Collette Dinnigan took Australian fashion to the catwalks of Paris, and inspired a new generation of designers to follow dreams of their own design.
The designer becomes an Officer of the Order of Australia for her service to the fashion industry, her promotion of Australian wool, and as a role model for women.
“I really didn’t expect it. There are so many other people out there who are much more deserving than me designing a few frocks,” Dinnigan says.
She concedes that the fashion industry as a whole “employs a hell of a lot of people, empowers people creatively and employs a lot of women”.
While she doesn’t see herself as a role model, she more broadly feels a responsibility to the younger members of the industry “to give them the opportunity to empower them to make their own decisions and follow their dreams and be hopeful and passionate about their art and commercialise it as a business”.
South African-born, New Zealand-raised Dinnigan launched her label in Sydney in 1990 with a range of dry-clean-only lingerie. Arguably our first truly internationally recognised designer, and stocked in prestigious stores from New York to London, she was known for her sense of femininity, exquisite lace dresses and love of embellishment, beloved of celebrities and a loyal clientele alike.
She showed her first collection in Paris in 1995 in an off-schedule show at Angelina’s tea room which she has previously described as “kind of primitive but very authentic”. It was enough to get her noticed, and she started showing her collections on the Paris catwalks twice a year. She was the first Australian designer to do so, and be accepted by France’s governing fashion body, the Chambre Syndicale du Pret a Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode.
“Most people thought (showing in Paris) was impossible, (or) like taking coal to Newcastle, but it’s totally possible. I’ve been told a few people have been inspired by what I’ve done,’’ she says.
Dinnigan closed her main ready-to-wear business in 2013 to get away from the “unrelenting” schedules of the fashion industry and spend more time with her young family, and finished up the last of her clothing collaborations last year.
She is now concentrating on interiors and property development with husband Bradley Cocks, including their latest project, restoring a 400-year-old farmhouse in Puglia, Italy.
“That (interiors) space is not too dissimilar to fashion — it’s about colour, textiles — but it’s something you can do without being on a program like Paris Fashion Week, where you have no control over your scheduling,’’ Dinnigan says.
Other recipients in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in fashion are Adelaide designers Harry Watt and George Gross, and his sister Katalin Gross, of the label George Gross and Harry Who, who become Members of the Order for services to Australian fashion and their charity work.