Every time Collette Dinnigan took her bow on the runways in Paris, New York and around the world she thought her career was over.
“Every collection since the early ’90s was my last show. It was like a bad relationship and I’d be thinking, ‘I’m never going to have a boyfriend again’,” she says.
“The show would finish then I’d get a great idea, which was like a man walking into a room making my eyes light up, and I couldn’t help myself I’d be so attracted to it, so back I’d go again. I guess it was like when my friends fall for those naughty boyfriends and I’m like ‘Why do you do that?'”
Looking around the 100 garments set to be showcased in her Unlaced exhibition, including bridal, evening wear and romantic lingerie at the Powerhouse Museum, one can’t help but wonder, “Did any of your naughty boyfriends inspire any of these?”
“No, and if they did, I wouldn’t say. I wouldn’t give them the pleasure of it,” she laughs shaking her trademark lustrous blonde hair, which is no doubt full of secrets.
Dinnigan, one of Australia’s most successful creative exports, will be the first designer exhibited inside the Museum’s permanent Centre for Fashion, which will open up the Powerhouse’s archive of 30,000 garments to the public.
As well as installations, there will be a focus on education, something Powerhouse’s Museum of Art and Applied Sciences director Rose Hiscock feels is lacking in Australia.
“It will mark a creative manifestation of our Museum, with fashion and the museum world colliding to make that bridge between the industry and the public,” she says.
As if by fate, Dinnigan has been subconsciously preparing for Unlaced for two decades by archiving her work inside her Surry Hills showroom. The showcase has taken a team of curators and Dinnigan two years of intensive work behind the seams.
Work is something Dinnigan is not afraid of considering, before retiring her ready-to-wear patterns in 2013, she showed on schedule at Paris Fashion Week every six months since 1995.
That was after navigating the daunting world of international stockists in 1990 by landing her first ever orders for her dry-clean-only, silk and antique lace lingerie from New York’s Barneys and London’s Harvey Nichols during the height of fashion’s love affair with grunge.
“My first collection wasn’t well received here, it wasn’t practical, so I went to New York. There was a vendor day on and Barneys placed an order and I thought ‘Yes! See that Australia. They want me’.”
Her early grasp of the global fashion market was the key to her success, something contemporary Australian designers struggle with in this age of fast fashion.
While she was the darling of the sartorial scene with the likes of then Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld singing her praises, it was her red-carpet looks that catapulted her, rather uncomfortably, into the limelight.
Halle Berry wearing a lingerie inspired cocktail dress at the premiere of Die Another Day in 2002 was a turning point for Dinnigan Inc.
“I had just moved into a new place in Paddington and was wearing a tracksuit, buying toilet paper when I got a call from her stylist begging me to send the dress over,” she says.
From there Nicole Kidman, Princess Mary, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Naomi Watts and Angelina Jolie have all donned Dinnigan.
While her local cheer squad and good friends including Sarah Murdoch and Vogue Australia editor Edwina McCann would love Dinnigan to pick up her pin cushion again, they predict she will break through yet to be conquered creative landscapes.
“She could really do anything. Her aesthetic is so pure and she’s so focused, but having known Collette so closely for so many years I’ve always been conscious of how beautiful her interiors are,” McCann says.
“She’s been very successful personally in the property market because of it and it would be good to see her do more commercial work in that area, because she loves it.”