What Can Clothing Do: DANIEL LEE at BOTTEGA VENETA
In our last issue, DANIEL LEE told Thomas Jeppe: “I’m not someone who’s particularly digital – I’m not so much on Instagram or on the Internet. I much prefer real life exchange.” A few months later, Bottega Veneta cut all ties with social media, opting to replace social posts with a quarterly online magazine. ISSUE, the label’s new multimedia “journal,” dropped its first edition last week so we’re revisiting our interview with Lee from Issue #38 – alongside images by FERRY VAN DER NAT of megamodel ANNA EWERS in full look Bottega.
It’s an old story: a young designer joins a storied but stagnating luxury fashion house, tasked with bringing new energy while retaining the brand’s legacy (code for attracting young buyers while hanging on to the old ones). The ingenue enters the archive, reinterprets a classic technique, changes its context, blows up some proportions, or shrinks others. Each solution to the “heritage problem” is celebrated as new; accolades, and sometimes awards, ensue. But no one, ever, had won more than two British Fashion Awards in a night – until December 2019, when Daniel Lee, publicity-shy new design lead at Bottega Veneta, picked up four.
At the time of Lee’s unprecedented sweep at the BFAs, a frenzied media focused on the booming market demand for the newly revamped label, whose quarterly growth percentages picked up as Lee’s coveted leather accessories hit stores. But what has kept the attention of both consumers and insiders since his breathlessly received Autumn/Winter 2020 debut is the more nuanced vision Lee has been building for the Kering brand – and for his personal one. Bottega Veneta’s last IRL runway was a diaphanous portal featuring corrals of ancient archways soundtracked by live strings – a classical afﬁrmation punctuating a series of tech-driven campaigns. Soon after the show, as conﬁnements set in, time slowed down, making room for a cadenced unfolding of the cult and culture of Lee. A series of online “residency” projects picked up where the front row left off, expanding the universe of the “New Bottega” – a formulation celebrated by popular fan accounts on Instagram (@newbottega), and a counterpoint to the nostalgic “old” now often used to describe Lee’s previous employer: Céline, under Phoebe Philo. Next up in collaborative brand storytelling was Men (2020), an all-ages star-studded visual essay created by Tyrone Lebon for Spring/Summer 2021. As Bottega Veneta grows, Lee is settling into a public presence that he insists didn’t come naturally to him at ﬁrst. That former reticence was hard to imagine when we spoke in September, at the tail end of a summer spent in Italy – enforced local leisure for the director of a brand for the “world citizen.” Jovial and energetic, Lee’s Yorkshire accent transported us from the headquarters of one of Milan’s legendary fashion houses to the picturesque British countryside, in a discussion about the club as a free space of learning, hometown heroes, and how to provoke the luxury principle.
I. INDIVIDUALS IN CULTURE
Thomas Jeppe: In an industry geared toward the individual, how important is community to you?
Daniel Lee: I think a community builds around a brand or a vision in ways that are often unexpected – well, one would hope. That’s the ambition anyway. Community is hugely important to us at Bottega Veneta because we all want to be part of a tribe, and clothes are a physical statement of that.
I found that the Bottega Men ﬁlm makes something of an enigmatic proposition around the notion of a tribe. It brings together a group of people from very different scenes anchored around London’s music and nightlife.
They were mainly people who had inspired me in the process – people who had inspired the collection. A lot of those people were around when I was growing up, and when I ﬁrst moved to London, they were the people I was discovering and learning about, people who were really important in the birth of modern London culture. And it was kind of an eclectic mix, I guess. I wanted to give a meaning to the clothes, to the collection. We wanted to discuss the concept of masculinity, and speciﬁcally to put across the idea that it doesn’t really make sense anymore: it is what it is; everyone is an individual today.
There is this idea of a certain lineage to the city, from Dick Jewell to Tricky and Neneh Cherry, to Octavian, then maybe to young Roman, who is nine years old.
