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How Daniel Lee Reinvented Bottega Veneta

Tim Blanks talks to the British designer about his creative strategy and why his approach has struck a chord with consumers as the Kering-owned brand returns to growth.
Bottega Veneta designer Daniel Lee has reinvented the Kering-owned brand | Photo: Tyrone Lebon
By
  • Tim Blanks
BoF PROFESSIONAL

MILAN, Italy — You have to watch the quiet ones. Isn't that what people say? It took soft-spoken, unassuming, early-thirty-something strawberry blond Daniel Lee 18 months at Bottega Veneta to annihilate the British Fashion Awards in December: Designer of the Year, British Designer of the Year, Accessories Designer of the Year, and Brand of the Year. You could blame that sweep on the fashion industry's predictable hunger for fresh flesh to reassert its relevance in a world which is increasingly bent on rendering it anything but. (Two years of coronavirus ravaging sales and it's game over!) Or, you could credit Lee with following the path which has led to success for countless creative people before him. Confront the orthodox. Capsize it. With a bag. There are surely countless hordes who'll be chewing on their eyeliner in a fury when they hear how it was all a happy accident. Sort of.

When Lee arrived at Bottega in July 2018, there was a collection almost completed. "That's why we didn't show that first season," he says. "There was just enough time to execute a few bags so we could pull a few things together to do a campaign." He stripped the clothing back to iconic basics — t-shirt, suit, trench — and adapted a couple of bags from the archive. The Lauren bag, originally toted by Lauren Hutton in "American Gigolo," was one. "It was flatter than the Pouch, many more darts and hardware. It was made in a quite traditional way. We took the base pattern, screwed it up on top, made it in a much faster way." Voilà, the Pouch.

Likewise, the cabat. His first week in the job, Lee took a spin round the Bottega outposts. Montebello, in the Veneto, is the brand’s heart and soul. That’s where the signature intrecciato leather weave was perfected by local artisans, where the factory that makes Bottega’s homewares is located, where Lee saw a sample weave for a director’s chair: one band of black leather attached to an exploded intrecciato. Eureka! Bag Number Two.

And just like that, Bottega's brand reinvention is on track. In 2019, sales were nearly €1.2 billion, up 2.2 percent year-on-year, all credited to the new guy — and his gummy, irresistible bags. (In the fourth quarter, sales were up 9.4 percent.)

It seems so easy now, but Lee had to fight Bottega’s merchandising department over the Pouch. “There was no logo, no shoulder strap. It wasn’t really that functional, because you had to root around in it. But it was true to the brand because when Bottega began, they made bags that were soft when everything else was really hard. And this bag had a tactile, soft, sensual, very photogenic aspect to it. There was so much dimension, so much depth because of the folds, the creases. And obviously objects that photograph well work today when the internet is such an important tool.”

If that sounds calculated, it really wasn’t. Lee needed bags for a shoot. He did have faith that success is rooted in a brand’s DNA, but he insists he had no idea how well that conviction paid off until the award ceremony in December. “I was probably the last to know the bags had clicked. I feel like I was in hiding the whole of that first year. But when the numbers started to show that the Pouch was very quickly the bestselling Bottega bag ever, I was honestly shocked. It was something that was done so spontaneously to get through that first season. It was never something I thought would be so resonant.”

So, why the resonance? The psychology of the It Bag might one day be a subject of study for some post-human academy curious about our distractions as we careered towards apocalypse, but the phenomenon had fallen from favour till Lee resuscitated it. “A bag is something you have every single day,” he reasons. “It contains your entire life. I’m fascinated by the idea that it holds all your secrets.” He concedes there might even be something about the Pouch, so soft, like Fendi’s famous Baguette, that encourages an emotional attachment. My bag, my pet. He himself carries a rucksack. He keeps his secrets for his coat pockets. He says he has many coats because he is always testing fabrics to see how they feel. Many pockets, many secrets. Or just lip balm and gum.

Coming from Bradford in the North of England, kind of hard-scrabble, Lee's no child of privilege. But he leaves you with the inescapable feeling that he was blessed in some way. He was the weird one, the artistic one, in his family. He was always completely supported. Lee went to a very nurturing school. It left him with an unshakeable self-belief. Even 15 years ago, it already had a lot of LGBT students. He says he was a quiet student, in love with learning and making things. He sang in the choir and played piano, studied art and design technology, textiles, woodwork. He was smart so there was some expectation he might be a lawyer or doctor. But Lee loved dance, even fancied himself on stage. His nana, an ex-chorus girl, took him to the Alhambra in Bradford, where they saw "Fame" and "Chicago." Then, when he was 16, he went to London for the first time (three hours by train, but a universe away) with his aunt, brother and sister. Big wide world seduced him in seconds.

Lee's second trip to London was for his art foundation interview. After that, it was all about making up for lost time. Clubs, raves, living for the weekend. And Saint Martin's, crucible of perfervid creativity. He was hired immediately after graduation and spent the next decade in very gainful employment: Donna Karan, Balenciaga, Maison Margiela, Celine, where he was director of ready-to-wear design. Lee left Celine in March 2018 with a view to free-floating for a while. He was in Japan when his headhunter called. Something at Kering. No clues. There were some secret meetings, a request from Francois-Henri Pinault for a proposal of what he would do with Bottega. Up until that point, Lee had no idea he was being eyed for the top job.

