Press & Media
Oct 2019 Australian Financial Review
Collette Dinnigan swaps fashion for a villa in Italy’s latest hotspot
Since closing her clothing label in 2013, the Australian designer has focused on styling luxury homes – the latest, a 500-year-old farmhouse in Puglia that will soon be available to stay in.
Collette Dinnigan at Casa Olivetta in Ostuni, Puglia, just above Italy’s southern “heel”.
Ask an acclaimed fashion designer the impact of relocating her life from Sydney and the Southern Highlands of NSW to an 18th-century apartment in the heart of old Rome and the answer is not entirely unexpected: “My eye has changed in Italy,” muses Collette Dinnigan.
We’re sitting on Dinnigan’s rooftop terrace atop the “tall house” in Rome which she, husband Bradley Cocks and their young son Hunter now call home.
To the right is a view of the epic white marble Vittorio Emanuele II Monument (Romans call it “the wedding cake”); to the left, a bird’s eye view of the side of the Colosseum. Tangled bohemian laneways lie below, while the rooftop itself is an abundance of exotic plantings shaded by a lush bamboo canopy.
It really is rather hard to concentrate on our interview. “Not half bad, is it?” Dinnigan smiles, sipping on a rocket-fuel espresso (she likes her coffee strong).
Collette Dinnigan at Masseria Moroseta, one of her favourite Italian haunts near her villa in Ostuni, Puglia.
“Australia will always be home, of course,” she says, adding that for her, Australia is all about that white, bright light. “But just look at this lovely warm Roman light! In Rome, I’ve learnt to love the dark too.”
Rome, of course, is a city of churches. Each time Dinnigan steps into one of its many baroque edifices from the bright sun outside, she is enthralled by the way it’s initially so dark. Then the eyes adjust, and stretched out above are those incredible painted ceilings.
Over here, I get my best fix of brilliant, stark light at our place in Puglia.
— Collette Dinnigan
Before living in Italy, the baroque era was not an aesthetic she responded to. “Not that I now want to live in a dark room filled with gilt!” she qualifies hastily.
But it’s here that Dinnigan learnt to appreciate the magical interplay of light and dark – the effect created when you transition from bright to shadow. No wonder the Italians have a precise word for it: chiaroscuro.
But back to Dinnigan’s first love – blinding light. “Over here, I get my best fix of brilliant, stark light at our place in Puglia [southern Italy],” she says.
There, the sun dances on the pool of Casa Olivetta all day long and the villa’s bedrooms are painted white, with reclaimed, pale wooden floors and tiles brought down from Belgium. “I’ve always preferred Belgian to French taste because I don’t like overly decorated things,” says Dinnigan.
It’s a clue of what to expect from this rambling, centuries-old farmhouse, which will soon be available for private rental. Casa Olivetta sleeps up to nine people and is set on almost three hectares of olive grove in the Valle D’Itria, about eight minutes’ drive from Ostuni, “the white city” (città bianca) that sits atop the heel of Italy’s boot, near the Adriatic Sea.
The piazza in the “white city” of Ostuni.
“Ostuni is as white as a pearl,” says Dinnigan. “We fell for it instantly.”
The area produces high-quality olive oil and wine, and over the past decade has acquired the reputation of “the new Tuscany” in terms of foreigners moving into crumbling old homes for a sea change – although Puglia is far more rugged and wild than Tuscany.
Dinnigan’s gradual drift towards Italy didn’t surprise me. We originally met in 1996 at the first-ever Australian Fashion Week. When I moved to Sydney less than a year later, she immediately invited me to dinner at her home. It was a warm-hearted gesture that I greatly appreciated.
Dinnigan had won back her freedom in 2013, when she shuttered her fashion empire to spend more time with her young family.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed her courage. There’s not much Dinnigan won’t have a go at doing. She created a fashion empire from scratch in the early 1990s, and by 1995 had become the first Australian designer to launch and show a ready-to-wear collection in Paris. Her designs were stocked by Barneys New York and Harvey Nichols in London and Hong Kong.
So when she and Cocks announced they were going to relocate to Rome five years ago, no one was less surprised than me. Dinnigan had won back her freedom in 2013, when she shuttered her fashion empire to spend more time with her young family, and since then they have flitted back and forth between Italy and Australia with relative ease.