He’s so sweet. These were kind of portrait excerpts to give an idea of generation, of the next thing. And obviously it was very London-focused, because it was the moment where travel was completely stopped, and we were all in London. It was about being creative with what you have to hand.
I’d like to know more about the early key moments in your understanding of clothing.
I am from a very small town in the north of England, so fashion wasn’t a part of my life growing up. But for me, fashion is about how clothing can transform your identity, about the way wearing a certain something can change the way you feel. I ﬁrst experienced that in my early clubbing days, when I would dress to go out in a way that would make me feel free. And then, of course, coming to London to study at Saint Martins was an awakening.
II. IDENTITY IN MOVEMENT
There is an important synergy between the nightclub and fashion, in terms of expression and performing yourself. Can you tell me about your experiences of the club?
My formative clubbing experiences began way before I moved to London, back in Bradford and Leeds. It was an era of hard house and trance. It wasn’t that I particularly loved the music – it was more that the club was a core part of this liberating experience. I went to a very academic school, and at the weekend I’d go clubbing in a dodgy warehouse with a whole mix of different people. It felt so freeing to go from an environment that was very studious and serious into such a hedonistic space. When you’re ginger and gay, you’re not really ﬁtting in in Bradford, so when you’re in an environment where everyone else is a bit different, you start to accept yourself. There were the underage kids like us, and then there was someone’s grandma. I remember there was this woman, who was probably in her 60s, always dancing with a puppet. I loved that sense of the unpredictable. I loved spending time with people who really didn’t care what others thought of them. As a young child, you’re very aware of what people think of you, and then in your teenage years you start to realize there is power in being as individual as you can possibly be. I used to get the Megabus to go to Sankeys in Manchester. I’d go to Gatecrasher. I’d go to Speed Queen. And then when I moved to London, it was all about Turnmills, Fabric, and all of the clubs around Kings Cross. Nag Nag Nag at Tottenham Court Road – that was really fun. The End on a Monday for Trash, and the Egg for really early Sunday mornings – I remember going to bed and getting up at 5am to go there. It was a time of little responsibility and a lot of fun.
Did you draw a parallel between the club and a more academic idea of dance?
I was actually studying A-level dance when I started to go out to clubs, and the club really was about this idea of physical freedom. What attracts me to dance is that it’s such a pure art form. I think movement is something that transcends words, and it’s highly global – you don’t need to speak a certain language to appreciate it. All you need? It’s the body, with nothing else. There’s nowhere to hide, and it’s very instinctive, almost primal. And I ﬁnd it deﬁnitely expresses emotion in a way that words just fall short of.
I’m always curious to see how trained dancers behave in the club, where they can do something that there’s no space for anywhere else.
Yes, where else do you go to dance? It’s funny because I think in that moment when I started clubbing, people actually danced in clubs, whereas now they don’t. When I was going out, smartphones didn’t really exist, so people went to the clubs to have fun – everyone was really hedonistic and very free. Now when people are dancing around, it will be recorded, and people hold back a lot more. I think Berghain is a very unique exception, because that kind of place doesn’t really exist in the United Kingdom, at least not that I’ve seen in recent times. Interestingly, the illegal rave scene in the UK has made a comeback. The whole ﬁrst wave of rave culture in the 1990s came out of rebellion. Then it was almost like life got a little too easy, a little too gentle, and there almost wasn’t that need. But now it’s really exciting that people are starting to rebel a little bit again – the idea of collective release.
Did you see Jeremy Deller’s ﬁlm Everybody in the Place?
Yes, of course.
He talks about rave becoming signiﬁcant when it stopped being about subculture and started reaching the suburbs, where it could actually do something on a bigger scale and have an effect on people.
And that was really my experience of it. At the time, I was going to a very academic school, and I had this burning desire to get out of Bradford. For me, knowledge and education were like the ticket to that. You know, if you could be educated and informed, it led to university, which led to a career, which took you away from this suburban life.
