Last year Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane all opened blockbuster fashion exhibitions within weeks of each other. Now, one year later, Sydney has joined the party. And this time the star attraction is an Australian: Collette Dinnigan.
Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced is the first major exhibition to be put on by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences’ centre for fashion. The museum saw Dinnigan as an ideal subject for a number of reasons. As the first Australian designer ever to be offered a place showing on schedule at Paris fashion week, her impact on the landscape of the Australian fashion is undeniable. On top of this, the Powerhouse already housed a significant portion of Dinnigan’s archives, thanks to a donation from her a few years ago. Finally, as Tuesday night’s Australian Story on ABC TV explored, Dinnigan chose to wrap up her ready-to-wear business in 2013. Rather than exploring the evolution of an extant fashion house, this means Unlaced can be a true retrospective.
The exhibition was created in collaboration between museum curators, Dinnigan and the set designer Anna Tregloan. Tregloan’s theatrical eye is clear as one winds through the seven distinct spaces Dinnigan’s work inhabits.
Arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, it gives the impression of a designer whose vision has remained consistent over her 25 years of practice. Her eye may have wandered from lingerie into ready-to-wear, bridal and children’s collections, but her taste for feminine silhouettes and detailed fabrics remained consistent. “[Collette] talks about stories and so do I, but my story is a historical story, while hers is fashion,” says the curator, Glynis Jones, of this choice.
“It took me a while to realise we were talking about two different sorts of stories.”
Dinnigan’s devotion to fine and intricate textiles makes her rare among Australian designers, especially when she first started, and the exhibition is at its best when it highlights this textural obsession. The pristine white of the bridal section flows into a darkened ‘x-ray’ room, where mannequins that glow from within wear little black lace dresses. Every paisley curl and petal is perfectly lit, and the edges of the room are lined with cardboard pattern pieces. “No one does cardboard patterns any more,” Dinnigan reflects. “But in the couture world you still do.”
The exhibition’s centrepiece is a 100-look ready to wear “runway show”, digitally displayed on tall panels of screens that stretch across the exhibit’s largest room. This video installation is impressive, but speaking to Dinnigan you get the sense of a woman whose life is grounded in analogue pleasures.
The lingerie that netted Dinnigan her first big break was entirely handmade. Even as her business grew, she continued to number every dress she created. “It would be one of five, or 10 or 20,” she tells Guardian Australia. It’s that sense of craftsmanship, of clothes that celebrate human effort, that Dinnigan hopes fashion students will take away from the show.
“This is not fast fashion,” Jones explains. “Even looking at 25 years of work, we didn’t see significant trends coming through … Collette designed clothes that were investments. That would be worn over and over again.”
Ultimately it was the uncompromising pace of the industry that drove Dinnigan to end her business. “I can plan my work around school holidays now. I can reschedule. For Paris fashion week that would never be the case.” Now she occupies her time with select collaborations, such as an archival capsule for Anthropologie on sale now, and a lingerie line with Target to be released later this month. Combing through her work for the exhibition made her “very emotional … like moving house and opening up old boxes of photos”, but she feels relieved about her choices.
One of the most labour-intensive aspects of assembling the exhibition was the “inspiration room”, a set of colour-coded mood boards pinned with fabric samples, old photographs, illustrations and hundreds of other scraps of ephemera from Dinnigan’s creative process.
“We wanted to give the public a place where they could discover things for themselves,” says Tregloan of this feature. “I was heavily involved in putting it all up, but I still find things in those boards.”
Dinnigan has always worked with mood boards, and would put them in the bin once the season was over. “It was only in the last 10 years that I started keeping them,” she says. “So we pulled out all the old boxes and started to reassemble them again. [I like that] there’s lots of detail, but en masse, it looks like the sunset in Morocco.”
I point out that seeing a physical mood board might seem quite rarefied for a modern fashion student, used to compiling inspirations through apps such as Pinterest. Dinnigan pauses for a moment.
“I suppose so … But it’s very soothing doing craft in this way. It’s slow, so it’s good.”