Within 10 minutes of our sitting down for lunch at a fancy Mayfair restaurant, the maître d’ approaches our table and offers Daniel Lee a black blazer. You see, his informal (though box-fresh) plain white T-shirt is deemed unsatisfactory, not meeting the dress code requirements and possibly offending the club’s other diners.
It’s ironic that someone should be telling Lee, Bottega Veneta’s recently installed creative director, how to dress. As of July 1 2018, he has presided over one of fashion’s loftiest luxury houses, where only the very best of everything will do. The idea of presenting him with an ill-fitting, passed-around jacket reminiscent of something out of a school lost property box (the fancier the restaurant, the worse the blazers always are) is quite laughable. Luckily, Lee has a sense of humour. He politely declines and obediently puts his overcoat back on, quietly scoffing in his Yorkshire lilt: “This is why I live in east London.”
Rules are rules, but 33-year-old Lee is intent on rewriting them. Take one of Bottega Veneta’s famed intrecciato woven handbags, for example, a staple of the brand since it was founded in 1966. His first move on taking over from Tomas Maier, who had helmed the house for 17 years, was to blow it up, supersizing the technique to dramatic new proportions. That single design spoke volumes about his Bottega Veneta: Lee respects its heritage but has the guts to do things his way. “With a little bit of thinking you can do so much with the weave,” he says. “I liked the idea of enlarging it because I like things that are bold and quite direct. I like things that are straightforward.”
Perhaps this sense of practicality can be attributed to his upbringing. Raised in Bradford, where his father worked as a mechanic and his mother was a stay-at-home mum (he is the eldest of three – his brother is a plumber and his sister is an A&E nurse: “They do really different, useful things,” he acknowledges), Lee was an academic child. “I was a geek. Still am,” he says, smiling.
He was good at languages and considered a profession in the law, but what he loved most, he recalls, was “making things”. His creativity resulted in a place at Central Saint Martins, then internships with Martin Margiela and at Balenciaga under the direction of Nicolas Ghesquière. His graduate collection earned him a job with Donna Karan in New York, where he stayed for two years, before being plucked by Céline, eventually working his way up to Phoebe Philo’s ready-to-wear design director.
Céline – at the time lauded for its woman-friendly pragmatism, and still with its jaunty accent aigu – was a formative experience. Lee was there for six years, until Philo decided to leave. “Up until that point, I hadn’t taken a break. I knew that Phoebe was leaving, so it seemed a good time to reassess. I was tired; that was an all-consuming moment at Céline.” But before he could take any time out, Bottega Veneta swept in with a “dream opportunity”. When the news was announced that he would replace Maier, Lee may have been an unknown, but his Céline backstory spread like wildfire among fashion editors, buyers and customers left bereft by Philo’s departure. In turn, his debut for the autumn pre-collection in December last year was the most eagerly awaited of recent seasons.
“My job is to really make Bottega Veneta part of the fashion conversation, but this is a true heritage house, and that is something that moves a lot slower and in a very different way to something that’s ‘fashion’,” he explains. “Trying to change this house into a fashion brand is a huge task.” Judging by his few collections, he has made it look relatively easy. Right off the bat, front row at his autumn/winter 2019 show in February, women were eyeing up that black quilted leather coat with brassy link fastener, his Fanta-orange elongated sweater with knotted add-on scarf, an ivory knit with built-in gold curb link neckline, mirrored “disco ball” silk jersey shirtdresses, finely tuned mannish trouser suits and stompy, lug-soled boots.
A man of great precision with an acute eye for detail, Lee possesses the ability to make the kind of clothes that are directional but easy to wear; that feel like they already belong to you the second you slip them on; that, once you try, you’d sooner swallow the expense – no matter how great – than have to heart-wrenchingly put them back on the rail. His are clothes that simply make you look like a better, more expensive-looking version of you. And that kind of a pull is a powerful thing.
It’s a big departure from the pretty-enough floral tea dresses and sensible coats of Maier’s tenure, a fact that isn’t lost on Lee. Was he nervous about presenting his ideas to the world? “Of course – who wouldn’t be? It’s absolutely terrifying!” (Untrained in giving interviews, in a good way, he is refreshingly to the point.) His very first outing was Bottega Veneta’s autumn pre-collection presentation, a small affair in New York, but it was the bigger autumn/winter ’19/’20 collection staged in February in Milan that felt like the real debut.
