Three things with Collette Dinnigan: ‘I’ve got tape measures everywhere’

In 1995, Collette Dinnigan became the first ever Australian designer to launch a ready-to-wear collection at Paris fashion week. The two decades that followed saw her establish herself as one of the biggest names in Australian fashion for her romantic designs and use of delicate, detailed fabrics.

The designer wrapped up her ready-to-wear business in 2013, but still creates occasional special collections – like her ongoing eyewear collaboration with Specsavers, the latest of which will launch on Thursday.

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Though Australia may claim her as its own, Dinnigan was born in South Africa and went to high school in New Zealand. She studied fashion design in Wellington before moving to Sydney, where she got her start working in the ABC’s costume department.

The fashion trailblazer still keeps a memento from her early childhood, which she has carried with her across oceans and continents. Here, she tells us about the handmade doll she could never part with, and shares the stories of two other important belongings.

What I’d save from my house in a fire

I was born in South Africa and grew up in a place called Mandini. My mum spent a lot of time with one of the Zulu tribes there. She used to paint batiks and collect old twigs and things, which she’d make bed heads with. Before we left, one of the elders in the tribe made my mother a doll out of felt, with beautiful beads and a little cape, as a gift.

We left South Africa and lived on a yacht for many years, sailing around the world. Everywhere we went, the doll came with us. My mother has since passed away, and the doll now lives on top of my son Hunter’s dresser. In the wrong hands, this little doll probably means nothing. But to me, it’s very sentimental and emotional.

My most useful object

Ever since I started working in fashion, I’ve lived with a tape measure in my hand. Whether you’re measuring dresses, fabrics, conveying to people what length you want something to be, or translating between imperial and metric – everything must be measured! Even now, at home, I’m constantly measuring rooms, the heights of bed heads or the width of tables and chairs.

I’ve got tape measures everywhere. I keep one in the glovebox in the car, another in my handbag. I’ve even got a tiny little tape measure from a Christmas cracker. You’ve got to get the expensive crackers, because they’ve got better presents.

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The item I most regret losing

Before the iPhone, before the Blackberry, we had address books. When you left school, you got everyone’s contact details and put them in there. Usually, it was their family home phone numbers – which are the only ones that still work today!

I had a little black leather-bound address book that I’d had forever, right back from ’95. I travelled the world with it and would write the contact details of everyone I met. And then one day I lost it – it just killed me. I had never transferred its contents into my phone. I don’t know where I lost it. It’s like when you buy a beautiful piece of artwork and leave it in the overhead locker on the plane home – I hate that.