An Interview with Collette Dinnigan

Collette Dinnigan, photographer Holly Blake
Collette Dinnigan, photographer Holly Blake

Iconic fashion designer Collette Dinnigan has been creating beautiful clothing for more than 25 years. On the eve of our new exhibition, Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced, she spoke to MAAS curator Glynis Jones, about her background, inspiration and changes in the industry throughout her career.

Your early years growing up in South Africa seemed to be full of adventure. How do you think your upbringing shaped your principles and career?

What I remember most was always being in a family filled with love and laughter. My parents were both very creative and social, and we met many different and interesting people from all nationalities. My mother was very much against apartheid, so we often had visits from the local police reminding my parents of the laws, which were totally disregarded in our home. We spent a lot of time out in the bush and on my uncle’s game reserve. I can remember feeding orphaned giraffes, left behind by poachers, from large milk bottles. Our time in Mandini, Zululand, was mostly spent with Dad building our yacht in the front garden.

My parents and upbringing instilled in me the sense of adventure I still have today. They also taught me to be independent and, most importantly, to follow my heart and be kind to others.

What originally made you want to study fashion design and start your own label?

I have always been creative and I guess I never considered doing anything administrative, so from a very early age it was clear I had only two directions to follow: art or animals. I wanted to be a vet or marine biologist and being impatient I took the shortest degree! I think my own label happened as I was too stubborn to work for anyone; I didn’t agree with most fashion companies and how they copied international designers. So in a nutshell I went out on my own.

Sonny Vandevelde Collette Dinnigan
Collette prepares for a runway show, photographer Sonny Vandevelde

You have had the honour of being invited to show your collections on the official ready-to-wear schedule in Paris since 1995. Can you tell us about your first fashion show in Paris?

It was not at all contrived! I had no real expectations but of course I secretly dreamed all the world would take notice. The energy was like nothing else I had experienced and just the countdown to the show was like living in a bubble. The show was very successful and the response from the international press endorsed the brand, which I am sure helped us with being invited to be on the calendar. Godfrey Deeney from Women’s Wear Daily recently told me how he had wanted to write about the show but his editor-in-chief had said no, as I was unheard of and therefore of little interest; however, when he saw the images he approved the story.

Have there been any mentors who have been important to your business?

It has been a lonely road running the business on my own but, saying that, it has given me much freedom to make decisions instinctively and sometimes impulsively. Peter Weiss has been a great sounding board and become a very dear friend; although he has retired now, I respect his opinion greatly as he has had so many years in the industry.

Where do you look for inspiration and how do you approach designing a new collection?

Most of my inspiration comes from colour, art, flowers, landscapes and details from vintage clothes or antique bric-a-brac. Travelling has always been a great influence too. I sketch collections with fabrics in mind and develop inspiration boards alongside my draping, and this had been a large part of evolving shapes.

Collette Dinnigan by Sonny Vandevelde (2)
Collette prepares for a runway show, photographer Sonny Vandevelde

Describe your leadership role and how it has been important to the success of your brand.

I am a very positive person and don’t usually take no for an answer, as I like to find solutions rather than amplify problems. I provide a lot of autonomy too, so I only want team members who are willing to learn in such an environment.

What is the most important thing you have learnt from your years in the fashion industry?

It is forever changing, so there is no such thing as complacency. Listen to your customers. Each collection is like a new beginning; I design each collection to make it my very best.

What is the greatest risk you have taken in your career?

My first show in Paris was a huge financial investment. The show was on a shoestring budget, but I had a lot of help from friends.

What has been the most exciting project you have worked on?

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London held a Fashion in Motion series of live catwalk events, which was an amazing experience.

During your 25-year career, what innovations or changes in the fashion industry have had an impact on your work or opened up new possibilities for your label?

Online and social media have had a great impact. When I first started showing in Paris, all photographers had to be accredited and weren’t allowed to sell the images until magazines had published the photos. It made delivery into the stores exciting for customers – now it’s all so fast as shows are live streamed, and I feel some of the romance from retail has been lost.

What advice would you offer those starting in the Australian industry?

Be original, focus on good quality, well-designed products, and be passionate about what you are doing – it is a lot of hard all-consuming work so you need to be enjoying the hours you spend working, especially the early days. I believe Australia has a huge potential in the resort and swim market as it fits seasonally on the international calendar. I think it’s a missed opportunity.

What does the future hold for you?

My eyes will always be wide open and sparkle when there is an idea that inspires me, and no doubt a new project awaits me.

Collette Dinnigan by Sonny Vandevelde
Models wearing Collette Dinnigan outfits, photographer Sonny Vandevelde

Interview first published in MAAS Magazine, Winter 2015.

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5 responses to “An Interview with Collette Dinnigan

  • Yesterday I came up to Sydney from Canberra specifically to see Collette’s exhibition. I cannot find the words to describe just how much I enjoyed it. I loved looking carefully at each dress trying to soak in the brilliance of each and every piece. The journey through each space was so cleverly executed. I particularly adored Collette’s archival material, so inspirational to see so many beautiful and interesting things that Collette has collected and so creatively displayed. I was blown away when I turned a corner to even find her patterns showcased.
    I worked as a graphic designer in the publications and the exhibitions department of the National Gallery of Australia for 14 years. I can honestly say that I have never seen such a beautifully put together exhibition not to mention the most stunning fashion collection I have ever seen.

  • I’m so pleased to hear you enjoyed the Collette Dinnigan exhibition, I was privileged to work closely with Collette and Anna Tregloan, a stage and theatre designer, on realising this exhibition exploring Dinnigan’s career and aesthetic. It really made me appreciate her creativity and business acumen but also highlighted the considerable workload fashion designers like Dinnigan take on to maintain their place in a very competitive and complex industry.

  • I have not seen the exhibition but I am definitely looking forward to attending. I think that Collette Dinnigan’s success is not only because of her gorgeous designs but because her inner beauty shines through. She truly is an inspiration.
    Kind regards,
    Jan

    • I hope you enjoy the exhibition, you will certainly see the richness and diversity of Collette’s designs; from her delicate spider-web laces to a sequinned mermaid dress worn by Miranda Kerr and a dazzling beaded mini dress worn by Taylor Swift to the 38th American Music Awards in Los Angeles.

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