, strength, beauty, femininity and optimism. She’s softly spoken and quietly confident, and clearly loves and lives the brand she leads.

“Camilla is a true fashion disrupter,” she explains. “Our designs allow women to express their femininity and individualism. Our colours and prints are designed to enrich our customers’ lives – and their feedback says that they genuinely do make them feel brighter, happier and more optimistic.”

It’s good news then, that the central mission at Camilla HQ is to “colour the world” – we could all do with more optimism these days. “This not only gives us a really great company vision, it’s a mantra for staff to follow,” says Jane.

Jane McNally
Jane McNally, CEO of Camilla

Now, with 20 established boutiques in Australia, and the opening of two new stores Stateside, the brand is on its way to ‘Camilla-fying’ the globe.

“Our biggest growth opportunities are aggressive international expansion and the extension of the brand into Northern Hemisphere Ready-to-Wear and other categories, such as accessories and girls’ wear,” says Jane.

“And for the future, possibly hotels and travel itineraries. There is a Camilla way of doing things – the sign of a true brand.” I also expect that there’s a Jane way of doing things too, which is perhaps the sign of a true leader? “When it comes to leadership, I’m still learning,” she admits.

“It may be a truism, but you are only ever as good as the people around you, and I like to think we have the best. Keeping those people is majorly important and treating them the way that you would like to be treated yourself: with respect. Giving clarity, always being fair, having empathy and remembering to laugh! Fashion can get a little intense at times and it’s important to alleviate the anxiety by bringing a sense of humour and normalcy to the process.”

Normalcy in her personal life comes from three men who she credits with keeping her grounded. “I could not do this job without my family. I have a wonderful, long-suffering Irish husband (who lectures in ethics) and two sons: a would-be venture capitalist, studying business, who is working at NAB Ventures, and a music graduate, who has recently joined the UK Fire Service. If I ever, ever get tempted to take myself or my role too seriously, the boys bring me back to earth in a matter of minutes. A great friendship group and supportive colleagues (to whom you’re not afraid to show your vulnerability) are also on the ‘essential’ grounding list.”

The longer you spend with Jane, the less likely you are to believe she ever needs any ‘grounding’. Down-to-earth and quick to laugh, sometimes at herself, when asked to choose just three words to describe herself, she struggles for a minute before opting for “fortunate, determined and strategic… or maybe good-humoured”.

“Camilla Franks places enormous emphasis on empowerment and giving her Tribe the opportunity to be the best they can be,” – Jane McNally

Surely, she loses her cool (even though I can’t imagine it) every once in a while? “No, I’m not a desk-thumper and I don’t get angry. I’m very even-tempered and I’m really grateful that a lot of people have worked for me more than once, some up to five times. I’ve even had some people follow me out to Australia.”

It’s not surprising. This is a woman who leads with fairness and respect, and since moving from the UK – “I’m proud to be a recently adopted Aussie!” – has enjoyed much success in her role as CEO, building an executive team and taking the company through a difficult transition after a period of huge growth.

“You know, when I first joined Camilla in January 2017, we had this amazingly unique creative business, which had grown almost 700% in the prior five years, but its IT infrastructure was crashing daily, sometimes three times daily. There was no experienced executive team, lots of crisis management, and product deliveries no longer keeping pace with demand. Two years later, we have a new ERP system embedded, a properly functional web platform, a product and production life-cycle management system and we are in the process of currently introducing a business information and planning tool. Our delivery efficiency is no longer a cause for complaint.”

Of course, there have been many successes, but Jane’s career, like most, has had its fair share of challenges. What has been her biggest challenge to date? “There have been a few… I was very fortunate always to have seen exponential growth through the days of my buying and planning stewardship – but probably my greatest challenge was taking on my first CEO role in the UK. You know that phrase ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’? Well I was no angel…

“It was 2008, the start of the GFC. I took on an ailing, multi-brand, cash-hungry, listed business that had a £28 million underlying loss, no executive board and no committed banking facilities. It was a roller-coaster. Up to that point, I had thought that the right proposition, team, product and marketing could solve everything, but that was the moment that I really understood ‘cash is king’.

“It may be a truism, but you are only ever as good as the people around you, and I like to think we have the best,” – Jane McNally

“I had to teach myself cashflows and everything there is to know about retail leasing. Using complete honesty, I recruited a relatively inexperienced but highly talented and mainly female executive board. Together our wins included building a significant online business from a £5,500 second-hand website and being nominated by Barclays Bank for Business Turnaround of the Year!”

Working mostly with women, both in her current role and in past positions, what does she believe are the biggest challenges facing females in leadership roles today?

“The maternity challenge is forever going to be at the forefront of the daily struggle women face,” Jane says. “Stepping back into the workforce after having time away and needing to juggle ongoing family commitments is an ongoing dilemma – although increasingly one being shared by both partners. My husband, for example, actually took on the lion’s share of the boys’ early parenting, as I was constantly required overseas.

“I have seen exponential change in the perception of women in leadership roles through my career to date and I’m very optimistic about a more even balance in the future. We shouldn’t generalise, but women do tend to bring more emotional intelligence into the workplace, which can make it a more supportive versus internally competitive environment.

Jane McNally

“I am fortunate that, at Camilla, everything we do is built on empowering women, from our incredible partnership with The Hunger Project, to the number of women in leadership roles within the business. Our executive Tribe and board are in the majority female – comprising 89% of our leadership roles. We are proud to have recently implemented flexible work hours, which enables greater options for parents with young children, but is also being warmly embraced by our Tribe of all ages and lifestyles.”

Standing tall at the very top of the Tribe is the extraordinary Camilla Franks; businesswoman, designer and hippie at heart, who launched the eponymous label 15 years ago, gave birth to her first child and then “danced with the devil that was cancer” last year, and who’s a constant source of inspiration for those who work for and with her.

“I have seen exponential change in the perception of women in leadership roles and am very optimistic about the future,” – Jane McNally

“I am so inspired by Camilla Franks, and not just because she pays my wages. She refuses to be influenced by anyone or anything around her in terms of creative vision. This delivers our uniqueness in a crowded market. In all the time I have worked alongside Camilla, she has never asked about financial performance. She trusts that I am responsible for the numbers, allowing her to focus single-mindedly on her creative magic.

“Camilla also places enormous emphasis on empowerment and giving her Tribe the opportunity to be the best they can be. On a personal level, my jaw sometimes drops at the energy and positivity of this woman who has been through childbirth in her 40s, only to receive a serious cancer diagnosis eight weeks later. She has definitely gone through some dark moments, but she is indefatigable and a shining example of the power of positive thinking.”

Jane pauses and I let the silence linger while we both ponder the strength of a woman who has been through so much. And then I ask the perennial question of women everywhere: Is it possible to have it all?

“Define ‘having it all’?” Jane counters. “I have a beautiful family and friends, and I work for one of the most exciting and unique fashion brands in the world, with an incredible Tribe of inspiring women. I think that counts as extremely good fortune.”