He claims that Bottega Veneta’s craft was something that always resonated with him. “Quite a dream actually,” he says. “I started with knitwear, so technique was always a huge source of inspiration. It’s very similar to intrecciato, a way of construction that dictates the volume and form of an object.” So his original proposal for Pinault was very close to how his Bottega turned out. But there were two huge facets to his revision: not just the creative, but also a corporate structure that was based on leather goods. “Everything was focused on intrecciato, even the store network. Because most of the business was bags, the stores were small. Re-educating the entire company in the importance of ready to wear for the brand image has been huge.”

Now imagine that Bottega Veneta might have been in the doldrums, but it was hardly on its rims. Still a billion-dollar business. Surely it took massive balls for a pale, diffident redhead from Yorkshire to confront the corporate beast. "Or stupidity," Lee says with a bone-dry laugh. Fortunately, he was told to be bold by his new boss. "François-Henri didn't want someone who was worried about what Bottega had been." We're talking about Kering here, the company that took a flier on a guy named Alessandro Michele with one of the dimming jewels in its corporate crown. Like Michele, Lee had nothing to lose. Like Gucci. Like Bottega. And Pinault is clearly comfortable with risk.

Bottega Veneta AW19 Campaign

“It was incredible, but also terrifying,” Lee says now. “Sometimes you feel very big, others you feel minute. It’s hard to explain.” What he will acknowledge is the change in the creative director’s role. “Even Nicolas’s job back in the Balenciaga days was very different from now. The industry has changed vastly in the last ten years. A creative director used to do two shows a year and a couple of ad campaigns. Now, every single day, there’s content. Emails, Instagrams, billboards, takeovers, collaborations with wholesalers…so many projects.”

But for all that stick, there is also a fabulous carrot. Lee is getting to meet, and even collaborate with, people from the disciplines he loved when he was growing up, specifically ballet and opera. "The challenge is to build a different community," he says. He moved to Milan for Bottega. Now he gets to go to La Scala as often as possible. The last opera he saw was "Romeo and Juliet," with the hot young conductor Lorenzo Viotti. Lee momentarily mists, which makes me think of Rick Owens heading to Saint Petersburg to see another hot conductor, Teodor Currentzis. Do I scent a post-Hot-Priest trend?

While the bags cornered our fashion conversation, there was an entire new collection laid out on the floor of Lee's studio (the same space where Tomas Maier showed his Bottega collections during his remarkable 17-year tenure), ready for liftoff on Saturday. He is reluctant to say much about it. "It's back to that idea of technique, bonded together in this particular collection. Everything is made in stretch. It's not so much destination dressing as clothes that travel with you, that you can use in any eventuality. The idea of movement and stretch, clothes that keep up with you, is why I also like knitwear. It's dynamic. It's a way to re-interpret those key staples of our wardrobe. I always love that moment when you have this piece of clothing or a bag or whatever and you think about yourself in different scenarios. At least I do. I buy a new gym kit and I can't wait to go to the gym because I want to wear it. I'm thinking maybe this t-shirt will make me work out better."

The pragmatism in such a sentiment infuses Lee’s Bottega. Is that modern? “I have no idea,” he answers. “At the beginning of the year, I asked myself, ‘What is the role of the artist in this world?’ All I can think is to make beauty, give a sense of joy. A gift! I love that. What’s so fantastic about design is that it’s so in the moment, so consuming that what you’re thinking about is what’s at hand. It helps you through the darkest times, the saddest times. Whatever’s going on outside, it’s constant.”

Therapy? “Yes, the best therapy is just to get on with it.” Life right now is overwhelming for Lee. “I feel vulnerable,” he admits, “but I don’t think there’s an alternative. Like a relationship, if you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable, you gain nothing.” He says the new collection is “very much about my experience of life at the moment, what I’m surrounded by.

It’s from my subconscious, but the whole thing has been that. That’s why it’s difficult to articulate. It’s a feeling more than anything. Bottega is very emotional, and also sexual.” Lee is an Aquarian, according to the cosmic dictum, someone who is prone to challenging rules. “A friend of mine did a reading about the planets when I was born and there was huge creative potential, and also something about a very strong, particular sexual energy.”

Oh Daniel, you can't tell me that just as we're saying goodbye. We never talked about the sexual fire you've lit under Bottega, the intense physicality, the perverse marriage of fabric and flesh. "It's almost something I'm discovering about myself," he says quietly. There's a mood board in his studio, not a sop for visitors, but a real working reference. Season on season, stuff gets added, stuff gets taken away. Someone who has been there from the very beginning is the fiercesome British musician PJ Harvey. "I love this idea of a woman who is very much for herself and not for anyone else," Lee explains. "Sometimes you see her completely stripped and bare, other times, she does a completely glamorous look. But it is always her who is empowered. That is my idea of Bottega. It is so much about you, not for the world. And PJ Harvey epitomises that."

No wonder he's insistent that he’s at the very beginning of this story. Much, much more to follow.

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