Daniel Lee: the man behind Bottega Veneta’s new buzz
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Think of this year’s star accessory and one bag springs to mind. The Pouch, an oversized clutch bag by Bottega Veneta made in buttery calf leather, is currently available in shades of mist, bordeaux, nude, and a grass-coloured knit nappa and costs from £1,990. In a stable of design favourites, it is by far the brand’s bestseller.
Created by Daniel Lee as part of his first resort collection for the Kering-owned house, the Pouch went on sale in spring this year and has since become a major factor behind the brand’s new buzz. But it’s not the only hit in Lee’s new offering: there’s also the Padded Cassette (£1,850), a squishy cloud of nappa in exaggerated quilting: the Stretch sandal (£620) that offers wearers some strappy evening glamour with a “barely there” élan; or the mirror-embellished satin jersey shirtdress (£1,730) that shimmers on the skin. Such is the heat around the brand, and its growing tribe of admirers, that Lee’s tenure has inspired an Instagram fan account (@newbottega) that has accrued 123,000 followers, and numerous memes, including the hashtag #myhandbagatemyshoes on which users post pictures of their Pouch bags “swallowing” tastefully coordinated footwear.
Bottega Veneta is booming. Alongside the CEO Bartolomeo Rongone, who joined in September 2019, Lee is transforming the business. In Kering’s third-quarter results, released last month, the brand announced “highly encouraging” sales growth (up 6.9 per cent on a comparable basis) to €284.3m. The third biggest brand in the Kering stable, Bottega Veneta had reported annual revenues of €1.1bn in 2018, a decline of 5.7 per cent. To deliver such growth after only one season in store has been remarkable.
“The Pouch was a big hit, and that definitely helped us,” says Lee of the results. He is on a brief stopover in London en route to Korea and the culmination of a global tour promoting new BV. A handsome 33-year-old with schoolboy freckles and a sweatshirt slung Bottega-style over his shoulders and tied off-kilter round his body, Lee is softly spoken, with a distinctive Bradford burr, and a northerner’s disinclination for self-aggrandisement. Described by Vogue as a “quiet radical”, he was unknown before his appointment by Kering in June 2018, although as director of ready-to-wear under Phoebe Philo at Celine he was instrumental in helping create the gentle, minimal aesthetic that made the brand so successful. That said, he claims his success at Bottega Veneta has been due largely to luck: “I wish I could say it was all part of a deliberate strategy, but no. . . It all happened quite by fluke.”
Many of Lee’s accomplishments have been the result of creative gambles. Anyone expecting a rehash of his work at Celine was put straight when, for his debut runway collection at Bottega in February, he offered chain-embellished coats, leopard jacquards, heavy moto-meets-Chelsea boots and leather Bermuda shorts in bold, punk-edged designs that seemed the opposite of minimal. Likewise, it was a particular act of chutzpah to bet on the popularity of a square-toed shoe, volumised to Minnie Mouse proportions and quilted in an ice-blue leather. But it paid off.
“To say Daniel Lee’s Bottega Veneta has been a success is an understatement,” says Maria Milano, head of womenswear at Harrods. “Not since Alessandro Michele took the helm at Gucci has a change in creative direction resonated so much with the zeitgeist. Since opening the ready-to-wear boutique at Harrods, we continue to sell-through all the It-pieces, from the Pouches big and small to the quilted leather skirt to the outerwear. Our customers pounce on each drop, with shoes barely making it onto the floor. The latest arrival of spangly dresses have landed for party season, and pre-spring is off to phenomenal momentum.”
“The customer is loving Daniel’s new direction for the house,” agrees Natalie Kingham, buying director at MatchesFashion, who staged an exclusive takeover to launch the autumn/winter 2019 collection at Matches’ store/events space at 5 Carlos Place. “The enlarged and padded intrecciato on bags and shoes and the tailoring have been big hits.”
An academic, “geeky” child, who was expected to take up a career in law or medicine “because that’s what you do in the North if you’re slightly smart”, Lee decided as a teenager he would do something creative. Fashion combined both the discipline and structure he enjoyed with the freedom of art. He also loved how the fashion industry, made up of life’s “outsiders”, enjoys a meritocratic status where anyone can succeed “so long as you’re good”.
Lee showed precocious promise. Post-graduation, he received a scholarship to study for an MA in fashion at Central Saint Martins under Louise Wilson. “I remember her telling me, ‘You’re a doer’,” he says of his one big takeaway from the late tutor’s mighty mentorship. “My best work is when it’s immediate and instinctive, and I just get on with it. She was also the one to teach me to make my own research in a very three-dimensional, fluid way. To work on the go. Whereas other designers sketch all day, or do endless mood boards, my approach is very much just go for it. It’s like sculpture: it’s very three-dimensional, it’s tactile.”
