Poplars line the winding road out of Bowral in the Southern Highlands – their leaves a burnished, early autumn yellow. The road climbs and twists and turns.
Then, behind a drystone wall, a pair of woolly alpacas gambol in grass that’s knee-high and emerald green. A silvery mist rises from the valley, shrouding a picture-perfect 1880s weatherboard farmhouse.
This is the enchanting world of Collette Dinnigan AO, once the toast of Paris Fashion Week, now the creative heart of both an eclectic homewares business and a warm and welcoming home.
Gates swing open and up the farmyard drive bounds Bosco, a livewire, eight-month-old border collie, followed by affectionate, four-year-old beagle/spaniel Sooty, struggling on her little legs to keep up.
Louis, 14, a Swedish golden retriever, guards the porch. His ears twitch at the crunch of gravel and his mistress rounds the corner, tussle-haired and dressed in workout wear and wellies.
She leads the way to a kitchen warmed by an old, butter-yellow AGA stove. Fresh figs, lemons and cut flowers are arranged on benchtops in earthenware jars.
Collette’s very particular, beguiling aesthetic is everywhere here, some of it no doubt learned on her life’s passage but much also inherited from her parents, whose gypsy spirits were only equalled by their gift for creating a generous, nurturing home.
“I was born in Durban, in South Africa,” Collette begins, once the dogs are breakfasted and she is seated with an espresso at a long, heavy wooden table.
“My father was from Ireland, my mother born in South Africa. They had an eclectic group of friends from all over the world – Africa, India, Europe. But there was apartheid still in South Africa in those days, and that is ultimately why we left. It went against everything my parents believed in.”
Collette’s father, Des, was an accountant, technical engineer and a yachtsman who built his own boat in their backyard when they lived in Zululand. Collette’s husband, Bradley Cocks, describes him as “the last pirate”.
“When I was seven, we set out across the Indian Ocean to explore the world,” Collette remembers, but it wasn’t all unbridled adventure. “There were quite a lot of rules,” she admits, “living onboard a 20-metre yacht. It was close quarters, so we had to all get on, and you couldn’t be reckless. If you fell overboard, it would take too long to turn the yacht around and come back for you.
“I remember sailing through the Roaring Forties and through the tail of Cyclone Tracy as we travelled north along the Australian coast. That was terrifying. Our boat capsized, but we righted ourselves and came through.
“When we reached New Zealand, my mother said, ‘The children really have to go to school’. So we settled in Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island, and that’s where I first went to school at nine years old.”
New Zealand in the 1970s was a revelation, still very conservative socially and politically, and the Dinnigans had their work cut out fitting in.
Collette’s mother, Sheila, was, “creative and very beautiful. She planted rambling gardens, with roses amongst the vegetables, and she painted and drew. She was a fabric designer by trade, and a wonderful cook too. Her recipes came from all over the world – I think they reflected a little bit of the life and circle of friends we’d had in South Africa – but this was 1970s New Zealand. When I was in primary school, I just wanted her to learn to make chops and mashed potato so I’d fit in. I remember saying, ‘Mum, please don’t make sukiyaki tonight – I have a friend coming over’.”
Des was also a creative soul. He built their house from river stones.
“My brother, Seamus, and I would go down to the river to collect them,” Collette recalls. “He said it was slave labour, but I enjoyed it.” And it was a beautiful house, decorated with her mother’s love and flair and artistry.
After school, Collette enrolled in Fashion and Design at Wellington Polytechnic. She was precise and diligent and a skilled patternmaker, even then.
“Classic design, but with a twist,” she says. “Someone told me, years later, that – because I was this surfer girl from Tauranga, and didn’t have the crazy clothes and wild, coloured hair – the teachers thought I was the least likely in my year group to succeed in fashion.”
It didn’t take long for her to prove them wrong.
Longtime friend Nikki Andrews met Collette soon after she arrived in Sydney, freshly minted from the polytechnic, just 19 years old. She’d scored a job in the costume department at the ABC, but she was already working on her own designs.