“After Hunter was born [in 2012], I realised my fashion life was too intense,” says Dinnigan. “He was three months old the first time I had to take him to Paris. As a baby, my daughter Estella was a good sleeper on flights; he’s always been the opposite. Estella would stick to her feed times; Hunter was just a feeding machine. She would sit there drawing; he was running around under all the dresses.”
Dinnigan, her husband Bradley Cocks and their son Hunter in Casa Olivetta’s garden.
Something had to give. Almost as an unintended segue away from the fashion world, Dinnigan flexed her latent interior-design muscle and developed an uncanny knack for flipping property, starting with a number of homes in Australia.
My move into interior design was organic. I’m a solutions person: it’s about finding solutions to make the proportions right.
— Collette Dinnigan
In 2016, she sold her Watson’s Bay home, an old Masonic Temple, for $9 million, having bought it for $6.25 million in early 2015. Dinnigan and Cocks then purchased Springfield Farm in the Southern Highlands, paying $4.5 million for the sprawling eight-hectare estate. They sold it in October last year for $7.25 million, then laid down $3.5 million for Alderley Edge, an 1880s home on two hectares near Bowral.
“My move into interior design was organic,” says Dinnigan. “I’m a solutions person: it’s about finding solutions to make the proportions right. I’d always done up my own houses, then my first professional commission was to design two coastal penthouses at Bannisters by the Sea in Mollymook.”
Cocks and Hunter poolside at Casa Olivetta.
To date, Dinnigan’s international interior design focus has been more of a private one – ensuring that wherever her family was living in Rome had her touch.
Over the years, they’ve rented properties all over the city to get a feel for it. At one point the family had a penthouse overlooking ancient ruins at Largo Argentina, where Julius Caesar was murdered, and for a time they lived close to the Spanish Steps, before they settled in the central city neighbourhood of Monti.
“Bradley and I first thought about living in Italy because we wanted a road to discover together,” says Dinnigan, adding that he speaks the language way more fluently than she does.
Cocks works across special projects in the management and marketing of luxury hotels, including what he terms “hotel rescue and babysitting” through his Goodtrip luxury hotel consultancy business, which he founded in 2014 (a recent project was the hotel castle Castello di Vicarello in Tuscany).
But while Cocks might be the family interpreter, Dinnigan quips “my food-shopping Italian tops his”.
Dinnigan shops at a fresh produce market in Ostuni.
Life for her in Rome, as you can imagine, is very much about the food. “I tend to entertain with early dinners on Sunday nights. You think Rome is all about eating late, but the people we know have busy weeks – they travel a lot or they have kids – so our terrace is perfect.”
As you might expect of a creative with an eye for colour, Dinnigan responds to the seasonality of the produce in Italy, and also the floral scents and shades. For months, Rome’s residents smell the orange blossom in the streets, then wake up to see the wisteria in bloom, followed by the jacarandas.
“Just the sight of jasmine crowning an ancient church door, or a cat sunning itself among the ruins makes me happy,” Dinnigan says. “I feel more relaxed in Rome. I spend a lot of time walking around, just ‘being’. I enjoy the actual living of our life here.”
Renovating and fitting out Casa Olivetta in Puglia has been a two-year labour of love.
Finally she’s got the time to get to know the local neighbourhood, from the family-run restaurants to the fishmonger and fruit sellers she passes as she walks seven-year-old Hunter to the bus that picks up children from all over Rome to drop them at a progressive school on the city’s leafy outskirts.
Meanwhile, Dinnigan’s 15-year-old daughter Estella (from a previous relationship) has chosen to stay in Australia at boarding school. She’s a keen horsewoman and “it’s a little hard to have horses in an apartment in the centre of Rome,” says Dinnigan, adding Estella loves Italy.
“We return to Australia to see Estella, and in the long holidays she flies here. We make sure we have nice mother-daughter time, such as heading north to learn about the food in Piedmont, which has a cuisine unlike the rest of Italy. It’s all about butter, truffles and making pasta with more eggs than you can imagine.”
While the tempo of life for Dinnigan may have slowed in Rome, the hectic urban pace that comes implicit with the “Capital of the World” (as Roman poet Lucan called it in the first century) remains.