“The show is incredibly hard on a designer; after the show I was…” Frazzled? I offer. “Destroyed,” he corrects. “And then to talk backstage and be a normal human being, it was brutal. When you’re still making looks as the show starts, you certainly don’t really want to answer questions like, ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Well, I feel like shit.’ But you can’t say that, you have to be ‘profesh’.” People like realness, I say. “Do they, though?” he asks, anxiously. “I do, I like realness.”
Leather goods, and the house’s signature weave, are still at the heart of his vision. “I think Bottega really sits at the top of the chain in terms of quality, alongside Hermès and what Céline became during Phoebe’s tenure… it’s about the minutiae. The tiny details are what I get excited about. There are very few brands left like this.” His bags in particular have been a smash hit, the front row favourites crafted in framed pyramid shapes alongside neat clutches in soft, puffy quilted leather.
“Leather goods are the core of Bottega Veneta; that’s what we’re really great at, and working in an artisanal way,” he says, warming to his subject. “This house is really fantastic in its ability to turn out technique; real craftsmanship – but I hate that word,” he interjects. “It’s so overused. It’s a beautiful word, but every time I hear it, I sigh – I could give you a whole list: authenticity, luxury, empowerment…”
Although the ready-to-wear business was launched in 2005, truthfully it has never ignited a sense of burning desirability. “In areas other than leather goods we were like a start-up, and in some ways it was like making a collection back at Central Saint Martins.” He did a lot of restructuring; he kept the all-important artisans but replaced much of the design team.
Daisy, his right hand and CSM classmate, was among his first hires. She tries on everything, prototype after prototype over and over again until Lee green-lights it. He talks about her a lot, and the wider design team, which he describes as a big family. He loves the community that fashion creates. “I love the way that it brings people together, how it connects people from different parts of the world. You can be rich or poor, talent will always rise to the surface in this industry. It’s a level playing field.”
He certainly lives in the real world – to the extent that he accepts that his version of Bottega Veneta won’t chime with everyone. “Sure, we might lose some customers,” he says. “But Bottega Veneta is a company built on woven handbags – and, well, we still have those woven handbags. What was so fantastic [about taking on this role] is that 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.” It has worked. Wholesale orders of ready-to-wear have tripled, and it has also introduced the brand to a younger generation of shoppers.
There is little that Lee reveals about his private life. He works almost all the time, dividing his weeks between Milan and Paris. He goes to the gym most mornings. He is fluent in French and started Italian lessons, but put them on hold last year because all he could think about was what he had to do in the office as soon as he got out of class. He doesn’t have an Instagram account.
“No one knew who I was before this job, which is quite nice. Bottega is about discretion and ultimate sophistication; it’s elusive, a little bit insider, a little bit coded, all those things I really like. It’s mysterious and expensive and if someone sees me with a beer on a Friday night outside the pub, how does that quantify that kind of price point?” is how he puts it. “I really enjoyed growing up in a pre-Instagram era – we just had fun. It will be interesting to see what will happen next. I do think there will be a return to privacy. I hope so.”
It’s a position that has brought about a huge amount of responsibility, which he doesn’t shoulder lightly. “I think a lot about sustainability; I want to make things that last forever, I’m not interested in anything less.” He’s uncompromising in his ethics. “I don’t use fur. I don’t like it. There are just certain things that I feel you have to be a human being about; a respectful human being… We won’t use any models who are under 18 years of age.”
In short, Lee won’t pretend to be anything he isn’t. His talk is peppered with statements such as, “The truer you are to your instinct, the better. Trying to cheat yourself out of following your soul is the worst thing you can do.” There is zero ego, and he’s under no illusions about the shelf-life of a designer: “At best, you have a period of relevance. To try and say something big every season? You can’t do that forever.” If there is one thing he is wrong about, let’s hope it’s that. The future of our wardrobes depends on it.
This article was originally published in the October 2019 issue of British Vogue.
This story originally appeared on Vogue.co.uk.