Monday, July 6, 2009

Some mothers do 'ave 'em - fashion careers

Collette Dinnigan has been the subject of quite some online coverage of late - and it reveals rather a lot about her latterday role as a working mother. In the past month alone this has included two profiles on British Vogue's website and a Q&A on Fairfax’s Essential Baby, which describes itself as the largest online parenting community - and one of the largest women's communities – in Australia. On the subject of Estella, Dinnigan’s four year-old daughter with former partner Richard Wilkins, who Dinnigan is raising as a single mother, Essential Baby asks a number of probing questions. These include what Dinnigan plans to serve Estella for dinner that night (grilled salmon fillet with broccoli), where she feels she excels as a mother (“nurturing and embracing Estella’s individuality & creativity”) and in which areas Dinnigan feels that she is guilty of motherhood fail (“bedtime & discipline”).’s June 10 diary meanwhile, revealed that Dinnigan’s day starts at 6.30am and finishes 16 hours later.

In between - in addition to running a global fashion company - Dinnigan says she gets Estella up and ready for school, has breakfast with Estella, makes Estella’s lunch, drops Estella at school en route to the office – and returns home at 6.30pm to “relieve” a nanny, who has presumably picked Estella up from school. Dinnigan then prepares Estella for "bed and story time".

Dinnigan’s work day does not however finish at 6.30pm because she is at it again from 9.00pm, making calls to the UK and Europe in their office hours and also vetting emails and signing off on paperwork that needs to be done. As indeed would anyone who is running any kind of international business.

No, it’s not a timetable for the faint-hearted – or those who would prefer a 9-5 job working for someone else, a weekly pay cheque, including weekends, holidays, sick pay, superannuation – and now in Australia, paid maternity leave (from January 2011). All paid for by the employer who, of course, is obligated by law to pay all of this, irrespective of whether or not they have themselves actually been paid.

But it’s a path chosen by those who are prepared to work their guts out, often against extremely difficult odds and business pressures, currency fluctuations, bad timing, bad luck, bad weather, ripoff merchants - not to mention crappy show reviews - in the dream of building a business, a brand or a body of work.

Which is why I found myself doing a double-take after reading the following question from Essential Baby general manager – and apparently chief Australian Mommy Nazi - Melina Cruikshank:

“Have there been times when you’ve considered giving up your work to become a full time mum?”

Dinnigan may have also been taken aback by the question, because she skirts the issue with the following answer:
“I'm always exhausted at the end of designing a collection so often I don't know if I have it in me to do another. But I always find some inspiration somewhere to do it again”.

Of course, many female professionals have talked about the challenges involved in juggling careers with motherhood. In the fashion arena, many manage to combine both.

Perhaps there was no greater illustration of these challenges than when Phoebe Philo, the former creative director of French luxury brand Chloé, quit the high-profile brand in 2006 at the peak of her success, in order to focus on her family.

Three years later, Philo is back at work and has just unveiled her first collection for rival French luxury brand Céline.

Philo was of course merely an employee at Chloé, not the owner of the Chloé business. And you have to wonder if Chloé had been her own label, whether she would have made the same decision.

Stella McCartney on the other hand - who Philo succeeded at Chloé, when McCartney was lured over by Gucci Group to launch her eponymous label in 2001 - has had three children in quick succession, with no interruption to her design schedule.

There is something incredibly condescending about asking a successful businesswoman such as Dinnigan whether she would throw in her fashion business in order to concentrate on being a stay-at-home mum. Firstly, it implies that there is nothing serious, or important, about Dinnigan's business. At the very least, it directly employs a number of people, from Dinnigan's office staff to sales consultants in her three standalone boutiques in Australia and London.

Secondly, Dinnigan's savings notwithstanding, it implies there is someone waiting in the wings to support her when she is no longer bringing home the bacon - and presumably, a man.

And, moreover, as suggested by one fashion industry working mother whose opinion I just canvassed - who described the question as “insulting” - you just can't imagine the same question being asked of a man.

Coincidentally, on Essential Baby's masterlist of 20 ‘Mum In Profile’ interviews of working mothers, this question was only asked of the four business owners on the list: designers Dinnigan and Fiona Scanlan, beauty entrepreneur Natalie Bloom and Merino Kids founder and ceo Amie Nilsson (and author Kathy Lette).

The other interviewees were mostly television and radio presenters and entertainment figures (the tv/radio component of which would obviously be network employees).

While all those asked the question by Essential Baby reply firmly in the negative, Bloom and Scanlan do hint that they have entertained fleeting moments of giving it all away.

