It’s no wonder that Australia’s most celebrated designer Collette Dinnigan was looking forward to coming home. Her converted farmhouse in Milton, a few hours’ drive south of Sydney, is surrounded by exotic trees, with rainforest a stroll in one direction and a glorious beaches in the other.
“The house looks down on beautiful Australian rainforest and you can hear the kookaburras singing in the trees every morning,” the 51-year-old couture tells HELLO!.
For the past year Collette has been enjoying a sabbatical in Rome with her family, husband Bradley Cocks, a travel entrepreneur, her daughter Estella, 12, and her and Bradley’s four-year-old son Hunter.
“It was such a magical bonding time; a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Collette, who’s still unpacking the cache of mementos that she picked up on her travels around Italy’s artisan hotspots.
“I bought 60 square metres of 800-year-old tiles and some amazing white water urns that are 300 years old. But I’m not sure if they will work in australia. The light is different here and the vibe more contemporary.”
LA DOLCE VITA
The switch also allowed Collette to realise her dream of taking a career break and living in a country where she didn’t speak the language.
“Who doesn’t want to live in Italy for a year?” she asks. “We just wanted to do something different and not be groundhog-day parents with young children.
“I’m quite adventurous. I’m a can-do person and like to take a risk now and then. I like to put myself out on a limb.
“I was born in Africa. When we were children, my father built a yacht and we sailed around the world, so I have always had a sense of adventure.
“At time when we were planning the Italy trip, as well as trying to find a school for Estella, we just thought it was too hard,” she adds. “Then i would come to my senses and say, ‘Of course we have to do it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This time will never come again.'”
Estella, Collette’s daughter with TV presented Richard Wilkins, was initially resistant to the trip. “She wasn’t keen at all,” says the designer. “She’s had her dogs, horses and friends. She felt her life was being uprooted. But she has been amazing and taken on a lot more responsibilities than she would have done otherwise.
“These sorts of experiences are priceless. They give you enormous independence, freedom and maturity. It has also made us all incredibly close. Bradley and I wanted to make the family unit the core and be as complete as we could be as a family.”
Collette, who launched her label in 1990, became the first Australian invited to the show in the Paris fashion shows. For years, her designs were worn by some of the world’s most glamorous women, including the Duchess of Cambridge. So it came as a shock to the fashion world when, some three years ago, Collette closed the label to spend more time with her family.
“I had a nine-year-old daughter, a two-year-old son and two nannies,” she recalls. “I just thought, ‘Is this really how I want my life to be?’ I didn’t want to be someone who didn’t see her children. They were already growing up so quickly and I didn’t want to regret anything.
“I thought, ‘How much more money do you need?’ I was lucky. I had worked very hard and I was in a position where I could have those choices.”
So Collette developed another side of the business, which allowed her to indulge in her passion for interior as well as work to her own timetable.
“You can pace interiors in a way you can’t with fashion,” she explains. “You can’t change the fashion calendar but with an interiors project you can, ‘I can’t do it now but maybe in six months’ time.'”
To date, she has been involved with several projects, including the renovation of two luxury suits at Bannisters by the Sea, a hotel on the New South Wales South Coast that is an Australian outpost for celebrity chef Rick Stein. She’s also worked on apartments at the Golf House development in Sydney and Several residential schemes.
She has also put her name to a range of paints and wallpapers and has created a bedding line for Linen House.
“I’m not a trained interior designer and I’m not an architect but the reason fashion designers tend to make the switch to interiors quite successfully is that we have a good sense of proportion and a good eye for detail, colour and prints,” she says. “You have an instinct for where a flash of colour or light is needed. It’s all about form and shape, proportion, colour and print. The two disciplines are not that dissimilar.”
The couple chose Italy because they tied the knot atop the cliffs in Positano some five years ago.
“Italy was an obvious choice because we married there,” says Collette. “It was also because we love the food and didn’t speak the language, although my husband is pretty good now. If the children had been there another year, they would have been fluent.”
The family returned to Australia because Collette wanted to settle Estella into boarding school in the Southern Highlands. But the impact of their travels still lingers and she has already sold the family’s Sydney home – a former Masonic Temple in Watsons Bay.
“It feels too big for us now,” says Collette. “We lived together on one floor in Rome – and sometimes the four of us were together in one bed.”
Life will now be far simpler for the designer.
“It’s very tranquil here in Milton,” she says. “it was originally one of the oldest dairy farms in the area and our guest house, The Butter Shed, is where they used to milk the cows and make the butter.”
Collette’s head is still buzzing with ideas inspired by the Italy trip and her future is wide open to possibilities.
“The trip has given us a very special time together as a family and a real sense of freedom,” she says. “And it’s so nice to be in a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen.”