It took a change of time zones and the challenge of landing and living in a city where she “couldn’t speak the language, didn’t even know the street names” to force fashion designer Collette Dinnigan to slow down.
Well, sort of.
Pinning down Australia’s style queen, as she prepared to launch her latest childrenswear collaboration with budget retailer ALDI [see breakout], there is a serenity about the married mother of two unfamiliar to those who watched her scale to the top of the global rag trade — before she pressed pause a few years ago and took a family sabbatical to Rome.
It was February this year when Dinnigan, her travel entrepreneur husband Bradley Cocks, daughter Estella and the couple’s three-year-old son Hunter packed up their city home in Watsons Bay, locked the gates of their country house in Milton (three hours south of Sydney) and jetted off for the adventure of a lifetime: living fulltime in Italy for a year.
After 24 years slavishly tied to the international collections circuit, Dinnigan, 50, has more than earned time away from the blue chip fashion brand she built out of just a few handcrafted pieces of lingerie sold to friends back in 1990.
Announcing her personal “hiatus” four years ago — in a handwritten note to friends and customers — Dinnigan explained: “I have sacrificed a lot of family time in building and maintaining my business, now I want balance back in my life with my husband, [then] nine-year-old daughter and baby boy.”
But it wasn’t until the family of four touched down in Rome earlier this year and, on a whim, went skiing for a week, that Dinnigan felt she had truly disconnected from her former life.
Sure, she had at least four projects, including the ALDI collection, still on the go as she headed overseas, but the time difference has meant her days could largely be devoted to her loved ones.
While the couple were married in the Italian coastal town of Positano, back in 2011, they chose Rome as their new home base — a bold new world for them both.
“We didn’t want to go to Paris, which was kind of my second country of residence in a way. We didn’t want to go somewhere where I knew how to speak the language more than him. And even though we’ve always loved holidaying there and we got married [in Italy], Rome was a place we’d only ever been to a few times. So we thought, ‘let’s go to a place where we don’t even know the names of the streets.’ So we chose Rome, put the children into school … Hunter started in September.”
Canadian-born Cocks, 43, is also taking language lessons, while his wife is content to stroll the streets and markets for daily inspiration; between the odd Skype session with her team back in Sydney, that is.
“We do [school] pick up with Estella, then we go to the park or we go outside Rome, horseriding or to the markets, then we cook dinner. We’ve got an apartment with a great terrace, it’s just beautiful. In summer time, it’s really sexy.”
As her 27,800 Instagram fans have followed, one enviable post after another, there have been side sojourns: exploring pencil-pine paths in Tuscany; long lunches under olive trees in Puglia; and at least one trip back to see the bougainvillea of Positano.
The family’s Euro experience can clearly be seen in the finer details of Dinnigan’s latest collection for ALDI — her second (“and last,” she insists) for the budget retailer.
“Most of it is quite comfortable, but there’s a slightly European feel to it,” Dinnigan explains.
“Whether that’s a navy jacket, lined in linen, with a pair of stripy shorts for when boys need to dress up, but not be too formal. It’s like their Sunday best.”
Of course, there a pretty cotton dresses, pompom-trimmed ponchos and swimwear for girls, while the pyjamas are so chic Dinnigan has asked ALDI to make a special order in her size.
The quality fabrics and high-end design meet Dinnigan’s exacting standards, it’s the price tag — from $14.99 to $34.99 — which should prove the most appealing to customers.
“I think the clothes are just incredibly great value for the price point they are, especially for children, who let’s face it, could grow out of it all in three months,” she says.
Her work pace and perspective may have changed, but Dinnigan’s creative side remains in overdrive, banking away her design ideas, or tripping up to trade fairs in Milan for more inspiration.
“My brain has been a whirl,” Dinnigan says.
“I keep thinking ‘maybe not this year, but the next? That’s my problem. It’s not that I’m looking for work, it just comes my way and I’m a can do person.”
For now, the family’s plans extend to their next vacation spot, or which restaurant in Rome they should saunter to, along the city’s famous Tiber river.
“It’s really bonded the family,” Dinnigan says. “We’ve discovered parks together. We’ve discovered different foods we like. Just living the dream.”
Dinnigan’s second collection for ALDI — to hit stores later this month — marks a new first for Australia’s style queen — a boys range, inspired almost entirely by her brown-eyed, blond-haired son, Hunter.
Besides selling out in record time, customer feedback on her first collaboration with the budget retailer two years ago sent one message, loud and clear, to its designer: “everybody wanted us to do boys clothes.”
Known around the world for her feminine designs, Dinnigan says she used her “mother instinct” to sketch out a wardrobe of essentials for the little men in our lives: from printed T-shirts and plimsoll shoes, to hooded anoraks and tailored striped shorts.
“After having a boy, you know exactly what they want. They want comfort, they like colour, they like print, they like cars, they like surfboards, they’re not into pretty; where as girls just gravitate to pretty roses, pretty dresses, pretty pink when they’re young.”
In a personal touch, nautical motifs (from Dinnigan’s childhood spent sailing the world on her family’s yacht) feature prominently.
But a line drawing of a lighthouse, which features on T-shirts and the lining of coats and jackets is a nod to Hunter’s earliest obsession.
“When we moved to Watsons Bay and also down near Milton, one of the first things Hunter would recognise was ‘lighthouse, lighthouse.’ It was one of his first words. So that’s definitely made its way in [the collection].”
Fans will need to be quick to nab the exclusive pieces, priced from $14.99 to $34.99, as Dinnigan is adamant this collection with ALDI will be her last.
“A lot of stores last time sold out in half an hour. Some pieces ended up on eBay and were up for double, sometimes triple the price and they still sold. It’s good design,” Dinnigan insists, “not just cheap.”
Young Hearts By Collette Dinnigan will be in stores as a special buy from Wednesday, October 19 exclusively at ALDI stores while stocks last.