VIVE Magazine, Autumn 2002
When this interview is over, Collette Dinnigan will be hurrying home to pack: "When I get there, I'll be in a resort, by myself, for four whole days. I've never done anything like this before." You would think that Collette Dinnigan would have done pretty much everything by now. After all, she's attended Oscar night in LA with Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch; she's walked down the red carpet at Cannes with Moulin Rouge's Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin; she's hung out with Kylie and Nicole and Cate. But the idea of being able to get away is thrilling to the woman who is now Australia's most famous designer. This in spite of the fact that she regularly circumnavigates the world, calling in on her store customers in New York, her shop in London, her shows in Paris and her craftsman beaders in Bombay on the way. The new thrill comes from her belief that on this holiday, she will be able to switch off without fear that the business that bears her name will fall apart. A textbook Libran, who calls herself, "am absolute control freak," Dinnigan says she has changed herself too. As she explains, "A year ago, I realised that I couldn't have a holiday. If I did, if I took my finger off the pulse, things would go wrong. It wasn't anyone's fault. It was because things weren't written down and I was both the company head and its memory. But it was all getting too big for that. There's a lot of difference between 10 dresses, 100 dresses and 300 dresses. We had grown, but the way the business was run had not. It just had to change."
So her resolution, back in the beginning of 2001, was to make change happen. Looking back now, she admits that it has been exhausting. "There was so much stress," says Dinnigan as she reflects on the toughest time in her business and her personal life. "I can always juggle a lot of things, but it all became too much. There was just not enough [mental] space for design. There was not enough space for anything."
When the designer welcomed in the New Year, she was delighted to see the end of 2001. For last year, the former media darling, who once seemed could do no wrong, suddenly found herself in the papers as much for her divorce and a drink driving conviction as for her clothes. Plus, on the business side, there was growing tension. Behind the lilac weather-beaten front door belies the sleekness of the company's Surry Hills headquarters, analysts were opening attaché cases on the blond wood tables. Consultants were unrolling spreadsheets in the white-on-white rooms. Unease in the face of change was palpable among a tight-knit staff, many of whom had ridden the Collette Dinnigan roller coaster ride for years.
Company restructuring, which is never comfortable, was taking place. The person who instigated it now admits she was most fearful of all. "But I knew, deep down, I had to listen to the outside views."
The business had grown organically and fast, because its figurehead had always been resolutely gung-ho; had always said, "I can!" in response to anyone's "You can't!" Those close to Dinnigan all agree that among her greatest assets are an astonishing capacity for hard work, an unfailing self-confidence and a ceaseless forward motion. Yet suddenly the message she was hearing was that she had to stop still before she could go forward again. The experts she had invited in the door were saying, "Slow down."
"When someone tells me what to do, I already know what to do," says Dinnigan. So she had to reset her radar so that, "I would still trust my gut instinct but would also listen to their area of expertise." Not that she didn't argue back on some of the points. "When they talked about economies of scale, I told them it would never happen. Part of what we do is make evening gowns covered in Swarovski crystals. I don't think of price. I think the value for your dollar and I am not going to cut back on that."
The money men also told her that the design team had to get organised. The designer refused. "The chaos of this business, I couldn't get rid of. Initially I tried but I realised there could be no compromise. It's part of the charm. The design department is very passionate and emotional. They don't write every figure down and they are never going to do that. I have attention to detail when it comes to buttons and fabrics. But not necessarily when it comes to filing."
A compromise was reached. The designer, who has plenty of business acumen, but a shrinking reserve of time for it, recognised that she was wasting precious hours struggling with spreadsheets she found illogical. So she had an idea. Why couldn't they be reformatted to make sense to her, rather than her needing to be trained to make sense of them? As a result, "I now get what I need from them. I want to know what went into store, what sold, what didn't and who our competitors are."
Many fashion businesses, which glitter in the heady start-up years, falter after they enter their second decade. Dinnigan was determined not to follow suit. Those that survive the first decade hurdle usually do so because there is someone dedicated to watching the numbers. Yves Saint Laurent, for example, always had a steely business partner in his former lover, Pierre Bergé. Gucci genius and Saint Laurent ready-to-wear designer Tom Ford, was just another guy in the design room until he forged his talent with the business brains of Domenico de Sole. Dinnigan has not yet found her Bergé, her de Sole, but she has found useful friends, even if they are a phone call away across the world. "I've has a very few people who mentored me through this business," she says. "But recently I have met people I do respect." Their advice has proved invaluable.