Dinnigan in her kitchen at Casa Olivetta after a visit to Ostuni’s local markets.
Enter Puglia, which is all about heat and really slowing down. The small family responded immediately to the dry, southern coastal region on their first visit – it felt like how Dinnigan had always imagined Capri was in the 1950s. The area has the same lazy grottoes and crystal-clear water; seafood restaurants on the cliffs selling freshly caught grilled fish; warm balmy nights on which the town turns out to promenade.
“I fell in love with the sun-bleached white walls and the ‘cucina povera’ [food of the peasants] based on tomatoes, capers, broccoli, beans, olive oil, parsley, garlic – literally everything I adore on a plate,” she says.
The couple initially didn’t plan to buy a house there, and when they spotted the then-rundown Casa Olivetta for sale they didn’t buy it immediately. Dinnigan did her homework and looked at hundreds of rambling old local ruins before returning to where they had started.
Like Capri in the ’50s: Dinnigan and Cocks enjoy oysters at Il Principe del Mare Ristoro in Savelletri.
After purchasing Casa Olivetta in late 2016, they began the two-year process of renovating and fitting it out.
“We had to do everything,” says Dinnigan, although help was at hand in the form of fellow Australian Rob Potter-Sanders, owner of Masseria Trapanà, a 16th-century farmhouse further south near Lecce, which he had turned into an elegant eight-suite hotel. “Rob’s local knowledge and support has been incredible.”
Today, Casa Olivetta comprises one main building with a large rooftop area, a separate guest villa, two gazebos and an outdoor pizza oven. All buildings are in pale limestone brick, with traditional masseria (farmhouse) stone courtyards and reclaimed antico terracotta tiles for inside floors, finished with lime-washed white walls and contrasting timber.
“There are elements of Italian style that I still cannot get,” jokes Dinnigan. “Tiles painted in blue and yellow? No. I can’t do a diagonal tile on the floor unless it’s black and white Carrara marble, very graphic.
“I love symmetry. There are a lot of places that absolutely do not rely on that here and, while I like to see it, I’m not going to live with it.”
As for Dinnigan’s interpretation of the Puglia aesthetic, you’ll just have to visit.
At a glance
Casa Olivetta Set to open in April 2020, the villa sits on an olive-producing farm in Puglia with gated entry. It includes four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a large chef’s kitchen and indoor and shaded outdoor dining areas. There’s also a furnished rooftop lounging area and a large pool with day beds and a gazebo.
Casa Olivetta sits among the olive groves of Valle D’Itria.
Getting around Brindisi Airport to Ostuni is 40 kilometres; flight time from Rome to Brindisi is just over an hour. Bari Airport is roughly an hour’s drive from Casa Olivetta. It’s useful to hire a car in this region as getting around is tricky and private transfers are expensive.
Dinnigan’s insider guide to Puglia
At table Book a spot at Masseria Moroseta, a gorgeous old Pugliese farmhouse overlooking the Adriatic Sea near Ostuni. It also offers cooking classes.
Ceramics A visit to Grottaglie, a lovely little ceramics town about a 40 minute drive from Ostuni, is essential. I buy from Nicolo Fasano Ceramiches; ask for Franco and say I sent you. While you’re there, go to nearby Alfredo Ristorante on Via Santa Sofia and eat whatever they tell you
An organic repast at Masseria Moroseta, near Ostuni.
Cloth For sheets, linens and other soft home furnishings, I love family run Tessitura Calabrese near Lecce. You’ll find everything you need for bed, bath and table.
Eat & swim Heading further south, I love the seaside village of Tricase. Eat at Taverna del Porto, a tiny seafood place on Via Cristoforo Colombo, but make sure you book. At the very southern tip of Italy’s heel is Santa Maria di Leuca – take a boat trip and your swimmers, then eat seafood at Lo Scalo, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet.
Sleep There are now so many options in this part of the world, including the Coppola family’s divine film-set-like Palazzo Margherita and the gorgeous Masseria Trappanà, owned by Australian Rob Potter-Sanders. The famed Hotel Piccolo Mondo is old jet-set gem on Puglia’s southern tip that has just been reborn after a renovation. With an outdoor Cinema Paradiso-style movie house, access a private beach and snazzy 1960s-design details, it won’t disappoint.
Photography: Antoine Doyen