On this notion of escape, I heard some gossip that you bought a white Porsche?
[laughs] It’s actually a company car. Maybe that’s worse!
It’s strange for me because it’s the ﬁrst car that I’ve ever driven that’s actually my car. My family thinks it’s hilarious. In a dream scenario, I would have a 1970s Porsche, but because it’s through the company it has to be new – it’s leased! But I like this idea of the fast car, the sports car. It’s just a fun thing to have.
It’s about fun for you?
Yeah, it’s about fun. I also love the design. You know the 911 model. It’s been around for so long, and it’s so beautiful. It looks so futuristic.
Even though it hasn’t really changed in 50 years.
No, it hasn’t changed much. It’s kind of like a frog.
Like a frog?
Yeah. [laughs] Right before I got this car, I spent a month in Tokyo. You know in Japan they have loads and loads of white Porsches. That was where the idea got planted in my mind. I never really considered white before, but they look so great. They love a Porsche in Japan.
III. LUXURY & PROVOCATION
How did the Bottega campaign with the gold Lamborghini come about?
We were looking at old car interiors during that season and someone in my team, Daisy, showed me Justin Bieber’s silver-wrapped car. So we started looking at wrapped cars and got quite excited by the various things you could do to the outside of your car, like make it purple or ﬂuorescent. Tyrone Lebon and I had also been speaking about the iconic Herb Ritts concrete shoot, and the next thing you know, we were in Los Angeles putting a car on a crane – it was Tyrone’s idea to just ﬂip the whole thing. We both like the idea of taking something quite played out and trying to give it a different life. When it came to shooting the Lamborghini and the yacht, we wanted to challenge those symbols of luxury and play around with how we could turn them on their heads, taking things that are quite easily misconstrued as distasteful and making them tasteful. It’s all about having a bit of fun and subverting our preconceived ideas of luxury.
Some of your key pieces and certain elements of your campaigns seem to carry this aspect of provocation, in terms of forms and materials, and in terms of settings and the body. Where is the limit for you?
I don’t think there are any limits when it comes to provoking luxury principles, as long as the ﬁnal product reﬂects quality. For example, even with the Bottega Veneta “Kraft” paper bag, the quality is beautiful. It’s not just any old paper bag. It’s a luxury product with impeccable craftsmanship. There’s deﬁnitely a sense of humor and a lightheartedness that I want to communicate, and for me things like the paper bag really do that. Fashion is about freedom, self-expression, and letting go. That level of provocation and possibility is what we try and achieve through the imagery, which isn’t massively product-driven – it’s about conveying an emotion. For us, the element of skin and nudity is very important too, and it’s something that now is almost frowned upon. I don’t like the idea that to be intellectual you have to dress like a pilgrim. Everybody wants to feel good, everyone wants to have sex, everyone wants to embrace life, so why not celebrate that with clothing?
IV. ART & ARCHITENSION
How does the built environment come into play for you?
I ﬁnd ancient architecture more inspiring and engaging than modern buildings. When it comes to my relationship with buildings, I ﬁnd it nourishing to be in a space that I can feel has been a place for so many stories and people, and for so much history.
Considering your Fall 2020 runway show, with screens showing a classical arch facade – it was like a surface treatment of the architectural form, without the permanence of architecture.
The setting of that show took on the idea of the archway, this formal geometry, but really it was about fashion transporting people to a different place. That’s why the structure was so temporary, and that’s why it was made through this idea of projection. I wanted people to feel almost taken to a different world, because I think that is the power of what fashion can do. I spent quite a bit of time in Rome recently, because we’ve been locked down in Italy, and what’s amazing in this period is that these incredible cities are completely empty. Usually at this moment they’d be completely crowded with busloads of people. A building that I love – though it has a lot of negative connotations – is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, just outside of Rome. It was the building that Mussolini made as the headquarters of his empire. In my design, I’m obsessed with geometry of form and purity of material – this process of elimination and stripping back to the essential. And I think that building really captures those things – it really is a masterpiece. You know they call it the “Square Colosseum;” for the Romans it’s this idea of the modernized historical. The fascist architecture was really very beautiful, even though it is associated with a very dark moment for the country.
