PULL INTO the driveway of the sprawling country retreat on the NSW south coast that designer Collette Dinnigan shares with her husband, hotelier Bradley Cocks, 37, and two children Estella, 11, and Hunter, almost three, and you’re greeted with the bucolic serenity of a Thomas Hardy novel: lush green pastures, grazing alpacas and rambling wisteria.
Until you step inside. Then you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived at Central Station during peak hour. The designer, looking far younger than her 50 years, darts around her farmhouse kitchen like a sparrow, flitting between people and projects that need her attention: signing off images for her retrospective — Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced — at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, appraising images from a morning photoshoot and ushering in catering for the hungry photographers and crew. Estella chatters away in the background and Hunter gurgles with a carer. ABC TV will be showing up at any minute to film some scenes for Australian Story. Oh, and the bloke who helps foal the horses has just arrived, too.
Just a typical day in the life of Australia’s most acclaimed designer. It’s the same woman who, only two years ago, was said to have stepped back from the high-voltage commitment of running stand-alone boutiques and showing her main line in Paris twice a year in order to spend more time with her family. At the time, the media feared they’d seen the last of the woman who put Aussie fashion on the global stage. “It’s understandable that she might choose to leave on a high, and on her terms,” wrote Glynis Traill-Nash, fashion editor at The Australian, at the time, as the country bid Dinnigan farewell.
But if this is what ‘leaving’ looks like, imagine what it was like when she was really busy.
“I haven’t stopped!” laughs Dinnigan when asked if the scene before us here today is some sort of ‘comeback’.
“When I made the decision to stop showing in Paris and doing my main line, it came at a huge cost. It was a decision I made for my family. I was dictated to in terms of travel and I wanted more control. But I haven’t been working any less.”
The scenes I’ve just witnessed are proof of that. Sunday Style is visiting the designer to get a first look at some of the half dozen projects she has on the go — including the first shots of the two luxury oceanfront suites she’s designed at Bannisters hotel in nearby Mollymook, and some of the shots from her latest Wild Hearts lingerie collection for Target.
But the project that’s dominating the conversation in the crowded house is the one that will make owning a little piece of the Dinnigan legend a reality for pretty much anyone. Before you read another word, grab your diary (or your phone’s calendar), crack your knuckles and make a note: on Wednesday, October 14, you can buy genuine Collette Dinnigan childrenswear, priced from as little as $11.99 at — wait for it — Aldi. That’s right, the bargain-basement supermarket giant, better known for discount loo paper and German austerity, is about to stock high-
quality fashion from one of Australia’s most celebrated fashion designers, one renowned for opulence and attention to detail.
It’s as if Fabergé eggs were suddenly being sold in cardboard 12-packs.
Dinnigan smiles as she acknowledges that it may seem like a surprising collab at first. “I hadn’t really shopped with [Aldi] before,” she admits. But once she was approached to design a range, she began looking into the company’s practices and found herself impressed with its way of doing business.
“They have a fantastic economy of scale, which means they can make good products at a reasonable price, and small drops of one-off things,” she says, adding that she’s controlled every aspect of the design process to the tiniest stitch, even insisting on using 100 per cent cotton for almost the entire range. “Aldi don’t pay for presentation and marketing. It means I could create a range that’s all about good design, good colour, fit and quality at a reasonable price.”
The limited-edition collection for girls, called Young Hearts by Collette Dinnigan, stays true to the designer’s dreamy, bohemian aesthetic with its classic prints, broderie anglaise and country-meets-seaside feel. Yet the hugely anticipated clothing range isn’t the first time Dinnigan has combined her unique style with affordability, having teamed up with both Target and Specsavers in recent years. Regardless, Dinnigan’s collaboration with Aldi is a long way from the top-of-the-market couture confections that made her one of our most internationally recognised talents.
A southern-hemisphere hybrid (she was born in South Africa, raised in New Zealand and lives in Australia), Dinnigan got her start designing a high-end lingerie line in 1990, before opening her first store in Sydney’s Paddington in 1992. Anyone dismissing her as a mere maker of smalls — and many did, as the lingerie collection was only really embraced overseas — was knocked sideways when she began to show off the true scope of her talents: intricate lacework and beading on evening and bridalwear that demonstrated a dedication and attention to detail rarely seen before.
