Let’s get this out of the way: Daniel Lee’s vision of Bottega Veneta is not going to take the place of Phoebe Philo’s Celine. There is an almost oppressive expectation (from the press, mostly) that he will remould the Italian stealth-wealth, leather-focused fashion house into his previous work place. But to stick to that line of hope and reasoning would be to miss out on the new life that could be.
And what new life the Brit has brought with his Fall/Winter 2019 collection – his runway debut for the brand most like to refer to endearingly as “Bottega”. In a nutshell, he has recontextualised its tropes and motifs to form a new and firmly contemporary vocabulary. Stylistically, his aesthetic is reminiscent of the de facto triumvirate of ’90s minimalism: Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela and Jil Sander. It’s there in the toughness of silhouettes created with dark leather, in the physical sensuality alluded to in clingy knitwear, in the razor-sharp way his designs cut through over five decades of muted chic.
He gave a whispering preview of this direction with his Pre-fall collection. There, the main ideas were essentialism and a working wardrobe, which – if one were to think about it – remains faithful to the house values of discretion, luxury and refinement in the face of vulgarity. The surprise came in how they materialised: from slightly off-beat camel coats and office-appropriate separates, to uncharacteristically casual tank tops, bermudas and jeans. Touch the plush, finely ribbed cashmere tank though, and one would be warmly reminded that Bottega is a house defined not by its price points, but by truly exceptional products.
With F/W ’19, Lee raises the curtains on his idiosyncratic, wryly subversive vision for the brand in full by capitalising on its pride and domain of expertise: leather. The intrecciato weave – for so long the house’s own version of a monogram and logo – has been reappropriated in numerous forms. Blown up to maxi proportions to lend an organic quality to otherwise pared-back coats and jackets. Rendered into cuddly padded quilting to make everything from wrap skirts to shoulder bags. Extrapolated into tiny shimmering square embellishments arranged into a neat grid on a nude sleeveless dress to evince the under-over nature of weaving. The imaginations here are plenty.
Francois-Henri Pinault – chief executive of the brand’s parent company Kering – has famously announced that Lee is not afraid of the house’s heritage. It might be more accurate to say that the cool 32-year-old is simply not afraid. For a long time now, “directional” hasn’t been a word that’s been applied to Bottega Veneta, which has – up till Lee’s arrival – stuck to a conservative playbook, dealing in quiet dignity and assuredness, and not standing out too much. Lee isn’t shirking those qualities, but if his start has demonstrated anything, it’s that he’s also giving certain shape – one that’s very clearly his own – to those values.