Monday, March 5, 2007

Collette's tough love: ditching the princesses in the childrenswear department

Collette Dinnigan made her "triumphant" return today to the catwalks of Paris after a hiatus of two seasons. That's how the Australian media will no doubt report the show - as breathlessly as they have done since Dinnigan first started showing in Paris in the mid 1990s. That's not to say that the show wasn't good - it was.

But let's put things in perspective here. It wasn't Dries Van Noten or Hussein Chalayan or Martin Grant or Stella McCartney or YSL or Christian Dior or Jean Paul Gaultier yada yada yada. Not in terms of size and buzz.

It was a small-ish show attended by a large number of Australian media representatives, a couple of international media reps who have or have had links to Australia, with the most high-profile attendees, as far as I could see anyway, being Australian designer Marc Newson and his UK stylist girlfriend Charlotte Stockdale. The backstage media 'throng' afterwards could have been counted on one hand.

I was surprised to have even received an invitation to tell you the truth. I had still not received one by this morning. At the last minute, I received word that my invitation had gone astray.

Why would I be persona non grata at Dinnigan's show? Oh no reason - apart from an article that I wrote this time last year, after Dinnigan pulled out of her first Paris show season, citing the need to spend more time with her then 18 month-old daughter Estella.

I reported industry speculation that Dinnigan may have in fact been bumped by the Paris show organisers, the Chambre Syndicale - something which the Chambre Syndicale (eventually) denied. But which irritated the Dinnigan camp no end at the time, prompting a hilarious riposte that weekend by another Australian fashion journalist who dismissed me as a "frock writer". I did have to laugh. As did a friend of mine, who had a "frockwriter" T-shirt specially made.

As it turned out, sources from Sydney to London (and one of them a senior source in retail) seemed to feel at the time that because space is so tight on the Paris show schedule, Dinnigan might not be deemed to be pulling her weight in terms of publicity - publicity outside Australia, that is.

But she's back on schedule now so clearly, that doesn't seem to be the case. Certainly, it is a feather in a designer's cap to be invited by the Chambre Syndicale organisers to join the schedule. That doesn't axiomatically make a brand Balenciaga. Here are a few names with which you are no doubt unfamiliar, who also showed on-schedule this week: Lie Sang Bong, Dice Kayek, Moon Young Hee, John Ribbe and Wu Yong.

So I wander backstage beforehand to kill some time.

There's Dinnigan with Estella, a beautiful little two and a half year-old with long blonde hair, who is dressed in what Dinnigan informs me is a Dinnigan-issue fairy dress, complete with jewel-embellished tiara. I return 15 minutes later and bump into Richard Wilkins - Dinnigan's on-again, off-again partner, and father of Estella, who would appear to be very much on-again right now. Wilkins looks and sounds utterly exhausted, like he's just disembarked from a red eye flight.

"I've been at the Oscars - and took the long way home" says Wilkins. At another point, I spot him kissing and cuddling Estella on his lap. He looks like a devoted, affectionate Dad.

I pick up my seat finally - and notice that Dinnigan has given me a "b" row seat. Given that every other Australian media rep seems to be in the front row, I could be imagining things however it looks like a deliberate slight on Dinnigan's part. But hey, it's her show.

And no matter. I wait to see which way the seating is shaking close to start time and simply take one of the - numerous - gaps in the front row of the seating block that looks straight down the barrel of the runway. Obviously a few VIPs didn't turn up.

Although the front rows on both sides of the runway are full, there are a number of gaps in the second and third rows on either sides. As the show goes to start people who have hitherto been standing fill the gaps. All up in the end it's a full house.

The collection is called 'Equinox Girl' and the show is confident - even if most of the models are not.

Yes of course there's at least one of Dinnigan's trademark lace cocktail dresses - micro-length, in bronze metallic lace with a black 'harness' inset panel - but also some beautiful coats and jackets, one in ivory wool with scalloped hemline, a striking black Duchesse satin evening jacket with exaggerated puffed sleeves and a 'tough' black leather cropped jacket with short sleeves and trench coat-like flap. There are also some great, 30s-look, highwaisted woollen flared trousers and cropped leggings with ribbon ties down the outside legs in both black velvet and grey wool.

