Daniel Lee and his Bottega Veneta are definitely in a good mood, and look forward to the the joyful re-emergence that might finally arrive this summer-slash-autumn. The pre-fall 2021 outing that (Instagram-less) brand calls “Wardrobe 02” is a bold line-up of essentials sprinkled with a few of the so-odd-it’s-good whimsies that will soon become collector’s items. Yes, the company will be selling the roller skates that Oumi Janta and Malick Bodian model in these pictures. It’s also a branding exercise, with a look book lineup that includes, in addition to the roller skaters, the musicians Skepta, Arca and Neneh Cherry; the dancer Roberto Bolle; artist Mark Leckey; and Central Saint Martins B.A. fashion course leader Sarah Gresty, a friend of Lee’s from his school days. “It’s people who we aspire to see in the clothes,” he told Vogue. “And there’s big diversity, from music, film, dance, theater, art, skateboarding.” As that roster suggests, and as previous Lee runways have told us, there’s nothing conservative about Bottega Veneta essentials. For Lee and his team, clothing is performance. That’s clear from a look that’s feathered in aqua blue plumes from its high neckline to its pants hem, from an intricately beaded knit BV-green evening dress, and from a giant leather belt that twists around the torso like a helix. But it also goes for straight-world-passing tailoring. The tweed suits are boardroom safe, but they’re definitely not boring. “They’re generic in a way. I like this idea of quite banal everyday clothes” Lee said. “But when you see the fabrics in real life there’s always more to [them]: the tweeds that stretch, the beautiful fabric development, the garments that are constructed without linings. There’s a lot of love and attention in the details, and that we really get off on, honestly.” What you can’t miss is the sense of fun Lee and company are having. His feathery party pants are a guaranteed good time and the clearest signal yet that post-pandemic fashion is going to roar indeed. “The world needs fun now. We want to be provoked,” Lee concluded.
Here it is: one of the most anticipated collections of the season, presented publically three months after the usual spring-summer schedule. Daniel Lee came up with the most challenging and intriguing line-up yet, proving that his Bottega Veneta isn’t just about hype accessories. Back in October, selected guests arrived at Sadler’s Wells in London and sat on the stage immersed in light and sound as models wearing Lee’s new collection snaked through the socially distanced chairs. Had the pandemic not prevented it, Lee would’ve liked to take the concept around the world. “It was a bit like going backwards and thinking about how fashion shows began. This idea of salon shows,” he explained. “It felt extremely intimate and much more personal.” Throughout the show, which rather felt like an improvised happening, Neneh Cherry’s musings on style and clothes were the soothing soundtrack. The collection is defined by its tactility. Much of it is knit, sometimes in quite thick-gauge yarns. The jacquards practically pulsate, and there are dresses made entirely from car seat beads or tiny shards of pearlescent shells. Lee studied knitwear at Central Saint Martins, so no wonder why he feels confident with this medium. Case in point is the stretch-knit skirt suit in Bottega green that opens this look book. With its buttoned-to-the-neck cropped jacket and its mini-length carwash hem skirt, it doesn’t so much speak to our shut-in moment as it does gleefully anticipate our reemergence. “I wanted to create a world and a universe that felt very glamorous and done up, but also quite stripped and quite pure,” Lee said. “I’m always interested in this idea, of how you can feel done up and elegant at the same time as feeling comfortable. That’s really my kind of mission for Bottega.” Lee saved his boldest experiments for silhouettes. Many of the dresses are built up at the hips with padding. On a raw linen sundress the padding is hidden inside, but on a series of knit dresses it’s exposed as surface decoration. He explained that they were looking at the Tudor period, Henry VIII specifically. It’s a demanding shape, which will definitely keep the clients surprised and amused. And yes, all this creativity emerged from the early months of the pandemic makes it more impressive. On that subject Lee said: “A lot of us moved to Milan for Bottega, and obviously with the world shut down, all we really have is each other at the studio and the work. It’s almost like a therapy. It gets you through the darkest times because you can completely lose yourself in making a beautiful fabric, a beautiful garment.” So, not everything is becoming virtual, after all.
