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Force of Nature

Designer Collette Dinnigan swapped the hectic world of high fashion for a slower life focused on food, family and sustainable practices.

It’s a rain-splattered Friday when I first chat to designer Collette Dinnigan. The east coast of Australia is being pummelled by wild weather, causing fatal floods and catastrophic damage from Bega all the way up to Bundaberg. Rain pelts the pavement and lashes the trees outside my home in Sydney, sending branches crashing to the ground. Dinnigan is 120 kilometres away, calling from her home in Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands, but the conditions there are the same: rain, rain and yet more rain.

Dinnigan is better acquainted than most with the volatile, destructive power of nature, having lived on a yacht between the ages of 8 and 11. Her father was a technical engineer and a keen yachtsman (“the last pirate”, as Dinnigan’s husband affectionately dubbed him). He built his own vessel and conveyed Dinnigan, her younger brother, Seamus, and their mother from their home in South Africa on an epic voyage halfway around the world, battling storms and 40-foot waves. Once, Dinnigan even narrowly escaped being eaten by a great white shark – her father pulled her out of the water a moment before the shark’s jaws emerged from the deep. Despite the gruelling conditions, Dinnigan says life at sea was character-building. “It made us very independent and strong people, and it also put us into a place where we learned how to respect somebody in charge – my father – because sometimes you don’t get a second chance at sea,” she says. “If I wasn’t brought up in such a big world, perhaps I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start my own business.”

For two decades, Dinnigan was the reigning queen of Australian fashion – a trailblazer who built her success on unabashed femininity in the era of grunge. She was even commemorated on an “Australian Legends” stamp in 2005. But then in 2013 she announced she was giving it all up, citing family reasons behind her decision to close her eponymous label, bridal line and all retail stores. The previous year she’d given birth to her son, Hunter (now nine), whom she shares with husband, Bradley Cocks (they married in 2011). Hunter didn’t travel well on planes, making the requisite trips to Paris multiple times each year difficult. (Dinnigan didn’t have the same issue with her first child, Estella, now 17, her daughter with former partner Richard Wilkins.) Her decision to shut her business also dovetailed with her interest in sustainability. “I don’t think we keep on needing more and more clothes,” she said in a 2019 appearance on The Morning Show.

A period of rejuvenation and roaming followed. In 2015, the family embarked on a yearlong sojourn in Italy. One year soon turned into three. “Having the four of us together was great,” Dinnigan says. “Packing up and moving to Italy for a few years has definitely given the children a sense of adventure, but also the message that anything’s possible.” While in the southern region of Puglia, Dinnigan and Cocks spied a 500-year-old farmhouse for sale, purchased it and then spent nearly three years fixing it up. Ever restless, Dinnigan relished the opportunity to apply her creative vision to interiors.

“I always designed my shops, and I loved my homes,” she says. “As a fashion designer, I love textiles and colour and proportion, so it was an aesthetic that came naturally to me.” More interiors projects followed: styling penthouse suites at Bannisters Mollymook; a wallpaper range by Porter’s Paints; a collection of tableware handcrafted in Italy called Collette Dinnigan Ceramics; a linen collection available at Linen House; even a range of scented candles.

Unfortunately, the pandemic put the skids on Dinnigan’s idyllic European jaunt. Daughter Estella had moved back to Australia to attend boarding school, and the family couldn’t risk border closures and being separated for too long. Dinnigan, Cocks and Hunter returned to our shores on a more permanent basis in November 2020, choosing Bowral as their base. The location was a practical one: Estella’s school was nearby, but the region – with its grand estates (once the summer retreats of landed gentry) surrounded by rolling green hills – also offered a way of continuing the lifestyle they had cultivated in Italy: living off the land by growing produce, making olive oil and keeping bees for honey, composting and minimising waste. At their property in Bowral – a sprawling 19th-century estate they have lovingly restored – they can do all that, as well as keep alpacas and chickens, four of whom were rescued from a battery cage farm (“The first time they saw grass was at our house,” Dinnigan says). Another drawcard was the run-down, character-filled barn on the estate, offering Dinnigan another opportunity to work her magic. Over a painstaking 18-month renovation, the designer added recycled floorboards from Denmark and old Belgian marble for the bathroom floors. The Black Barn (as it has been named) features airy interiors and soft furnishings that reflect Dinnigan’s refined and romantic style. “It’s about patina – more and more layers, rather than trying to make something old new,” she says. “There’s a huge warmth to it and I think you can feel it when you walk into the room.” Black Barn Bowral joins Dinnigan and Cocks’ other luxury stays that focus on sustainability: solar energy, rainwater tanks and recycled building materials are used wherever possible. It has been a passion project for the couple (Cocks has a background in marketing, communications and luxury travel), with guests encouraged to live as they do for a weekend or longer, wandering the garden picking fruit and exploring the region’s cafes, boutiques and art galleries.

