With a unique retrospective soon to show at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, the designer speaks about her career, Vogue memories, archives and fashion firsts.
Should you ever think that the closure of Collette Dinnigan’s main line has freed up her time, think again. In the months leading up to the official launch of her retrospective exhibition, Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced, at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum – about which I’ve come to her Surry Hills studio to talk to her – she has just rushed out of her office to look for yarn. Yarn that has been spun from the pet alpacas she keeps in Milton, that is. She has to repeat the words “pet alpacas” to me three times before I register what she’s actually said. The yarn has already been wound into neat balls and packaged in brown paper boxes with italicised “Collette Dinnigan” labels. She hasn’t sold any – not yet, anyway – but they’re on her long to-do list. “We’ll put them on the website soon, and send out an email to our subscribers,” she says casually, pointing out the different colours of the yarn and how they correspond to her alpacas. “That one, see that colour, that’s Oz,” she says, flicking through photos on her iPhone screen. It’s been less than a year since her main line closed, but the Surry Hills studio is abuzz with activity – she is also working on a line for US store Anthropologie, her childrenswear line, Enfant, a diffusion line, and other as yet undisclosed projects that are in the pipeline. She puts proud multi-taskers to shame.
It should never have been expected that Dinnigan would quietly retreat from the fashion sphere. Her 25 years in the fashion industry have kept her passionate, and she still has that excitement in her. The retrospective exhibition has been a significant undertaking: it has been in the works for the past two years, and the past six months has involved editing 25 years of her work, with the help of close friend and stylist Victoria Collison. “You know what I said to Tory today? ‘There is so much work here, and I don’t feel old.’ Most people say that [seeing all the work] makes them feel old, seeing all the years that have gone by, but it’s quite the opposite – I feel like I’ve done so much and I still feel so young. Not that I look it, ha!” she says with a laugh. Though with her natural good looks and good health (“the best way to style is with good health, good skin and not much make-up. But you’ve got to have your hair done, and you’ve got to have a good shoe”), she looks just as she did all those years ago when she was considered an emerging designer and was photographed skipping down a Sydney side street.
“I first met Collette in 1992 when she had a studio in Paddington and I was a fashion editor at Vogue,” remembers Collison, speaking of their friendship and working relationship. “It was obvious from the outset that she had enormous talent. Her aesthetic felt fresh and exciting and I particularly loved her use of colour and fabric when translated into some of her lingerie-inspired outerwear.”
In 2011, Dinnigan donated part of her archives to the Powerhouse Museum, which has the largest collection of clothing and shoes in the southern hemisphere – akin to the New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Thankfully, Collette has meticulous archives, everything has been photographed and catalogued over the last 25 years,” says Collison. They were offered to the museum with no expectations, except that they would be properly stored, maintained and used for research purposes in the future. “I want people to be inspired by the design and know how important design is, the quality and the attention to detail,” Collison explains. Earlier this year, the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, of which the Powerhouse is a part, launched the Centre for Fashion at its Powerhouse location as Australia’s first museum space dedicated to fashion.
There are a lot of firsts in Dinnigan’s life, too. She will be the first Australian fashion designer to have a retrospective exhibition at the museum, a fact that she shrugs off. Memorably, she also was the first Australian designer to show at Paris fashion week on the official schedule. “Collette really paved the way for Australian and New Zealand fashion designers. To show among the absolute best in Paris, year after year, brought her international acclaim, which really shone the spotlight on the fashion industry here. It was very exciting!” says her good friend Sarah Murdoch.
Ironically, it was fashion week that provided the impetus for Dinnigan’s decision to close her main line, allowing her to not be slavishly bound to what is known in the industry as the “fashion calendar”. The Paris autumn/winter show season, in late February, kept her in the studio designing and preparing for the collection every January, right when school holidays were happening. “Now I get the school holidays and I get weekends,” she explains, on making decisions to better balance her personal life with her career. “I’m still really busy and I think that is my nature – I’ll always be really busy. But now I work around my family, not by the Paris fashion calendar.”
Now that she has firmly established her legacy, Dinnigan has transferred her energy to building up a history of Australian fashion. “When international buyers ask me about Australian fashion and ask what it reflects and what it’s synonymous with, we can talk about it, but we can’t say: ‘Go to the Powerhouse and you can see the whole collection there, there’s great designers in surfwear, resort wear, swimwear …’ I think that’s what is missing sometimes in Australia. People tend to forget that we need to build a history of designers and have them looked after and have them as part of what we do.”
Curating the exhibition has given Dinnigan’s designs new layers of understanding, even for the designer herself. Motifs are drawn out, themes found – beaded necklines, balletic colours or trompe l’oeil translucency – and put into the context of Dinnigan’s entire body of work. Many, if not all, of the pieces in the collection can be worn today, a fact that makes her proud; there are no dress-ups here. “If it feels too contrived, you need to reinvent.” Murdoch, who wore a Collette Dinnigan-designed wedding dress, puts it down to her timeless aesthetic: “Her designs are so feminine and timeless. I never had the sense I was wearing something that was ‘of the moment’, but each piece always felt unique and would be something I would cherish forever.”