“My first impression of Collette,” Nikki says, “was that she was quite free spirited and whimsical. She had this long, beautiful hair; she was all tied up in scarves; she was bohemian. She’s always been creative. That hasn’t really changed. Yet she’s also tremendously practical and organised and wanting to be in control of … of everything. Her sense of detail is extraordinary. That’s how she’s created her magic. She is unique.”
Collette made her design debut in 1990 with a range of elegant, feminine lingerie that looked as if it might have belonged to a 1930s screen goddess but also somehow felt new, innovative, contemporary.
“From the very first item she ever made,” says Nikki, “there was this unbelievably beautiful quality. There was something extra about it – it was a step beyond.”
Two years later, she opened her boutique in William Street, Paddington. There was a palpable sense that Collette was a designer to watch.
But there was heartbreak too. Just a year after the Paddington store opened, Collette’s mother died suddenly of a heart attack.
“I was in Australia at the time and she was in New Zealand,” Collette says. “It was such a shock. But if there was some sort of consolation it was that she had just been to Australia to stay with me. I was pleased that she got to see my little shop in Paddington before she died. She saw that I was on my way.”
In October 1995 Collette became the first Australian designer to mount a ready-to-wear parade in Paris, and hers was the first Australian fashion house to be recognised by Paris Fashion Week’s official organiser, the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode.
“Things grew really quickly for Collette,” says Nikki, who by then was working with her, promoting the label. “Celebrities fell in love with her brand and that helped promote it. There were so many amazing women [Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Princess Mary, the Duchess of Cambridge] who loved and felt great in her clothes. I don’t know how she did it … Creativity – I think it’s what keeps her going.”
WATCH: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge delivers a fashion award. Story continues after video.
Collette is not particularly comfortable as a public person.
“She’s shy,” Nikki says. “People don’t believe it but it’s true.”
“When the label took off, I survived all the attention by just putting my head down and working the way I always had,” she says. “I wasn’t interested in going to parties and meeting famous people. For me, it was about the work. And as expectations mounted, it was also about not letting my team down. I’m a loyal person too.”
Collette had been married in her 20s to Bernie Lynch from the ’80s pop duo the Eurogliders but it hadn’t lasted.
There had been other relationships, including one with TV personality Richard Wilkins, but when her daughter, Estella, was born in 2004, she was single.
“I was a single, working mother for the first three years of Estella’s life,” she says.
She found a faithful nanny who travelled with her, and Nikki, who became godmother, was never far away.
“And Estella was wonderful. She often travelled with me, and I hope she isn’t too scarred by those years. Of course, she’s 17 now and would probably say she is.”
Three years after Estella was born, Nikki introduced Collette to her future husband.
“My first impression was that he was very charming,” Collette says with a smile. “I’ve had a tendency to fall for charming men – sometimes to my detriment – but in this case, it worked in my favour.”
Bradley is tall, handsome, and yes, very charming. He grew up outside Toronto, in Canada, in a landscape dotted with farms, rivers and lakes. By the time they met, he’d moved to Australia for the surfing and was running a boutique travel company.
“I first met Collette at an event,” he begins. “We chatted for about an hour. Then, the following day, I got a call from Nikki, inviting me to a dinner at Collette’s house. I said, ‘I’ll accept on one condition.’ Nikki said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘That I sit next to Collette’.”
They were both busy people, they travelled a lot, Collette’s career was soaring.
“I don’t know how many collections she was doing by then,” says Nikki, “perhaps 12 every year.” But she and Bradley stayed in touch. In 2011, they eloped – Estella was their flower girl but they told no one else – and were married in Positano on the Italian Amalafi coast.
“Sixteen months later,” Collette says simply, “our son, Hunter, was born, and I made the decision to close the business. It wasn’t as difficult as you might think to leave the fashion world because, for me, it had always been about the work rather than the glamour, and I knew I’d find other ways to express myself. I wanted to have time for us together as a family. Family is the most important thing in my life. Family and friendship.”
