A frontline soldier has revealed how he went from army sharp shooter to gun fashion designer after taking a job ‘shoving frocks into bags’ as a teenager.
Martin Sanders, who has three sons and lives in Sydney with his girlfriend, is the lead designer behind glamorous evening wear label Zaliea and debuted his label at this year’s Australian Fashion Week.
His gowns were worn by superstar plus-sized model Robyn Lawley who became a superstar after gracing the covers of Vogue, Italia in 2011.
The model was the first plus-sized woman to feature in Australian Vogue and is one of the most recognisable faces pushing for inclusivity in high-end fashion.
Martin Sanders, is a former military man, who stumbled on a career in fashion after frontline duties – this year he dressed Robyn Lawley for fashion week
Martin never imagined a career in fashion – he had always wanted to be a soldier and enlisted in the army at 18
Robyn wore this beaded gown for the show finale, one of Martin’s ‘passion pieces’ which became part of the collection by popular demand
Speaking to FEMAIL Martin, who describes himself as a ‘rough and tumble sports mad bloke’ says he was thrilled to dress Robyn for the ‘Curve Edit’ show and even more excited that she chose his favourite beaded gown to wear for the finale.
‘It is hard to believe my garment dressed Robyn Lawley,’ he buzzed.
‘She loved it, which keeps me going. I love when women feel that good about themselves. I love to be able to do that for them.’
The 61-year-old didn’t realise he was setting himself up for a lifetime in the fashion industry when he scored a job on the cutting room floor of a local fashion house.
Before too long he was poached by the managers of bridalwear company Mr K, who ‘thought he could cut’ before deciding he was more suited to apprentice-style jobs.
‘That’s where I learned about different fabrics, about warehousing and how to cut a collar,’ he said.
But the idea of fashion as a career still didn’t occur to him and in 1978 when he turned 18, he joined the army.
Now he owns four inclusive fashion labels with sizes ranging from six to 24, pictured here with Chelsea Bonner, the model manager behind the new Curve Edit at fashion week
Martin only spent four years in the army – the time away from home proved to be his undoing
‘After training I was sent as part of a contingent to defend the Royal Australian Air Force Fighter Jets Base in Butterworth, Malaysia for four months, not far from the Thai border. It was our job to protect the RAAF from potential communist insurgents,’ he said.
‘I was a front-line infantry soldier, trained to shoot to kill if necessary. Whilst I was there, it was pretty rough, we constantly needed to keep our wits about us.
‘Once when I was on patrol around the airbase a soldier at the other end of the base was stabbed in the face by two insurgents who scaled over the wire fence and entered our area. Fortunately he fought them off and was lucky not to be killed.’
Martin quickly found he was ‘good at soldiering’.
He won awards as the best soldier in his platoon and thrived in the highly organised, rule-heavy military environment.
Now he spends his days designing evening wear for women, and loves it
He is pictured here with one of his models in a beaded gown – Martin loves using rich colours and beading work in his gowns
Martin said he designs dresses in the hope that the women who put them in feel empowered and confident and was thrilled when Robyn loved this gown
But after four years he decided he wanted a family – and being on the road all the time, often having to leave home for months at a time, wasn’t going to help him find a steady relationship.
‘I struggled when I first exited and wondered if I had done the right thing,’ he said.
He knew the team at Mr K and went to see if they had any work for him.
They took him on straight away, paying him to ‘shove frocks in bags’ before realising he had management skills.
Backstage before the show, Martin was thrilled to have Robyn walk for him in his fashion week debut
He filled the void left by the army with sports – becoming a black belt and getting heavily involved in football.
While the organisational skills and leadership skills helped him climb the ladder to become one of the top level managers in the formidable fashion business.
He slowly fell in love with the industry, after learning the histories of some of the world’s top fashion houses and how they have had to reinvent to stay relevant.
This is where he met Chelsea Bonner who convinced Australian Fashion Week to consider a plus-sized runway in the 2022 show.
In 2016 Martin decided to funnel his creative energy and decades of experience in the industry into his own labels.
He calls himself an accidental designer and comes up with 400 new dresses every year
But it isn’t all glamourous – Martin took this photo showing bolts of material days before his debut fashion week show proving he still does the grunt work
Zaliea was born alongside sister labels Jesse Harper, Layla Jones and Joshua James.
‘Even though I went through the army so long ago, the lessons I learned there still help me in my job everyday,’ he said.
‘It is so easy to put things off if you are feeling tired, but in the army you learn to just do it, so I do. And pushing through means I have been more productive and built a very successful business.’
Each of Martin’s labels cater for women of all shapes, sizes and ages spanning from size 6 to size 24 something Martin is passionate about.
‘Women are asking for larger evening wear, who am I not to listen,’ he said.
‘The most popular size now would have to be 14 or 16, it has gone up from 12 to 14 a few years ago,’ he said.
‘I listen to the women in my life, and I am surrounded by them, and I include their feedback in my designs,’ he said.
All of Martin’s dresses are made in Australia, something he is very proud of
‘My brands don’t discriminate and I take great pride in that.’
Martin has designed 14,000 dresses over six years – some take him just five minutes to come up with.
‘I have a rule that if I have to dwell on it then it probably doesn’t work, and I cut it,’ he said.
Martin can’t draw, so he sits with his pattern maker and describes what he wants in productive brainstorming sessions.
‘Sometimes I will wake up with an idea or get one when I am out and about, so I just add it to my notes straight away,’ he said.
Robyn chose to wear two of Martin’s favourites when she took to the runway on Thursday night.
The designer says he like being able to make women feel amazing
Robyn chose to wear this velvet number in the show, the bottle green velvet is one of Martin’s favourite materials at the moment
‘I love velvet and that bottle green at the moment, and it looked so good on her, it is a dress with a lot of classic details,’ he said.
While the other a heavily beaded gown was a love project.
‘Sometimes I design things just because I love the idea of them, this one was never meant for production but people loved it so much that it has ended up in this season’s collection,’ he said.
‘But it started as a passion project.’
Martin is still shocked by his career in women’s fashion sometimes, noting that it doesn’t go hand-in-hand with his rough and tumble start as an army man, being sports mad or being the dad of three boys.
‘Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have anything to do with women’s fashion. However, I absolutely love what I do and wouldn’t trade it for the world,’ he said.