Dinnigan’s garden in Bowral is lush, her vegetable plot overflowing with salad leaves, rocket, zucchini, celeriac, artichoke, rhubarb, spinach, potato, onions and kale. “I love it when the sun’s shining. I love being in the garden,” she says. “Everything we have now is off-the-grid. We have solar, we have rainwater tanks, we do a lot of composting and mulching. We’re quite sustainable in that way, because we can almost live off the land and we plant seasonally and use seeds from previous crops. “We also use minimal plastic,” she continues. “It’s very typical, but we make our own filtered and sparkling water. We don’t use any products with phosphates. That’s a conscious decision, so that we don’t pollute lakes and cause algae and other things that take the oxygen from the water and suffocate the fish.”

“Everything we have now is off-the-grid: we have solar, we have rainwater tanks, we do a lot of composting and mulching. We’re quite sustainable in that way, because we can almost live off the land.”

Dinnigan has been interested in sustainability for decades, long before it became a buzzword in the fashion industry. The years she spent on a yacht with her family taught her the importance of minimising waste. “We were always on rations, so it was very much about using absolutely everything,” she says. “It was just the way it had to be – a necessity in order to spend long periods of time at sea.” The family bought supplies from local markets, used freshwater sparingly and cooked vegetables, rice and pasta in seawater.

As a fashion designer, Dinnigan ensured the factories she worked with incorporated sustainable practices as far back as the late ’90s, before there was any legislation, government incentives or consumer demand around sustainability. “We made a huge effort to make sure they didn’t put dyes back into the waterways or use chemicals and other things that were bad for nature. A lot of them used to use formaldehyde, so we made sure that none of the companies that did our dyeing worked with those chemicals. [This made the process] more expensive.”

Her advice to those wanting to pursue a more environmentally friendly lifestyle but aren’t blessed with a large garden like hers? “Find out where all the little organic markets are and how often they’re on. Rather than doing one shop a week and being wasteful, go two or three times. If you’ve got a balcony or a windowsill, try to grow your own herbs. Definitely support your local markets. When I was in Rome, I would say to the growers: ‘What do you do with the quince, or the cavolo nero?’ and they would give me two or three recipes – you can learn from them. I think you’re much more in tune with the produce if you know where it’s coming from.”

Dinnigan likes nothing better than to unwind from a long, hard day by hitting the pots and pans. Her mother was a talented cook who made her own pasta and preserves, and who could whip up something delicious in the yacht’s cramped galley. “I’ve always loved cooking. Even in Paris, my team would always know that I’d go to the markets. It was something that took the stress away for me, and I’d cook for them.” A pescatarian who tries to eat organically, Dinnigan says she often cooks three or four meals in the evenings: spaghetti bolognaise for Hunter (preparing it the proper way by roasting the tomatoes in the oven); another meal for Estella; and another for her husband. “I get whatever’s leftover,” she says. Australia got to see her in action on Celebrity MasterChef last year, when she impressed the judges with a “perfect” zucchini risotto using a chicken stock made from scratch. Dinnigan initially had no interest in appearing on the show, but after some reflection decided to push herself out of her comfort zone and give it a go.

The second time I speak to Collette Dinnigan, the downpour has ceased, leaving behind a preternatural calmness and a trail of destruction, with crater-sized potholes and fallen trees littering the streets not far from my home. As we talk over the phone, Dinnigan is doing the school pick-up and navigating a flood zone, explaining that she and her husband have been in crisis mode, frantically sandbagging their property in Bowral to protect it from rising waters, and tending to the alpacas, many of whom have hoof infections after standing in floodwater for hours. “She throws herself into everything,” says Bowral local Harriette Conway, who helped design part of her garden. “I am so impressed by how hard she works and how involved she is in her garden.”

Dinnigan’s tireless energy means she usually has several projects on the go: interior design commissions, designing childrenswear and her glasses range for Specsavers, writing children’s books (her latest, Louie and Snippy Save the Sea, is about reducing plastic in the ocean) – not to mention the maintenance of her and Cocks’ numerous properties. The designer is also overseeing a new build on their property further south in the coastal village of Rosedale, to replace the house that was destroyed in the January 2020 bushfires.

Dinnigan describes herself as “very private” and says she and her family “keep to themselves” on their property, yet she has made numerous close connections with Bowral locals, swapping produce and inviting them over for lunch or a chat in her kitchen over coffee. A perfect day for her involves cooking and sharing a meal with family and friends. “I think if you have time for conversation, you learn so much more. If everything’s just googled, you tend to not have the personality or the opinion behind it,” she says. “In a community, everybody has an opinion. You have more time to talk, and that’s what’s so important: to have a conversation. That’s why I love living in the country –there’s a lot to do and there are a lot of conversations to be had.”

Photography by Petrina Tinslay. Story by Christine Piper.

As seen in Winnings Design & Culinary Guide, Issue 05. Download Now.


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