Nikki suspects the decision might not have been that easy, but she knows it was the right one for her friend.
“Paris for her was incredible,” she explains, “and she loved that, but in the end it was a lot. I’m sure, for anyone, it would be hard to let go of that, but she was … burnt out is probably the wrong word because it would be hard to burn Collette out, but other things took priority. She had married, and her family was growing. Then Hunter came along. So, there was a big juggle and it was a big sacrifice. I take my hat off to her because it would have been hard for her to close that fashion business.
“A lot of thought and strategic planning went into how she would do that, which I think gave her peace of mind. And it would never completely end.”
The family moved to Italy. They bought an apartment in Rome and a glorious, old farmhouse surrounded by olive trees in Puglia in the south. Collette planted a vegetable garden, learnt to speak Italian, put down roots, and nurtured her growing family.
“All you really have in life is family,” says Bradley, “whether that’s blood or whether it’s people you allow into your tribe. All we really have in life is the close people who you can love and trust.
“My parents split up and my mum remarried when I was four, so I understood Estella and the dynamics of that. Estella is amazing. We did a lot together when she was young. I taught her to swim, to surf, to ride a bike. I understood the situation and I was respectful of it, and I think that’s why it worked. Every situation has its difficulties but I think we manage it all quite well as a family.”
They travelled back and forth to Australia, but Italy had started to feel like home when, in 2020, the pandemic broke over Europe and Italy enforced its strict lockdown.
“I did quite a bit of work, designing my range of ceramics and fabrics for tablecloths, and we grew our own food and cooked beautiful meals,” says Collette. But Estella had begun boarding school in Australia when the lockdown hit and being separated from her, in a situation that felt so very precarious, tugged daily at Collette’s heart.
“It was incredibly difficult,” she says, “being separated from Estella who was half a world away. And the fact that it was all out of my control. There was absolutely nothing I could do to bring us together.”
As soon as they could, they returned to Australia and settled in this rambling old farmhouse, not far from Estella’s school.
Collette began polishing its boards and raising its ceilings, filling it with keepsakes and old wares, planting a vegetable garden and cooking for family and friends.
“Her way of showing love to people,” Nikki says, “is by cooking. The heart of their home is the kitchen. Everything is made from scratch. She cooks and preps and spends a long time over it.
“She’s got way better since Hunter was born but before that there were times we’d go to dinner and wouldn’t eat until 11 because Collette was still rolling out the pasta. We were rolling out the door by then because we’d been drinking wine for hours. It was funny.”
Word of those dinners reached the producers of MasterChef, and last year Collette was invited to appear on a ‘Celebrity’ series of the show.
“I’d heard of the program but I’d never seen it,” she says frankly. “I don’t watch a lot of TV – at the time I didn’t own a TV. But I asked my family and Hunter, who was eight by then, said, ‘Go on, Mum. I like your cooking.’ So that’s what made up my mind.”
On MasterChef, Collete says, she learnt that “it’s lucky I didn’t become a mathematician or anything that needed a precise recall of facts and figures. I’m an intuitive cook.”
After MasterChef, Collette began working on a set of very different recipes with ingredients that included neroli, cedar, jasmine, cloves, nutmeg and Bois de Rose. She created a set of scented candles that evoke the aromas she loves most in Italy, from the lemon groves of Sicily to the pine and juniper forests of the north.
Collette’s candles are available exclusively through Myer.
Meanwhile, her ceramicware and her tablecloths are piling up on the dining room table at home and will soon be available through her own little homewares store in Mittagong, which will feel a little like dipping back into the intimacy of the William Street boutique where she started out all those years ago.
“She’s complex, loving, wonderful – and she’s got a certain sensibility, a certain aesthetic,” says Nikki.
“Nowadays she has a wider vision about where she can take that – in lifestyle, homewares, food – and I’d never say never to fashion. You can’t rule anything out with C.D. It’s just … watch this space.”
You can read this story and many others in the June issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now