2014 / Sunday

Behind the Catwalk with Collette Dinnigan

Eleanor Glenn-Doyle

Collette Dinnigan

Collette Dinnigan

A crowd of nearly 198 women – and two men ­– gathered to listen to internationally renowned fashion critic and author Colin McDowell speak to designer Collette Dinnigan about her life, her style and her new book Obsessive Creative.

Ms Dinnigan is famously private about her life. Unbeknown to most she had an unusual childhood spent at sea: “I guess like most children you just take life as it is and that what your parents do is pretty acceptable.” She said she and her brother sailed on a yacht from South Africa with no technology, just a compass.

“Were you frightened at any time? Mountainous seas crashing around and you lost an animal?” Mr McDowell asked. Ms Dinnigan nodded, “My parrot, it got seasick.” She is adamant her bohemian childhood gave her an independence and self-reliance a lot of children do not have.

Her love of animals and the sea almost led Ms Dinnigan into a career as a marine scientist or vet – if only she enjoyed studying. But she also loved graphic design, and gave an amusing anecdote of accidentally ticking the fashion design box on her application instead of the graphic design. On her first day at design school she had to lean over and ask what class she was in. Her teachers told her she was not going to make it, and she was almost dismissed from the school. However, she thrived on that negativity; it pushed her to achieve. And, “Only two, maybe three people from my class are still in fashion,” she said.

Her drive kept her going through hard times and lack of local support with her early collection. “I took it to David Jones, and they said there is no way people will buy that lingerie, I took it to Barney’s [New York] and of course they loved it”.

She has always stayed true to her style, stuck to her signature delicate lace lines, and her attention to detail is famous. She said she does not take to heart what critics have to say – unless the critic sees the collection from the point Ms Dinnigan was trying to convey. However, she said she would often lose confidence when Paris Fashion Week approached and she saw what other designers have to work with: “I see what Miuccia Prada has and think I nearly did something like that but I couldn’t afford it”.

She shocked the room when she said that she loves designing her winter collections over her floral, feminine garments. She said there is always a story to her work, and her creative imagination roams free, citing evocative images such as “the gypsy night edge, darkness, structural, rock ’n’ roll, naughtiness, dishevelled,” much as you might find in a photograph of supermodel Helena Christenson and the late rock star Michael Hutchence getting out of the backseat of limousine: “the ‘we know what you got up to in there’ feel”.

Ms Dinnigan refuses to work with companies that are not ethical, and is very passionate about this issue. “I refuse to sell my clothes for that [cheap] price and I refuse to undercut people’s wages,” she said.

“The fashion industry has this kind of disposable clothes and everything for cheaper, cheaper, cheaper and it infuriates me that regardless of what your income is or what your position is, that we are wanting everything cheaper and on the other hand we’re trying to eradicate Third World poverty. Well if you buy something for $10 or $15 in a store you just do the maths and you know somebody got paid five cents to make it.”

The silk she uses comes from China, the lace from France and embroidery from India. She uses natural fibres and stresses the importance of sourcing her textiles from the right place, but said a lot of these places are closing due to the demand for inexpensive pieces.

Ms Dinnigan said she will no longer be designing for Paris Fashion Week, and said although it has been reported she has retired, she is still very much a fashion designer. At the moment she is scouring her atelier for 25 years of archives, compiling important items that will soon be given to a museum. Her ‘retirement’ announcement came the same time her book was released in October 2013.

“This is a disgrace!” exclaimed Colin McDowell, “Australia how have you let this happen?”