Collette Dinnigan was born in Mandini, South Africa. She studied fashion and textiles in New Zealand before moving to Australia, where she established her eponymous fashion label in 1990. In 1995, Dinnigan became the first Australian-based designer to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode to show a ready-to-wear collection in Paris. Her many honours include Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced, a retrospective of twenty-five years of her work at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Sydney, which opened in 2015 for eighteen months. Dinnigan is now focussed on interior design projects and collaborations.
Collette Dinnigan was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.
Q. What really matters to you?
I’ve been very lucky to have lived a very interesting, nomadic life – I had it in my blood.
I was born in South Africa, but we left when I was about seven years old. My mother was a very creative, artistic person; she and my father were very anti-apartheid, and they most definitely didn’t want to bring up their children in that environment. There had been a lot of altercations with the law, so my father built a yacht in the middle of the bush and took it by truck to Durban. We sailed out from there on Boxing Day 1973. I remember a lot of people on the jetty saying goodbye to us, seeing my mother’s sister in tears and dad saying, ‘Great sailing weather!’ We set sail in forty-foot waves, it was almost cyclonic, but we felt comfortable knowing that dad said it was good sailing weather – we trusted him. I don’t think we saw land for six weeks; we had no radio communication, so my father navigated by sextant and compass.
Our first port of call was Albany, Australia. After sailing through South Australia, then Eden in New South Wales, we ended up in New Zealand. I moved back to Australia after graduation and started my own fashion business. I ended up in Paris and was accepted into the Chambre Syndicale. I was in the fashion business for thirty years, living in Australia, but constantly travelling to and from Europe.
But my family is a priority, so a couple of years ago I decided to change the infrastructure and direction of the business. I stopped doing shows, closed my retail stores, and now I just design. This was all very much because I had a ten-year-old daughter and a newborn son. I felt so blessed to have my son, Hunter, at the age of forty-eight, and I knew I had to give my children my best shot. Parenting, for me, is not about other people bringing up my children to have their values, it’s about my children having my values.
Everything is so fast in the world today; with so much technology and so many methods of communication, it matters that people still take the time to think and to be kind. The world is lacking kindness and empathy, which are very key values we need to remind people of. Because, at the end of the day, a thank-you note can mean a lot more than a cheque.
It’s very important to me that the companies I work with are ethically sound and strong, that they’re conscious of the environment, and that they empower women by giving them work that’s sustainable and not harmful. I find it incredibly frustrating to see a lot of high-street retailers selling T-shirts at two dollars each, because, when you do the maths and work backwards – after you deduct the cost of fabric, the cost of shipping, the cost of retail space and staff – you realise how little, if anything, the person in Bangladesh who made that shirt was ultimately paid. Why not pay double and empower a woman somewhere else so that she’s able to feed her family?
I endeavour to work with manufacturers who have maximum working weeks and minimum wages, who have nurseries for women with children and who have medical insurance – that their employees are working in safe buildings and have their fundamental rights respected. As more and more designers realise the importance of ethical factories, more and more unethical factories, wholesalers and manufacturers will be put out of business. And consumers need to support those businesses that are being run ethically. Yes, we may pay a little bit more for the product, but that’s how we take away poverty from third-world countries.
Q. What brings you happiness?
My happiness is nothing grand. It’s about living on the land and living a simple life; it’s the simple pleasures of being with family and friends. I like having more time to appreciate the good little things in life, so I want my life to slow down a bit, but not to the point where I’m watching things go by; fortunately, I’m still offered work and I have creative license when I do things.
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Loneliness. The lowest depth is those who feel they have nothing to live for: who feel as though there’s no one there for them, feel that no one hears their cries for help and feel there is no hope.
Q. What would you change if you could?
I believe it’s very difficult to make a difference in politics, so, if I could change anything in the world, it would be making sure that everyone has access to clean water and a basic supply of food and shelter.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with?
Yes. Most of my life, I’ve had dreams and have followed them, so ‘yes’ means, ‘Let’s try!’ – even if you fail, you will have learned something. Whereas, if you say ‘no,’ it’s an iron doorstop – it’s not progress.