There's not many designers who could put 30 years of work on the runway and have it still look contemporary today. Zambesi pulled that off last night in a special retrospective show to close Fashion Week 2009.

It was met with a standing ovation.

The audience, a who's who of fashion, celebrity and loyal clients, had witnessed the showing of a body of work remarkable for its consistent quality. Only a handful of garments looked truly of their era and that mainly because of fabric rather than cut.

The many Zambesi devotees watching would have happily donned pieces from throughout the three decades. Some in the audience were wearing treasured vintage items. On the way out I complemented a woman wearing a simple shift and coat in a teal-coloured, oriental-patterned silk we'd just seen. Turns out she bought her outfit more than 10 years ago to wear to her daughter's wedding.

Therein lies the enduring appeal of Zambesi. If you appreciate the ethos you'll wear these items year in, year out. Most fashion by its very nature is trend-driven, with the best of it leading the trends; but some designers stand apart and Elisabeth Findlay is one of them.

The unassuming talent usually barely pops her head out from backstage after her shows, but this time she reticently advanced half-way down the runway to join husband and business partner Neville who was watching their life's work unfold from his front row seat.

Two mature women stepped forth with flowers and champagne and I assumed they were close family by the hugs, but later Bev Marks and Pam Thornton explained they were long serving members of the tight Zambesi team, which over the years has grown to include daughters Sophie and Marissa and menswear designer Dayne Johnston.

Bev is the senior pattern maker and has been with the label for 21 years. Pam, the senior sample machinist, tops her stint by two years. Watching their work on the runway was "awesome", said Bev, wearing an old favourite Astrakhan-look short jacket.

"You tend to forget what you've done."

The dark "Annie" wool coat which opened the show is a special favourite of hers. It's fitted to the body and flares out like something a little French schoolgirl would wear. She reckons it dates back about 18 years.

The women clearly take pride in their part in the Zambesi story.

"Liz is always full of creativity," says Bev.

The many garments paraded were drawn from an extensive archive stored out the back of the Zambesi workroom. Patterns are also kept carefully catalogued.

Quality of fabric is key to the appeal of Zambesi, particularly beautiful silks, velvets and fine wool suiting. The colour pattern is mostly dark - blacks, inky blues, charcoals and rich browns - but with vivid accent pieces and each season a distinctive print or two. Zambesi is not "look at me" clothing. But the finish, and a mix of fluidity and tailoring, ensures its air of quirky elegance draws second glances.

During the show I sat next to Fashion Quarterly Editor Fiona Hawtin and we chatted about what we remembered or had owned from over the years. I spotted a gold, black and purple print from the early 90s, the shift dress version is still in my wardrobe. Next a muted paisley from quite a bit earlier.

"I had the scarf in that," said Fiona of the same paisley and several other fabrics, remembering her canny purchases from impoverished student days. Then: "Oh I had the ra-ra skirt, but in grey."

Then, of a favourite in black crepe: "I've got that dress." She still wears it a decade on.

Now that's Zambesi investment dressing.