Womenswear

HEIGHT OF FASHION

With a new book, Obsessive Creative, out this week, designer Collette Dinnigan proves the ongoing relevance of her namesake label. Here, an interview I did for Harper's Bazaar.

As the fashion world becomes ever more globalised – with fashion weeks popping up in Korea, Dubai and Tokyo – Sydney-based designer Collette Dinnigan insists on presenting her wares in Paris, where she has shown since joining the Chambre Syndicale in 1995. With this year’s Australian Fashion Week attracting considerable northern hemisphere buyers and media, and with Dinnigan recently having her second child, Hunter, is it still worth packing an entire collection into a suitcase and flying 24-hours across the world to show it? In this case, absolutely. Despite market changes and economic ebbs and flows, Dinnigan has managed to build a considerable brand – extending beyond her main line to diffusion lines, capsule collections, childrenswear, bridalwear, lingerie, swimwear and accessories – while maintaining an authentic, recognisable handwriting.

MITCHELL OAKLEY SMITH What is it that keeps you going back to Paris rather than showing locally?
COLLETTE DINNIGAN I think it’s the number one fashion capital of the world. You’ve got all the luxury houses – Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Hermes – there, which says it all, really. As a country they’re very proud of their luxury goods industry, and that’s important to me. There isn’t a very large luxury industry [in Australia]. And I don’t think after showing there for so many years that I could begin showing in London, for example. Paris is perfect for what I do; the city is poetic and emotionally romantic, which suits my clothes. New York is much more commercialised and street, where London is more eclectic.
MOS Do you think Australian fashion has evolved though?
CD I think it has a very good fashion industry in that mid-tier level, not luxury. R.M.Williams is great, for example, and a few swim and surf labels have created real brands. I think our strength is that there’s a great offering of designer stores, as opposed to, say, Paris. It’s either luxury or the other end there, and no in between. You don’t have the offering of the likes of Jac+Jack, Scanlan & Theodore… they may not be luxury, but they’re very high quality labels offering great products.
MOS And yet your label, whether because of its history or the way you have built the business, can be categorised as a luxury brand. What does luxury mean to you?
CD Personally, luxury for me is about time. Anything that uses time, like quality craftsmanship, is a luxury. And making things in the western world by hand is even more so. If I had more time to bake, that would be a luxury. In this day and age, doing things simply and authentically, not overcomplicating them in the design process, says luxury to me. And I don’t think you ever turn into luxury; it’s something you start out with in your mind. In any business, it’s important to have a signature that carries across everything you create that people can recognise. There should be a story every season, but it’s important for customers to understand the writing. You can see a Louis Vuitton bag, a Manolo Blahnik shoe, a Collette Dinnigan dress and know what they are without asking, because they have all the elements and an authenticity that’s visible.
MOS You’re known for your fabrics. I think, above all, that’s your signature.
CD Well they’re high quality fabrics. We only source lace from France, because that’s where the best laces come from. The look of it is beautiful, and beautiful quality fabrics hold up in terms of its texture, its weave, its longevity. People hold onto my dresses because the fabrics are so high quality that they last a lifetime.
MOS Is this the most important thing in fashion?
CD I think the most important thing for a designer is to understand your craft. Students coming through know about the marketing and press and business side, but when you can cut and drape a dress on the bias, it makes all the difference. It’s not just about the connections, about what actress wears the dress.
MOS All of this talk of brand building and fabric sourcing and showing overseas just outlines how demanding the fashion cycle is. How do you balance the demands of it with being a mother?
CD I don’t think there’s any proper answer. You have to be super organised and, in the end, everything is about timing. Sometimes you just have to say no. I’ve become very aware of what I’m capable of, and I don’t like letting people down so I have to be wary of taking on too much. When people say ‘It’ll only take five minutes’, it so often ends up being half a day. I find I’m being the Time Police a lot of the time.
MOS I imagine the hard part is that for so long Collette Dinnigan ‘the brand’ was your baby, and now you have little ones to take care of, too.
CD Without a doubt my family comes first. Every now and then I have to compromise, but I know everyone understands. I beat myself up more than they do. In the long run it’s important to spend time with your children and not have someone else bring them up, which can be hard when you’re tired and they know which buttons to push, which strings to pull. But the greatest things in life are sometimes the hardest.
Obsessive Creative, by Collette Dinnigan, is released by Penguin this week.