However when Scanlan says she has occasionally considered swapping her business for the stay-at-home mum option, she is referring to her four year-old childrenswear label BIG by Fiona Scanlan.

As distinct from Scanlan & Theodore, the fashion brand she co-founded with Gary Theodore in Melbourne in 1987 – and which Scanlan did abandon in 2002, in order to concentrate on her family and leave it to Theodore.

While BIG by Fiona Scanlan has been successful, Scanlan’s profile as a fashion designer has definitely waned since her departure from Scanlan & Theodore. Already well en route to becoming one of Australia’s most influential designer labels prior to her departure, the brand has since gone on to emerge as a powerful monobrand retailer.

In her March 4 Q&A with Essential Baby Scanlan implied that she launched a childrenswear label because of a non-compete clause with Theodore.

Talking about the pressures of raising a family while designing fulltime, Scanlan told Essential Baby:

“Scanlan & Theodore was started without children and then children came along. I always had the feeling that children remained second in that world. Nobody had children at work and there was an expectation that you were to be available whenever was required and that is very difficult to maintain long term – organised or not….Children don’t fit into boxes or time frames and so work really has to have some sort of malleability to it. I ended up feeling rushed, frayed and the feeling I wasn’t doing anything particularly well”.

On March 3 2008, the host of ABC Radio’s Talking Heads program, Peter Thompson, managed to get a lot more out of Dinnigan than Essential Baby.

Thompson talked to Dinnigan about the pressures of being at the top of her profession. Dinnigan replied that there is a cost - but that is not less time with Estella.

Dinnigan noted:

“There's definitely a price to pay. I think there's more loneliness”.

Of the business pressures in general Dinnigan told Thompson,

“There are days where I most definitely, definitely, can leave it behind”.

On motherhood and what ultimately drives – and creatively satisifies - her, Dinnigan noted:

“I was exceptionally driven, you know, up until having my daughter. My priorities have changed. And I sometimes think I've lost it but then having more time I can see ideas... I just can't leave it alone. Even to go on holiday to stay in a hotel, it's just not right. I can't help myself, I have to pull back and just relax and not worry about it, so then think "Will I do my own hotel?"


Stompface said...

Waitttt she used to be with Richard Wilkins?? I never knew that, that just seems super weird! I must live under a rock!


Rebecca said...

I love this article but I am left without an opinion which I wasn't expecting. Maybe Patty you truly are reporting in an unbiased way :)

Emma said...

great post - sensitive yet objective. this is a side of the industry that you don't usually hear about. good work!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Patty - fantastic post, and most revealing. Insulting, yes. F***ing insulting - most definitely. This makes me hopping mad.

Sure, there is the assumption that many women who are on the career path will fall off once they have a kid. Indeed, many do.

Sure, you feel like chucking it in every now and then because it all just gets too much.

And sure, to ask Dinnigan whether or not she sometimes feels like chucking it in was within the context of the interview . . . .

But it has still made me hopping mad. Because, whether we work in fashion or any other industry, the assumption is that we mothers are missing out on by working and raising a child. That implicitly there is something fundamental missing from us because we don't yearn to be with our children every second of every day. That, no matter how hard we work, no matter how successful our businesses are and no matter how much money we earn, that we must have a husband behind us feeding the kids and paying the bills so that us entrepreneurial mums can indulge our frivolities and play dress-ups!!

And to add injury to insult, I can't put my name to this post for fear of so much wrath from the mumzillas that it would bring my business to ruination.

Anonymous said...

Given Essential Baby is a website targeted at the parenting community, I think it is a fair question. It's a conundrum many working mothers grapple with and should be addressed through appropriate forums.

Had the question been posed by say the Financial Review, WWD or Time magazine then yes, it would be wildly inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it was an insulting question. It's something that every working mother wonders. it's up there with should I move to the country? should I take some time off? should I go back to uni?

Natalie Walton said...

Patty, this is a great post. It's such a personal issue yet when it comes to motherhood it seems everyone is more than happy to criticise and comment. It always amazes me that people would shy away from asking a woman directly how much she earns, weighs, etc, but they're not afraid to ask her why she doesn't want to stay at home with her child. It is far more complicated than that. And I agree with a previous commentator who said these questions just don't get asked of fathers. In fact, I don't recall any dad being asked that question.

Anonymous said...

I don't think its an insulting question at all. Most working mothers I know constantly grapple with the issue of giving up work, particularly if they have a large career. It comes back to the mother nurture issue and mother guilt. I assume Essential Baby is run by working mothers so its a valid question, probably a lot more valid that a man asking it.

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