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For some time now Bottega Veneta has been one of the weakest players in the Kering stable. It has been dwarfed by the successes of Gucci, the group’s star performer, and Saint Laurent, which eclipsed Bottega some time ago to become the second-biggest revenue driver at the house. In the group’s annual statement, released last week, Bottega Veneta recorded revenues of €1.109bn, down 3.4 per cent on a comparable basis year on year.
But that’s all set to change. After Saint Laurent, Gucci and Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta is the latest Kering brand to receive a reboot. Last June, and following the fairly unexpected departure of Tomas Maier, who served for 17 years as creative director, Kering announced their new man: a 32-year-old Englishman called Daniel Lee.
Daniel who? Precisely. But the appointment of a relative unknown was in keeping with the current Kering habit of employing designers with long experiences of working with a brand but not leading them. Lee comes not from within the group however, but from the LVMH-owned Celine, where he worked with Phoebe Philo as the director of ready-to-wear design. A graduate of Central Saint Martin, he was tapped by François-Henri Pinault following Philo’s departure. Celine has since gone in another creative direction under the direction of Hedi Slimane.
Kering made a canny appointment. With Philo, who eschewed social media marketing and abhorred e-commerce, Lee helped steer the brand to revenues of around €800m and cultivated a devout tribe of female clients. In his former role, Lee delivered an aesthetic for minimal clothing with a subversive fashionability that earned Celine a reputation for “intelligent” clothes. Since Philo’s departure, many brands have rushed to fill the vacuum, delivering their versions of a look in which Lee played no small part.
And so, the billion dollar question, did Daniel Lee’s new Bottega Veneta look like old Celine?
Yes and no. It included menswear, to begin with, which he hasn’t done before. But die-hard fans will have recognise many of his signatures — the loopy knitwear with its circular cutaway panels, the heavy soled elasticated Chelsea boots, the scoop-necked tops and the play on a bourgeois sensibility — corporate tailoring, minimal outerwear, blouses — with more subversive elements, such as ruched tulle eveningwear and leather bra-lets, shot through.
But this was a far tougher, more complicated collection than I expected. While the menswear was more minimal and straightforward, the women’s was ambitious in design: a quilted skirt, in turquoise, folded at the sides and fastened with a chain; thick quilted biker trousers; tailoring that mimicked the house’s famous intrecciato weave; a series of mirror-embroidered dresses and shirts. There was a lot going on.
Lee has been working on the collection for more than six months — he decided to skip last season and wait until he was ready to mount a show. Looking at this first collection, I wondered whether a tighter deadline might have suited him better. Some of it was lovely, a lot looked overworked. It was stylistically fussy, and surprisingly clumsy at times.
Of the accessories, on which Bottega Veneta does the vast bulk of its business, there were several new ideas — a quilted clutch and tote bag in a supersized woven leather were arresting, as was a boxy handbag in tomato red with a bold, gold clasp. But none had that snatch it out of the model’s hand desirability that I hoped so dearly to feel. It’s also excruciatingly expensive. Lee’s first Bottega Veneta merchandise is in store now, part of a pre-collection that has been quietly introduced. A new look tote bag will set you back about £3,000.
These are early days for Lee who must now negotiate his day job alongside the business of marketing the brand. And doing interviews. He seems quite unprepared for that. Backstage, before a throng of frenzied press journalists, he looked utterly bamboozled. Conversation was quickly cut short. Some designers are born to sell their product — usually those, such as Michael Kors and Tom Ford, who are brand founders and have pitched their wares on countless stages. In the safety of the Celine studio, Lee has been protected by the culture of anonymity — but we all know his name now. I don’t doubt he’ll find his voice. For someone so timid in person, his collection was strident — and surprisingly loud.
Loud strident design has been a major theme in Milan, where lots of shows have featured a clumpy, elasticated bovver boot and tons of attitude. You might call it punk-y, if that didn’t sound deliriously dated. At Gucci models wore fetish-style collars studded with nail-long barbs, the mood at Prada was dark and angry. Even at Tod’s, the leather house more often associated with quiet gentility, the models wore black leather shorts and heavy patent boots. Riding boots, harnesses and leather strapping was a feature of the Sportmax show as well.
Why so many heavy, leathery looks? Is fashion feeling beleaguered? Or arming itself for a fight? Whatever it is, it’s looking fearsome right now.
Jo Ellison will be hosting the FT’s Business of Luxury Summit in Madrid on May 19-21. For more information visit ftbusinessofluxury.com
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