Today, for Dinnigan, fashion is about how something is styled, and the importance of editing. “It’s you know, Vogue,” she says. “If Vogue were asked to do a shoot with a white T-shirt, you could make it the coolest, hippest … if you were any other magazines you couldn’t make it look the coolest or the hippest. Someone with the wrong photographer, the wrong lighting, the wrong shoe, the wrong hair, it could be like: ‘Oh my god, so much more …’” she rolls her eyes and groans (if you could say that it’s even a groan. Dinnigan, as well as being chatty, is certainly composed and well mannered). “I think by doing that, it’s more relevant to what fashion is about now. With styling you can make it now, yesterday, or next year.”
With the exhibition itself, Dinnigan has almost cast herself as the fashion editor. “Because the clothes are already there, my god! It’s bigger than a [runway] show, with 120 looks. You’re going through saying: ‘I like that’ and: ‘I like this too.’” The selection criteria narrowed down pieces that were technically superior or had more workmanship. “Our aim was to represent the looks and directions over the years that truly reflect the label and its evolution. It has been an enormous process of elimination, endlessly editing through racks and then re-thinking our edit two minutes later,” says Collison. “It was a very nostalgic process and interesting to see how many pieces had stood the test of time and were still utterly desirable, and to fully appreciate all the work and energy involved.”
In the exhibition, dynamism has been injected via a film element, which required casting models to walk on treadmills before a blue screen, a device that gives audiences the impression of watching models striding continuously towards them. Visiting the Azzedine Alaïa exhibition at the Palais Galliera in 2013, Dinnigan was struck by its relative accessibility and focus on the clothes. “I think they become pretentious when there are just seas of mannequins; where you can’t really see another lifeless mannequin again,” says Dinnigan. The filming component proved to be the most challenging of the exhibition, however, and involved shooting those 100-plus looks using two film crews who worked simultaneously to create the interactive effect.
The strength in Dinnigan’s clothes is that ultimately they were designed to be worn, rather than displayed lifelessly in a glass case. The label gained momentum after being seen on young starlets who wanted cool, edgy designs that made them stand out on the red carpet: sequined mini-dresses for Halle Berry, stunning gowns for a then-twentysomething Naomi Watts. “That’s how the archiving started because they came to me saying: ‘That dress you had in a show in Paris, can we borrow it for a film premiere?’” she remembers. Nowadays, with the influx of red-carpet fashion, it is difficult to remember a time without the influence of celebrity support. Dinnigan rode the initial wave of the red-carpet trend years before major houses latched on and signed up celebrities to be brand ambassadors, locking them in exclusivity contracts that has since reduced the exposure of independent labels on the celebrity circuit. “I would always have my customers in mind, whether it be wholesale or retail, and I’d also do press pieces. And I’d also think, like: ‘Taylor Swift would love this’, and her stylist would always say: ‘Make sure you do something in the new collection because the Grammies are coming up.’”
Collison remembers her first major collaboration with Dinnigan. “It was for Vogue’s January 1994 issue, which Baz Luhrmann art- directed,” she says. “Collette was asked to design a number of looks for Kylie Minogue to wear along with a story on Australian identities. It was a very exciting issue to be involved in, as we were all working closely with Baz and Catherine [Martin], and it was such a departure from our usual issues at that time.”
The exhibition will also touch on Dinnigan’s lingerie collection, which, along with her time in Paris, is associated with the fondest memories of her career. “The lingerie collection was just perfect timing,” she says. “There were a lot of androgynous designers and so when I came in with a very delicate, sheer, beautiful, lingerie collection with corsetry; with the very underwear-is-outerwear kind of look … I was at the forefront of doing those amazing little slip, pretty floral dresses. It was designed for women, by a woman,” she remembers. It came at the right time; fashion works as a pendulum and women were seeking something softer and more feminine after the prevalence of grunge, then austere minimalism. It wasn’t a lucky accident, but based on instinct. “I felt like doing it at the time; it’s something that as a creative person you just have that innate sense to do.”
For Dinnigan, fashion career moments are marked by her personal milestones. Flicking through the selection of images taken for this story she stops at a dress, pointing out that she remembers when Max Doyle photographed it for Vogue. “Estella had her first day of school, so that would have been five years ago,” she says of her daughter, who turns 11 this August. Lately, she’s been visiting her country home in Milton more often with her husband Bradley Cocks, Estella, and her son, Hunter, almost three. A self-described green thumb, she has planted 3,000 trees on the property each year. “The internet is slow; we have a veggie garden and no phone reception,” she muses. She quietly avoids the internet when she can, only using it to search for interiors inspiration, and she isn’t a fan of emails. “If it’s important, just call me!”
At heart she is still, essentially, a designer. After having trouble shopping for a new outfit, she eventually sewed a dress herself from pieces of fabric and lace. “It’s so hard to go out and buy clothes that you really love and that fit you well, so I had to make something!” she reasoned. “It’s four pieces of lace, and I just put it on the floor and cut it out on the floor.” It’s how she first made her designs, cutting out the fabric and using her eye to guide her. Three people at an event she attended asked her for the dress, so she plans on sewing up two more from the leftover fabric to sell on her website. Aside from that, she still gets personal requests for clothing, too. She laughs and shakes her head. “I say to them: ‘Haven’t you heard?’”
Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced is on at the Powerhouse Museum from September 5, 2015 to August 28, 2016. For more information, go to www.powerhousemuseum.com.