While Gucci, Prada and Versace have long reigned supreme over Milan Fashion Week, it’s the quieter Bottega Veneta — the Italian leather house founded in 1966 — that has everyone talking, ever since 33-year old English designer Daniel Lee joined the luxury brand as creative director in July 2018. He succeeded Tomas Maier, who stepped down from the position after 17 years in the role.
The brand, long praised for its understated, logoless luxury, caters to those wanting to dress wealthy but not stick it in your face à la Gucci or Louis Vuitton. And it’s what continues to set it apart at a time when fashion is dominated by maximalist brands and loud marketing.
Lee, a graduate of Central Saint Martins in London (a student of the late professor Louise Wilson), previously held roles at Balenciaga, Maison Margiela and most recently as director of ready-to-wear at Céline, working under Phoebe Philo before her departure in December 2017. The experience has equated to a deep understanding of designing for a wide, yet fashion-forward, clientele.
It also means he’s seen the fashion landscape transform more than once, ultimately into an even more business-driven industry where the head designer must have an in-depth understanding of the art of merchandising. In other words, embracing commerciality to appeal to a wider audience.
So while where quiet luxury once stood strong for a brand such as Bottega, under Lee’s direction, the term itself is being pushed to a point where simplicity still exists in the garment itself, but an added layer of perversity has been injected through a combination of experimental textures, silhouettes and detailing.
Luckily Bottega’s mother company Kering has always encouraged reinvention. Over the years its CEO and chairman François-Henri Pinault has championed the underdog, as seen with his appointments of Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga and Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent. All are impressive case studies of shifts in creative direction resulting in business booming.
Now two main collections and two pre-collections later Lee is creating a universe of his own, keeping minimalism at its core while introducing a harder edge to the brand. Similar to Gucci and Balenciaga, he’s opting for a strategy rooted in evolution over radical, seasonal revolution.
His latest Spring/Summer 2020 collection presented in Milan under a giant glass dome in a historical courtyard was therefore no different. Product items that have already become a massive hit among women, such as its widely sold out range of calf leather pouches and heels for women and its XXL totes featuring Bottega’s famously woven leather intrecciato, made a return. Bags are an important category for Bottega (currently making up 85 percent of the overall business).
This season also saw the return of chunky chains, innovatively woven knitwear and metallic evening dresses for women and oversized, structured jackets with handkerchief detailing paired with wool and leather basketball shorts, oversized double denim, woven loafers and everything leather for men (this time in lightweight, waterproof renditions).
“Every collection we’ve worked on feels like an evolution like we’ve done before,” says Lee, who is swarmed by press backstage. “It’s about process, working around the icons and building from there, and each season exploring it with new fabrication or technique. You always need to improve.”
And improvement there was. Where his debut collection felt overstyled and too scattered at times, this time around he proved why Bottega will have a big future under his leadership. There was a lot more ease to the collection, leaving fashion editors and journalists unanimously excited to shop next season.
“I’m quite black and white and I want to be bold,” says Lee. “I want to make a statement, otherwise what’s the point of making fashion if it doesn’t say anything. You’re either going to love it or hate it.”
And that’s where Bottega will be a success, Lee is building up a tribe for people who love it while putting craftsmanship, sophistication and especially desirability back on map at a time when many luxury brands are churning out mere merchandise, leaving consumers confused about what they’re actually paying all that money for.
Much like Bottega has become an instant hit with an early adopter crowd of women within its first season, it’s highly likely that by the time this collection hits stores early next year, it will be one of the most sought-after menswear brands around.