An ethereal display of lace at the Collette Dinnigan retrospective in Sydney
As if in a Space Age scenario, the eyes bore through the dainty lace dresses, then through a body as transparent as a glass of water and into infinity.
“It's supposed to be an X-ray, but the lights are especially made so that they can be dimmed and won’t heat up,” said Collette Dinnigan, Australia’s fashion queen of womanly lace re-worked for the modern era.
The designer, now 50, was referring to an installation at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, which covers — or maybe that should be “reveals” - 25 years of her fascination with the delicate fabric. In her hands, the material once seen as saucy becomes strong and purposeful, and the peek-a-boo associations are replaced by womanly glamour.
Suzy Menkes with Collette Dinnigan, at the designer’s retrospective in Sydney
“Collette Dinnigan: Unlaced” (which runs until 28th August 2016) can be summed up by one image: a long wall with a digital projection of a line of women walking the runway, to suggest strength and independence. In fact, the illusion of this walking-forward approach took two years for the museum to realise, as the models in their delicate dresses were photographed walking exercise treadmills.
A huge digital projection of a catwalk creates an atmosphere of feminine strength
Everything on show accentuates the positive, from dry-clean-only underwear — the start of the Collette Dinnigan brand in 1990 – to wedding gowns. The bridal dresses, glittering with Swarovski crystals, are shown with each piece encircled by a giant, symbolic ring. More than two decades later, the dresses suggest feminine strength.
With bridal, you just have to get the shape - a bit of fantasy and a bit of dishevelment,” says the designer, explaining that some of those lacy looks were created with hand-dyed crochet scattered with the crystals.
A form-fitting silhouette, this time embellished with Swarovski crystal
But Rose Hiscock, the Director of Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), wants visitors to understand the complexity of Dinnigan’s creative process from the mood boards, which show her inspiration through paper patterns hung around the room with the illuminated mannequins as well as real French lace.
A Collette Dinnigan mood board
The designer arrived at the Paris shows from Australia — definitely fashion's outback a quarter of a century ago - and used France's traditional skills with lace for her dynamic creations.
“I found lace samples in the markets and traced them back to their designers,” said Dinnigan. “The lace houses work like champagne houses. They can identify each other’s work as if it were this vintage and that vintage. They recognise each other’s machines. I would use them but re-create or change them.”
Collette Dinnigan would collect lace samples from Parisian markets and trace their makers
Glynis Jones, who co-curated the Powerhouse exhibition with the designer, wanted to tell in clothes and techniques the Collette Dinnigan story, well documented by her recent biography, a television profile and news reports. They have charted her decision to close her couture line to try some high/low experiments, such as creating an inexpensive children's line with Aldi, the bargain-basement supermarket giant.
The designer deplores what she calls “ignorant comments” about this decision, especially as she had been one of the pioneers of high/low lingerie with her branded collections for Marks & Spencer in the UK and Target in Australia back in 2002.
Dinnigan has stories to tell, like the time when Halle Berry went to the Academy Awards in a wisp of lingerie lace — and was besieged by press enquiring whether the movie star was wearing anything underneath. That whisper of a dress is on display, along with a sequin patterned dress worn by supermodel Helena Christensen.
The museum organised a Collette Dinnigan "in conversation" session with me, in which I learned a lot more: her love of nature and her support of green issues; her belief that her daughter will always be a horse-mad tomboy rather than a fashionista; and her conviction that people should try to follow important issues, whatever their careers.
Suzy Menkes in conversation with Collette Dinnigan
But talking with Dinnigan seemed rather like a piece of lace: apparently transparent, but not revealing too much.