The best dresses are not in fact in the trademark lace at all: one is a cafe-coloured knit dress and another a jade green off-the-shoulder babydoll. To my mind the strongest piece in the entire collection is a sheer black, highnecked blouse with sleeves made entirely of what look like maribou feathers. It reeks of old-worlde Parisian glamour.

I'm sure Dinnigan would value the opinion of international frockwriters Suzy Menkes (The International Herald Tribune), Cathy Horyn (The New York Times), Sarah Mower ( etc.... over that of any Australian journalist, but I'm not sure that I saw any of these in attendance today so here goes in the interim for what it's worth.

Collette Dinnigan is a talented designer who became the first Australian invited to show on the Paris show schedule. She quickly carved out a successful niche for pretty embellished cocktail dresses and eveningwear.

But if some lament that her style has failed to 'move on' and therefore lacks the ability to generate show buzz - the kind of buzz that comes from independent editorial reviews, as opposed to that generated by publicists - then perhaps that's because there is an element of truth to it.

I recall one show that Dinnigan did during Fashion Week in Sydney in 1997. With extraordinary styling and art direction, it was the highlight of the event. That was 10 years ago. By soliciting - and listening to - expert advice, and with the appropriate infrastructure, there is ostensibly nothing to stop Collette Dinnigan from one day becoming as big a brand as Alberta Ferretti. This new collection - and attitude - is a small step in the right direction. Let's hope she builds on it.

I had a quick chat with Dinnigan after the show:

So why Paris? You obviously spent some time in US showrooms in the past twelve months, why is Paris so important to your brand?
Well we were invited, you know 'Please come', and from a commercial point of view it was a very good decision to go to New York but I think for us now, Paris is really emotionally like my city and my place.

It's very creative. I know it very well. It's perhaps not as efficient as New York in producing a show but I really think that what designers put down the runway is truly from their heart and from a creative spirit. In America it's very driven, much more by commercial reality.

That's where the celebrities are.
Yeah it is and I'm sure we would have a lot of great front row people there but it feels right to be here and I don't know exactly what that is and what the formulae is but I think I've made the right decision.

You took some time off to spend with your daughter - do you think it's tougher for a female designer in this respect? Obviously taking the year off led to some speculation that there might have been other reasons why you weren't showing.
You know my priorities have changed but that doesn't mean my work has taken a back row. But it's difficult. You can't be 24/7 working and when you don't have a family your work is very much part of your life. Your life does change.

Male designers obviously don't have to deal with this issue.
No exactly - even ones that have children, they have somebody at home to always look after them.

What do you think having your daughter has contributed to your design philosophy?
Well my childrenswear collection is my favourite, I love that.

In your adult collection I mean. Coincidentally perhaps, this collection is a bit edgier than the stuff that you normally do.
But perhaps I'm playing more my fairyland with my childrenswear and not having to put so much of that in my collections so therefore it's almost like couture and ready-to-wear. So I have my fun girly play times with the Enfant collection and much more of my serious, creative drive...

You were just [in another interview] saying something about learning to leave things in the showroom. That is, not showing what you normally are expected to show. Could you elaborate?
It's like I'd continually do people's expectations and I think it's always good to challenge that. It's always like... the higher the benchmark or whatever the saying is. People need to come for a surprise, mystery, an element of change, the stream doesn't have to change direction but it needs to have a freshness. And I think that's important and that's why the show was condensed, it was smaller, and that was really also Karl [Plewka, stylist] said, 'No, do a small show, we're not showing for commercial reasons'. The collection, which is much larger, will be hanging in the stores but the essence of it just walked down the runway.

That is the challenge though isn't it for designers - when something is commercially successful and you become very well known for the beaded cocktail dress or the runway dress etc... It is a temptation to just kind of show your greatest hits, isn't it? That's what Giorgio Armani keeps doing.
No but he's a great advertiser and I think he also has a lot of kudos and he does a lot of other things very well. But I wouldn't survive. I have to reinvent the Collette sensibility I guess, something fresh, something new. And this season I really needed to be confident, strong, urban, full, volume, detail, leather... That's what felt right for me.

Did you feel energised, having had two seasons off?
No, because I still worked just as hard. In fact I worked harder, making sure that people didn't get the impression that I was having a holiday. And I still cannot believe people think I had a holiday - and my shops are still full of clothes.

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