From everything we’ve seen from Daniel Lee‘s Bottega Veneta, the resort 2021 collection is the most fun one. Was it the lockdown madness that let the designer take a more playful route? Lee has grasped that the world has changed dramatically and that the way we will want to dress has too. Hence the comfort and familiarity of that cotton and an emphasis on surprisingly homey knits, which represent an evolution of his thinking about all the stretch materials he used on his last runway. But there was no retreat into recuts or the safety of recent successes. “In the darkest moments creativity is so key,” Lee said. “It’s about making clothes you can’t find in other stores. Otherwise what’s the point?” Lee’s exploration of silhouette led him in a couple of different directions. His tailored jackets are sculptural in proportion with those full-legged pants, featuring nipped waists and a V-shaped construction in back that accentuates their shapeliness. Some of the garments look quite cumbersome, even if that exaggeration was intentional. But for all the emphasis on over-sized volumes, Lee also likes a lean, abbreviated look for women: say, a knitted top and matching fringed above-the-knee straight skirt, or a narrow minidress with one of the portrait necklines he’s made a signature. These leggy pieces have a straightforward sexiness, one that’s likely to be influential as designers and the women they dress search for the new post-crisis. But Lee undercuts the sexiness in these pictures with substantial lug-soled, lace-up boots whose vibe is cool and young. Another thing that won’t go unnoticed about this collection is its gorgeous, expressive, bold color palette, which seems to be taken straight out of Dario Argento’s Suspiria or an Almodóvar film. Lee matched a vibrant jade pair of his voluminous pants with a red tech mesh shirt, adding acid yellow pointy loafers and a chocolate brown bag for good measure. Then there’s the electric lilac hue of an A-line shearling coat, a color that reappears on a knit skirt suit and matching cardigan in what crafting circles would call the popcorn stitch, and the bubble gum pink of patent glove leather pumps with glittery acrylic heels. Fashion, at its most compelling, brings pleasure because it paints a vision of the future that looks fresh and new. If Lee’s playful printed dress in an intrecciato print of naked human bodies and the pouch bag in car seat cover wood beads the model carries with it become souvenirs of this strange lockdown season, it’s because they’re totems of a design team having fun. Who doesn’t want more of that in this moment?
With today’s breaking news of Raf Simons co-designing Prada with Miuccia Prada (!!!!!) since next season, Daniel Lee‘s Bottega Veneta might not have that much attention it had for a while in Milan this coming September. Still, Lee evidently tries to win with the mainstream hype that started to abruptly surround the brand he shook up, and tries risky things. Painful colour combinations that look so bad they’re actually good. Volume plays that aren’t the easiest to pull off. Accessories which are distant to regular “it” bags and “it” shoes (fringed octopus clutches, rubber boots in neons). I’m aware that the audience’s memory span is too small for noticing all the Phoebe Philo and Céline references (really, every single look reminded me of a specific collection – and especially Philo’s now iconic swan song line-up, which was also the last for Daniel), so no surprise the collection’s edginess is this electrifying. For autumn-winter 2020, Lee decided to examine softness – something he has missed in his debut last year. “When you look at the brand’s beginnings, everything it made was so soft. I find that super inspiring.” That thinking informed the ready-to-wear he put on the runway. But equally, so did the fact that at the age of 34, Lee is part of the street wear generation that’s wearing trainers, sweatshirts with prints and any piece of clothing that puts an emphasis on cool and comfort. He asked himself, “How do we put ourselves together in a considered, elegant way but still feel comfortable?”. His answer was simple: stretch. Even the refined men’s tailoring was built with stretch in it, he said, so it moves with the wearer. He also put big emphasis on both knit dressing and jersey, for both day and evening. Movement is his other obsession. He said he’s been spending a lot of time at La Scala watching dance performances; he likes all kinds, from ballet to modern. No wonder why those sequinned maxi-dresses and coats with floor-sweaping XXL-fringes look so amazingly vibrant and energetic once they are worn and presented in motion. Expect this collection to sell out within hours once the pieces arrive to the stores.