Is British architecture signiﬁcant for you?
It’s something I always appreciate when I’ve been out of the country for a while and then I go back. There’s a kind of quaintness to British architecture. I’m thinking of the domestic thing – you know, countryside houses and mansions and churches, and everything kind of cutesy. It’s intimate and warm. It always feels quite welcoming when I think about that environment – that’s what immediately comes to my mind. In a way, it’s similar to how I feel about David Hockney’s work, which has a coziness and a warmth, even if there is an underlying sexual tension. I ﬁnd it very appealing.
A sexual tension?
There’s always sexual tension, to any kind of domestic setting.
There is a big Hockney interview in this issue.
It’s the Bradford issue! How funny.
When did you ﬁrst come across Hockney?
Growing up and being a kid in Bradford – it’s not exactly the center of culture. There were very few cultural centers. The Alhambra Theatre would be one; another would be Saltaire’s Salt Mills, a Victorian factory. There was a village built around the factory, and everybody that worked in the factory was housed in the village. The mill has now been converted into a Hockney museum, so the ﬁrst art that I ever saw was his. Going there with my grandma – we used to go out for our Saturday morning trip on the bus. That was really how I discovered Hockney, so it really links back to my childhood. It was the ﬁrst kind of art and culture that I was aware of. And since then, following his career and looking back, I love his relationship with Celia Birtwell, I love his relationship with his mum and with women in general. He has a kind of generosity of character. And the fact that he went from Bradford to Hollywood, and he has such a world-wide following – he’s a Bradford icon.
It’s very difﬁcult to think about his pictures without thinking about his person.
Exactly, and I think when you know the person so well, you can’t divorce the two – it’s one and the same. It’s just heartwarming. It’s very familiar, I guess. There’s such a warmth and a humor in the work. I ﬁnd it so joyous.
Which other artists have been important for you?
I love to discover new artists and I am grateful for the opportunity I now have to meet and work with incredible artistic talent. I think my personal appreciation of the arts is constantly evolving, and that is part of the excitement of seeing works like Amoako Boafa’s, which were a new discovery for me at Art Basel Miami Beach last year. His use of color inspired the last show. Of course, I’m still enjoying my favorites – say, Basquiat and Rodin. There’s so much movement in Rodin’s work. There’s a sensuality, movement, texture, and beauty to his sculpture. I have always been drawn to sculpture, particularly now in this phase of my life, because the three-dimensional aspect of the creative process has parallels with my own.
V. INSTINCT & TIME
Have your processes of inspiration changed this year?
Fashion, for me – it’s a conversation with the world. You take in everything around you, you process that, and you regurgitate it into whatever you choose. I don’t think a designer works in isolation in a room and reads a book, and then says, “Hey, presto, here’s a collection.” To me, it’s really about a conversation with the team, it’s about simulation and seeing and feeling a bit of the action and energy on the street. That’s something that I miss right now. I’m kind of starving for it, because I’m not someone who’s particularly digital – I’m not so much on Instagram or on the Internet. I much prefer real life exchange. I have depended heavily on the team for sources of inspiration recently, more than ever. The danger in a case like this is that you revert back to what you know. You have to try and challenge that.
What are you listening to in the atelier?
It totally depends. It could be BBC Radio 4, because I ﬁnd the English accent soothing. I play classical music – at the moment it’s Georges Bizet – and I go through phases. If I need to work quickly, when I’m putting together a show, I’ll play a Panorama Bar SoundCloud playlist, because it’s really fast and the rhythm keeps me going. We play the Bottega Residency mixes – fantastic eclectic mixes of new and nostalgic tracks, from Miles Davis to Rosalía. It’s a total mishmash of things we like. And if the techno is on, then you know it’s going to be a late one in the studio.
