Collette Dinnigan: For the love of fashion and family

After 24 years in business Collette Dinnigan took the bold move of restructuring her business so she could focus on the purely creative elements of being a designer and devote more time to her young family. One year on, she reflects on her decision.

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In October 2013, after 24 years in business, Collette Dinnigan took the bold move of restructuring her business so she could focus on the purely creative elements of being a designer and devote more time to her young family. One year on, she reflects on her decision.

For Collette Dinnigan, the decision to restructure her business was an instinctive one based on what she knew was right for her and her family. It came at a time when she was at the top of her game and felt empowered to determine her future career direction.

Dinnigan’s eponymously named fashion label employed 100 staff and enjoyed a loyal following of clients around the world, including modern day princesses and Hollywood celebrities. She hosted bi-annual shows in Paris while her clothes were stocked in 150 stores globally and in her own boutiques.

While the Australian fashion industry suffered in the wake of the global financial crisis, Dinnigan says this decision wasn’t financially-led. The business was reportedly projected to turn over $14 million in 2014. However, as many working mothers will understand, with two small children at home, she increasingly felt pulled in too many directions. A new strategy was needed.

Taking a good look at her business and where she was spending most of her time, she decided to close her retail stores in Sydney, Melbourne and London and cease production of the labour-intensive bridal and eveningwear that had made her world-famous. She kept her diffusion label collette by Collette Dinnigan, hosiery and children’s wear ranges, and continues to design prescription glasses for Specsavers. The shift also frees her up to explore other creative and business opportunities such as interior design and graphic design.

An authentic choice

Writing her memoir, Obsessive Creative, helped crystalise the decision to make a change as it made her realise how much family time she’d sacrificed to build her business.

At the time of the announcement her daughter was nine-years-old and her son was almost one. “Having one child was much more manageable than two,” Dinnigan says. “And what I’ve realised is that it’s not so much about the family missing out, it’s about having time for yourself. It’s so important to be able to understand we need to work on ourselves and have time for ourselves, and that’s why I had to step back – there was no ‘me time’ at all.”

For other business owners contemplating a similar move, Dinnigan suggests being authentic and having a true reason that sits behind it. “It was very difficult for me to make that decision and then to announce it because I didn’t know what people would say. I thought I’d just try and be honest about wanting more time with family and to work on creative projects,” she says. “It’s not that I’m not accessible; it’s a whole change of business direction. Most of my customers understood and I think when you’re honest about your reasons they know they can’t change that.”

For the past two decades, Dinnigan’s regularly worked eight or nine hours a day, six days a week. She considered appointing someone to manage or invest in the business but didn’t want to spend all her time focusing on doing so. “I was in a position where I could make the decision myself to change the structure of the business, so I did that instead.”

Making it work

The high-end clothes that she specialised in were very labour-intensive and she remained a hands-on designer, even designing many of the fabrics herself. With the exception of the beading and embroidery, which was outsourced to India, almost all her clothes were cut and made in-house in Sydney.

Each year she designed three main collections: three collette by Collette Dinnigan collections, two bridal collections and three lingerie collections. “We sold to 150 stores, had 10 of our own retail stores and a good online business,” she says. “But it wasn’t just about running the business – we had all those systems in place. It was about me being the creative with a strong signature style. There are many brands in the world that have good management but that don’t have the right creative designers in place. Fashion is a very complicated business because there are so many levels to it; there’s the design, the sales, the production, the delivery and the retail. It’s not just one model of business – you have to have all the pieces matching up and you’ve got to have a good design focus, as well as a business focus and understand the retail focus.”

Find your passion

Dinnigan’s suggestion to women thinking about running their own business is to start with something you’re passionate about. “It can’t simply be based on a good idea and hard work, because it becomes your life,” she says. “It’s all-consuming so it needs to feel easy as your job and you need to be incredibly organised and efficient while being aware that you can’t do everything. You may feel like you’re doing everything on the run but it has to be a kind of planned chaos as opposed to disorganised chaos or something will likely fall apart.”

Her range was always internationally renowned for its quality, something that stemmed from her belief that’s it’s not about the price but the value you get from something that’s finely crafted and made to last. “This country doesn’t invest enough in this industry at the grassroots level – it’s very much in the quick-to-market publicity sense of branding as opposed to the quality of the product.”

She believes that, while Australia has a good reputation in the international fashion industry, it’s important for new designers to deliver on time. “There’s always a new darling in fashion, so, you’ve got to make sure you deliver,” she says. “It’s up to our industry to support people and help make them realise it’s not all about being new and fabulous, and getting the press side of it, but about having production and costings and everything in place. This means if you do sell-out, and even if you don’t sell, you don’t frustrate retailers by leaving them with empty floor space.”

Refocusing

Changing the way she was doing business didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s taken the best part of the past year to shift the focus. She’s also been hard at work compiling a retrospective of her work to be held at the Powerhouse Museum in 2015.

Has she achieved the balance she was seeking? Dinnigan thinks she’ll be in a better position to answer this question early next year. “I’m still working five or six days a week re-organising and restructuring the business,” she says. “We’re moving into a different space, making it a creative business with graphics and design. It’s taken a year just to get to where we are now and to do everything properly and ethically takes time and costs money. So I’m still trying to find some time out. I’m passionate about my family but I’m also passionate about my work.”

Even after more than two decades in the industry, she still feels flattered when she spots one of her dresses on the red carpet. “I feel proud when royalty like Crown Princess Mary of Denmark or Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, choose to wear my clothes, given that they have the choice of any of the designers of the world,” she says.

Meanwhile, her clothes are already becoming collector’s pieces – Dinnigan suggests hanging on to them.

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Summer 2014). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.

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