Then came the big one. At 30, she became the first Australian invited to show at the prestigious Paris Fashion Week. The Australian media was thrilled that we had our own global fashion sensation, but for Dinnigan, who by her own admission struggles to delegate, it meant the start of a gruelling schedule that dominated her life for 20 years.
At the same time, she balanced a personal life that was anything but straightforward. Married to Eurogliders frontman Bernie Lynch in 1992 and divorced nine years later, she went on to have daughter Estella with TV personality Richard Wilkins, enduring a very public breakup just before the little girl was born. She met her second husband, Bradley Cocks — a Canadian who’s more than 10 years her junior — when Estella was just three years old, and was then charged with transitioning from single mother to a blended family while keeping her business running at its peak, a feat she credits in part to Cocks’ strength
as a stepfather.
“[Richard] loves Estella a lot, but he’s not as present as Bradley is,” Dinnigan explains. “Bradley’s been amazing. [Estella] looks up to him so much. He’s been present in her life every day since she was three.”
Since the birth of Hunter, their own child together, Cocks has flourished in fatherhood even more than before, she says. “Before, it was ‘my daughter’, but he loved her. Now it’s ‘our children’. He understands the importance of being there for the two of them, but also how to make her feel important,” she adds, her voice thick with pride.
This fiercely family-oriented side of Dinnigan is one that’s generally only noted in passing, an addendum to her incredible career. Ask a random sample of people what they think of the designer and you’re likely to hear lines such as, “She seems sort of … stuck-up” or, “She seems so driven” — usually with a less-than-complimentary tone that says a lot about the comparatively harsh way we judge hardworking women, as opposed to men.
But these are mere perceptions. In person, there’s a generosity to her, a quickness to make sure everyone around her is looked after, and a sweet, almost Princess Diana-like shyness as she peers out from beneath that famous curtain of hair.
“She’s misconstrued because she’s so private,” explains her good friend, fashion marketer Dominique Ogilvie. “But she’s like jelly underneath it all. She’s kind. And incredibly loyal.” And since she’s home more, Ogilvie says, she’s softened further. “Estella, Bradley and Hunter have made her realise what’s important.”
Whenever one of her children is in sight, Dinnigan’s face softens into a meltingly pretty smile. When horse-mad Estella (who’s as energetic as her mother) asks her to go riding, Dinnigan wraps her eldest child into a hug, promising they’ll go later. When an almost imperceptible wail that only a mother could pick up floats down the stairs, the designer leaps from the sofa and races to her little boy’s side. She’s loving being present in ways she never could when Paris was always eating up her time. “I keep being asked how I manage work-life balance,” she says. “The truth is, you can’t get balance in a single day. There are extremes and you get an average at the end. If the average is out, then maybe it’s time to step aside and see if you can shift the equation.”
The key is flexibility, and being totally present in whatever you have in front of you. Based primarily in Sydney but travelling a lot — including regular trips to Audi Hamilton Island Race Week event (Dinnigan has been an Audi Ambassador since 2000) — the countryside is their little getaway. Once there, busy days are spent riding horses, growing vegies and rounding it off with pizza and red wine by the fire.
“That’s why Bradley and I [get] on so well — we have a love of nature and the beach. We’re bohemian spirits,” Dinnigan says.
“He travels, I travel, but we try to make our calendars meet. We do tag weeks with the children or we do trips where we try to take them.”
That’s the dream, right? To be able to take your kids to work?
“Yeah, until you get there,” she says, laughing. “Then we think, ‘Oh, we need some time together!’”
Now she’s officially in her fifties, what’s next for the designer who never stops? “I don’t feel 50,” Dinnigan says in a voice that lets you know any questions about ‘slowing down’ or ‘stepping back’ will be laughable.
“Thirty years ago, someone turning 50 felt like they were at the end of their career. When I was 30, I was more ambitious; I wanted to conquer the world. Now I just feel normal, but I feel energised and healthy, and I have plenty of things that still excite and motivate me. Having dreams keeps you young.”
The Young Hearts by Collette Dinnigan childrenswear range is available in all Aldi stores from Wednesday, October 14 as a Special Buy until sold out.