I read that you’re attracted to the idea of a seasonal deadline.
You know, it’s deﬁnitely something that’s quite attractive. I like boundaries, and I like a sense of discipline and of rules, because I think fashion really is design with a purpose and a function. So these rules and boundaries, they help to give you some kind of guidelines.
Self-expression works best under restriction.
It gives you something to start with. But then it becomes a question of how far you want to push those boundaries, or not.
Right now we’re really being tested with notions of restriction and self-expression.
How is your working rhythm now?
Honestly, it’s still crazy. The days are manic and there’s not a lot of time to think. So, many of my decisions are instinctive, which I think is a good thing. I try not to overthink things. I prefer to act immediately, making the best out of what’s at hand, rather than dwelling on a prolonged process. There’s no such thing as a normal day. It’s the vitality and unpredictability of each day that keep me inspired, and that’s the luxury of our work. Imagine: we have 270 stores worldwide that we have to ﬁll with merchandise, so everything is ultimately linked back to this idea of commerce and business. It is that kind of industry. I think there’s deﬁnitely more of a freedom about the presentation and the format we can choose to show the merchandise in, but ultimately, with a company of this size, we haven’t slowed down in any way this year.
I’m interested to hear about your experience working for Maison Margiela. Did your time there have an inﬂuence on your way of working?
He was very calm, generous, and humble, and his process was very methodical. That was my ﬁrst Paris experience – I was an intern, so I wasn’t his right-hand man. I organized the studio. But at the same time, I was lucky enough to be able to look in the archive, which was so impressive. Previous to that, I had interned and worked at different London fashion labels, and that was always more frenetic. It was a lot more of a frenzy in those companies; it was always crazy, last minute, chaotic. Whereas when I saw Margiela’s approach, it kind of opened me up to the idea that you can really work in any way you want to. That’s what was interesting about observing him working: it doesn’t have to be this sort of Central Saint Martins scrappy craziness. It can almost feel mathematical. Another thing I really appreciate is how he always shifted the focus to the work. Everybody remembers Margiela’s collections; everybody remembers the work he did. I think that was very smart, and I think that’s particularly poignant right now, when I consider the industry. I mean, with how many other designers do you actually remember the work before the person? I always wanted to be that kind of designer.
This contrasts with Hockney, where you can’t separate the work from the personality, but both aspects are mutually supportive. Margiela managed to remain anonymous, and still does.
It’s true. That kind of secrecy really helps – it enables him, in a way, to still be inﬂuenced by the street. Remember the collection where he was inspired by somebody on the metro on the way to work? In order to be able to do that, you have to remain anonymous.
How do you feel about this idea of anonymity? Is it something you have attempted to hold onto, to a degree?
I tried, but – it’s very difﬁcult today. I think I was very reluctant [to be a public face] in the beginning, but Instagram and social media have changed the world so much. What was possible in Margiela’s time I don’t think is possible anymore.
But then other possibilities open up. The Bottega Residency project took place on Instagram, yet it seemed to express a different sense of time, slowed down and in ﬂux. Somehow I was most struck by the cooking segments, especially this brioche recipe that goes on for three days. It becomes this quotidian baroque situation.
That’s always the challenge with social media, because for me, and for everyone, the real luxury is time. It’s thinking about how to enjoy this ﬁlm in this moment. And that’s something we’ve really tried to champion through this campaign and through the image-making of Bottega. It’s important to see promotion as part of the art of fashion, and it’s something we really enjoy doing every season. We don’t think about it as promoting the brand – it’s more about what will make the most beautiful picture. When the lockdown happened, we were obviously asking, “What do we do for people in this moment when fashion feels so superﬂuous?” But I ultimately felt that through those moments of being alone and at home – whether it was reading a book, watching a ﬁlm, cooking – creativity is what accompanied everyone. That idea deﬁnitely brought me pleasure.