For Dinnigan, the new dynamic has included downsizing as a prelude to growing larger. Staff numbers have held at 35. "Without a plan, you think, 'I'm so busy. This is a problem. This is too much. I need another staff member.' Now I have to learn that things are better with less people, [but] with people of quality." She explains that she has also learned some harsh lessons about the give and take of being the boss. "I have always wanted to give people career paths, but now I realise that it is not about just coming here to learn. The staff have to value-add to this business." What she means is less teaching, more expectations of results.
A huge change for her has been saying no. In the past, and in moments of exhaustion, Dinnigan longed to say yes to someone wanting to license her name. Latterly, several approaches have been rebuffed. Instead she has chosen to say yes to an expansion under another label which she has christened Wild Hearts.
The UK retail giant, Marks & Spencer, now sells girly, pretty bras that do not mention Collette Dinnigan's name at all, although those who seek out the affordable lingerie in David Jones on this side of the world will guess who designed it. In London, the smarter M&S customer knows she is getting Collette Dinnigan at a fraction of the price, but the majority are snapping up the pink and black Chantilly lace bras and the polka dot cami knickers simply because they are deliciously naughty but nice. As for Wild Hearts, Collette came up with the name on the run, or, to be precise airborne. "I knew I had to have it by the time I got to London. My first choice was Wild Cherry until, when I landed, I found out it's a porno sight!"
Wild Hearts has been helped off the starting blocks by one of Dinnigan's famous friends. Even though supermodel Helena Christensen has latterly been a full time mother to her son. Mingus, she was happy to rally to the cause. She and Dinnigan have known each other since the Danish beauty was the girlfriend of the late Michael Hutchence. Since then, Christensen has taken part in shoots and shows for Dinnigan and has been a fervent supporter of the designer's clothes.
"She trusts what I do and I knew she was ideal [as a model for the line]." Says Dinnigan. "She's had a child. She's not anorexic. She's seductive and feminine." As for campaign photographer, Ellen von Unwerth, "I phoned her and he said yes because she loves my clothes, she's shot them many times."
The shoot took place in Paris on September 10, 2001, just before the world changed. Dinnigan found out about the terrorist attacks on America as she headed to a deserted Charles de Gaulle airport to fly back to Sydney. In terms of business, her reaction was to batten down the hatches. "We cut back. We decided to show in Sydney, with just a small follow up in Paris. Instead of eight staff going to Europe, there were just three of us. We did everything we could on the cost side. We looked at our accounts and decided, let's give quality time to those who are most loyal to us. We upped our minimum order to US$15,000. We asked customers to pre-pay a deposit. We can't carry debt. We are not a bank."
One result was that some stock destined for America was never shipped, a dangerous position for a company that could have been swamped by season-sensitive inventory. But the strategy paid off. "We held stock back and we needed it," explains Dinnigan, for her rich, Australian, globetrotting core customers chose not to travel and to shop and home. "Rule number one: look after the home market," says the designer, whose objectives this year include a complete refurbishment of her Melbourne store.
She now admits that her gorgeous little London shop, located in the hip, but very out of the way, Chelsea Green has caused a few headaches. "I thought I was going to die when I opened it!" she jokes. "I instinctively thought it was the right thing to do. But after six months, well…streets like Bond Street do actually have people walking down them, while nobody walks past a shop in Chelsea Green."
Strangely, financial changes since September 11 have been positive for Dinnigan. "Suddenly no one was walking down Bond Street, but we're a destination store. Amazingly, business went up 30 per cent."
In past years, Dinnigan has always been restless in Australia, living so far away from much of her market. "Now, I think, 'Thank God I live here.' But the reality that I only spend five or six months her won't change. I'm not keen on taking so many flights, but I have to." To cope, she runs. "I'm really fit. That's one commitment I make to myself. I am a healthy person with a strong constitution and I run for me. I do love the excitement and inspiration of the places I go to. In any case, I believe that mental stress is what brings you down."
She describes her private life as, "calm". She adds: "I'm in a space I am enjoying. I used to fear that no man would take on a strong-willed woman. I've been surprised that some men are actually very attracted to that strength. Also, I have learned that there are no rules in emotional relationships, they take away the magic. I don't feel desperate. I don't feel gloomy. I'd like to have children one day, some day, but at the moment I have no plans to commit."
So will the near future see Collette Dinnigan sitting back and smelling the roses? Don't bank on it. "I want the Paris store to open by 2003 and I want LA…" she states. Then she stops herself and laughs. "This is good for me. Usually I'd be planning 1001 things and refurbishing a house!"