Lee worked at Maison Margiela, under Martin Margiela, and for Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, before landing a job at Celine with Philo. Presumably, it was in those prestigious ateliers that he honed his rare genius for developing ideas in dubious taste and then pushing them into desirability?
“Yes. Because that is fashion,” says Lee of how his more subversive looks have tickled the market’s fancy. “Everything that is in too good taste is innately boring. There has to be that kind of edge, a slight rebellion or something that’s a little bit vulgar that twists it and makes it desirable.”
Lee’s quiet character belies a steel core of confidence. “I think over-strategising can kill creativity,” he continues. “You don’t know what’s going to work. And what will work is what’s not already there. You look at the Pouch bag: there’s no logo, there’s no shoulder strap, it’s not particularly practical and from any logistical, strategic way of thinking it wouldn’t be a success. But it is. You can’t always put your finger on why that is.”
Nevertheless, he tries to. “What was interesting about Bottega, especially at the beginning and still now, is the fact that you didn’t have to belong to a club. It wasn’t a pre-described thing. And I think what has been very successful about it, and what you see on Instagram or on the street, is that Bottega can be injected into everyone’s wardrobe regardless of age, or gender, or whatever. It works. For me it’s a very modern way of dressing. Ready-to-wear is super-important to me, but you can buy a shoe and it can instantly change an outfit. It’s a much more approachable product to buy.”
New Bottega certainly looks good in pictures, as the street flâneurs have proven. It’s also very tactile, which is typical, perhaps, of the strokeable stealth-wealth values that the brand has always held dear. “It’s very sensual,” agrees Lee, who describes the brand’s knotted, slouchy, soft-tailored appeal as having a “cuddle” aesthetic. “It looks expensive,” he adds. “I think my role is very much about creating a product that has an emotional connection – that draws you towards it. We like product that has a lot of depth to it. There’s a lot of consideration, a lot of precision. And I think that is where we stand out.”
Founded in 1966 in Vicenza, near Venice, Bottega Veneta was incorporated into the Gucci Group, now Kering, in 2001. One of the most prestigious of the Italian luxury labels, it has always embodied a rarefied sort of luxury; its distinctive leather weave intrecciato has always served as subtle branding for the logo-shy consumer.
Asked how he pitched his vision to the Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault, Lee says he saw it as a chance to review luxury again. “At that moment Bottega was very different to everything else being offered on the market. It was a brand that typically didn’t speak. It was very quiet. And it stood for those very particular points, these pillars of luxury, such as refinement, craftsmanship, technique, which really are the cornerstones of luxury. And while these things aren’t unique to Bottega, it’s interesting that in the past decade luxury has really moved on – with the rise of streetwear and trainers – and become something very, very different. Bottega, for me, was an opportunity for a reset. Fashion had become very brand-led, very image-led and the product was almost secondary. For me, it’s equally important.”
What’s really exciting, especially for female consumers of the brand, is that Lee is injecting these traditional luxury values with a new fashionability and, in a market crying out for smart, statement looks, he’s made it wearable as well. His Bottega is all about outerwear with a style edge, boots you can stride in, and evening dresses that look seductive rather than sexy. Well, it is an Italian label, after all.
“It’s definitely more hedonistic,” he says of the shift in sensibility at Milanese Bottega from the cerebral French Celine. “There’s more heat and glossiness, and a real joy of life. That’s something that I try to bring into the work. But we try to be kind to the wearer. To expose parts of the body – like the clavicle area – that people feel comfortable with. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with showing a bit of skin. But what I’m trying to do is make sexiness OK without being objectifying.”
Lee is currently enjoying riding the crest of a wave. But there are still myriad opportunities to exploit. For decades, the brand’s principal business has been handbags – with everything else making up only 15 per cent of sales. Lee has already put shoes on the map: next year will see him pushing ready-to-wear, re-establishing the men’s collections, then focusing on homeware and maybe fragrance.
“What’s exciting, though, and what makes it a bit easier is that we have a base now and we have a bag of tricks,” says Lee. “I have things I know work editorially, that work commercially, and there’s a universe that’s started to appear. I mean obviously, this is a huge company – way bigger than any job I’ve ever had before – so there is an order of priority, but we’re really working on the menswear and we’re working on a home collection that should be released next year.”
It’s a big job, but Lee’s enthusiasm is boundless. “I like a challenge,” he grins with the millennial satisfaction of someone who knows they’ve got juice in their career. “Why not dive in at the deep end? I have nothing to lose. And if it all goes wrong, I’ll just go back to school and retrain as something else. I’ve got time.”
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