Photos courtesy of Collette Dinnigan
Two years ago she shocked the world when she pulled the pin on her main line, but at 50, Collette Dinnigan isn’t slowing down. She’s now weaving her magic into new, somewhat surprising markets. A lingerie line for Target, childrenswear collection for Aldi, stylish spectacles for Specsavers and the redesign of two penthouse suites are just a few of the projects keeping the designer busy – not to mention the current retrospective at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, ‘Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced’, which saw Collette literally unpacking her 25 years in the industry.
“It was quite a sentimental, emotional journey,” she tells Collective Hub. “But it also made me realise how much I’d achieved in that amount of time, because, even though time goes so quickly, there were three, sometimes six, seven, or eight collections a year. There was a lot of clothes.”
What was the most drastic shift you’ve witnessed in the fashion world through those years?
Definitely social media, and the digital era. When I first started, everything was embargoed – photos, negatives – there were no digital cameras, so it was really old-school. Whereas now it’s so fast and so quick you’ve kind of got to preserve as much as you can and embargo as much as you can to have a bit of a surprise… It’s taken away a lot of the mystery that I think is quite special, but then on the other hand it’s much more interactive. You get consumer feedback and you cut out a lot of the middle wholesalers who seem to have always dictated as to what the consumers wanted.
You decided to step back from your main line and stand-alone boutiques two years ago. How did it feel to close the door on this major facet of your life?
It was something that was a considered decision, it wasn’t an impulsive one. When you’re working so hard and in such an intense manner at the top of the fashion world in Paris, it’s not like you’re just down the road in Milan or London. Australia’s a long way away, and in order to stay on top of your game it’s a lot of travel, it’s really working on two different time zones… so I just wanted to get off that wheel. I wanted to spend time with my family. It wasn’t about not working, it was about working in a way that suited family and being together.
You’ve since had numerous projects on the go, and today sees your childrenswear line, Young Hearts, launch in Aldi. What excited you most about this collaboration?
As a company, when I first started looking into it, I sort of thought ‘Aldi, discount store’ – but they’re not at all. They’ve got a very, very strong retail share in the market in the grocery division and they do a lot of textiles. It interested me because they don’t actually put a lot of money into the merchandising and marketing of a product, they put it into, in this instance, design and a good quality cotton product. I think sometime people think discount, low-end, and it’s not the case. It’s incredible value for money… The merchandising of it’s probably not my idea of how you want to go gracefully shopping, but on the other hand, it’s kind of the Aldi way, isn’t it?
Is it very different designing for Aldi and Target, compared to Paris’ catwalks?
Absolutely! Worlds apart. What I did was very much couture and bespoke, and I would do a lot of hand embroidery and one-off, really applied amazing ornamentation and French laces, so that the customer got something very special and unique and one off. And the whole idea of what we’re doing is the opposite… You couldn’t possibly expect to have that when there’s probably one or two or three thousand children’s dresses. It’s the economy of scale, and you couldn’t even compare it. Everything’s in bulk quantities, and it’s just applying good design and shape and colour to it, and prints.
You’ve also lent your talents to interior design, creating two penthouse suits for Bannisters hotel. Was it a challenge to adapt your fashion skills to this kind of project?
I’ve always had such an affinity with home and also lifestyle… and I think there are a lot of similarities in fashion and interiors. You’re using textiles, it’s a use of colour, it’s how you work with proportion and space and it’s about light and reflection, there’s a lot of things that the creative eye can see from the textile world… [But] there are a lot of other things. You step into a world and suddenly you’re ordering marble slabs and you have to think about the grain and how you finish them and seal them. There’s a lot of things you learn on the way, but for me it’s very much about also putting a feminine touch to space but not making it so girly that a man feels like he can’t sit down anywhere.
How do you select which projects to take on and align your name with?
I have to feel that ethically the people I work with are doing the right thing, and are environmentally conscious… and I think also understanding the concept of design. It’s not about using a brand and putting a mark on a product, and that’s definitely what I don’t do. I get very involved at all levels. Also, you’ve got to have fun when you do it and it’s got to excite you. I can’t go into something and think, ‘Oh God, I could make a lot of money out of this but I couldn’t imagine how boring it’s going to be’. That is something that wouldn’t even be on my radar.
How do you balance your work commitments and family life?
I think what you do is train yourself to have a very good memory and compartmentalise a lot of things and try and be on time, and always be ahead if you can. And also have the ability to say, ‘Okay, this isn’t important anymore, got to let that go, this is my priority.’
If you could go back to the very start of your journey as a designer, what advice would you give yourself?
You’ve got to be able and confident enough to make decisions at the time that you feel good about, and even if they’re wrong, you can’t beat yourself up about it. And even if it goes terribly wrong, as long as you made [decisions] in an earnest, honest manner and you thought you were doing the best thing at the time, it can always be fixed, you can always change direction. I think we often focus too much on failure, and in fact there’s no such thing as failure. Because if you’ve made a mistake, you won’t do it again, and you’ve learned something.
Collette Dinnigan’s Young Hearts line drops into Aldi stores 14 October.