Daniel Lee at Bottega Veneta, 2019's star of British fashion
Tom Cruise, Kylie Minogue and Rihanna joined industry titans from Giorgio Armani to Naomi Campbell at The Fashion Awards 2019 earlier this month, but the undisputed star of the night was Daniel Lee, a 33-year-old fashion designer from Bradford whose name is barely known outside of the industry.
As creative director of Bottega Veneta, Lee swept the board with a record-breaking four accolades. Nominated in four categories, Lee won all of them – including the night’s top award of Designer of the Year, in which he triumphed over Miuccia Prada, Kim Jones of Dior Menswear and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele.
The four gongs at the Royal Albert Hall added up to an official coronation for Lee, catapulted overnight from being the style insider’s favourite name to drop to being a power player.
Bottega Veneta, a venerable Italian leather goods label whose signature basketweave leather bags have been a no-logo status symbol for more than half a century, is enjoying a bounce with the arrival of Lee, who was appointed in June 2018.
Lee’s first handbag design for ‘Bottega’ – the abbreviation by which it was always known on the front row – was the Pouch, a clutch bag of buttery leather shaped like a giant dough ball, available in camel, black, claret or off-white ‘mist’. With a retail price of £1,990, the Pouch was a huge hit, recently named the most wanted product of 2019. The fashion search engine Lyst reported more than 10,000 searches in one month from online shoppers. The softly padded Stretch sandal (£620) featuring the house’s trademark intrecciato weave on a blown-up scale was the most wanted shoe of the year, with a 471% spike in searches in the month of July alone.
On Instagram, the ultimate barometer of fashion’s feverish and ever-changing passions, Bottega is everywhere. Tina Leung, an influencer with 288,000 followers, recently posted a photo of herself in a yolk-yellow skirt in Bottega’s distinctive quilted leather style. The fan site @newbottega, which posts images of Lee’s designs and imagery, has gained 152,000 followers.
The roots of Lee’s cult status lie in his backstory. Before arriving at Bottega Veneta he was right hand man to Phoebe Philo, as director of womenswear at Celine during six years of the decade when the label was a byword for grown-up modern elegance.
When Lee jumped ship to Bottega Veneta shortly after Celine had been given an unrecognisable new look by Philo’s successor, Hedi Slimane, many in fashion hoped that the old Celine look – clothes for the woman who wants to stand out at the art fair – would reappear, with a Bottega Veneta label.
Lee’s killer instinct for spotting the look the fashion industry would want next was evident in his first solo showcase, a Bottega Veneta advertising campaign launched in January 2019. Shot by Tyrone Lebon on the Italian island of Ischia, the images featured models in bermuda style shorts, black evening tailoring, and oversized gold curb chains – all styles which went on to become fashion catnip in 2019. His debut show, held in Milan a month later, was the hot ticket of the season. Lee told editors that he wanted to honour the “quiet craft” of the Italian house, but to bring an “injection of modernity…turning up the volume”.
When the show began, those who hoped for a wholesale cut-and-paste of his work at Celine were disappointed. The collection was more radical than expected, and garnered mixed reviews. Lee – who has said of fashion’s unknowable algorithms that “what will work is the thing that isn’t already there” sent out black leather and low-cut necklines in a show that fused the aesthetic of The Matrix with the label’s stealth-wealth heritage. Bottega Veneta was glossy where his Celine had been matt, eroticised where Celine had remained opaque, hedonistic where Celine had been serene. Heavy workwear boots and chain-embellished coats added a punk flavour to the first collection.
While some Philo-philes were left cold, a new audience were intrigued. Low, square necklines were an instant standout, with Lee telling reporters backstage after the show that he had taken the shape from Renaissance portraiture. The square neckline has grown in popularity on catwalks and high street in the year since, and is a signature look for spring 2020 at the cult Danish label Ganni.
Lee has described the Bottega Veneta he inherited from the previous designer, Tomas Maier as a “sleeping giant”. Founded in Venice in 1966, its haughty stealth-wealth status attracted a wealthy backer in the Gucci Group – now Kering – who bought the label in 2001. With the arrival of Lee, who has since been joined by new CEO Bartolomeo Rongone, previously at Saint Laurent, Kering are looking to jumpstart the brand.
Kering boss François-Henri Pinault and his wife Salma Hayek were quick to their feet to laud Lee’s February catwalk debut with a standing ovation. Lee told Vogue that the brand’s relatively low sales of clothing – these accounted to just 15% of sales compared to accessories in 2018 – made it possible to reinvent the house aesthetic free from pressure to serve an existing customer base.
“I wasn’t so scared about losing our ready-to-wear, shoes and jewellery customers as it was such a small part of the business by comparison, and that gives you a certain confidence to tear things up,” he said.