Why Is Daniel Lee’s Hugely Successful Run at Bottega Veneta Ending?

Fashion
The 35-year-old British designer and the Italian house have come to a “joint decision to end their collaboration.”

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Mary J. Blige at the Bottega Veneta Salon 03 Collection on October 21, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Bottega Veneta.

Daniel Lee, the boyish Brit who joined Bottega Veneta as creative director in 2018, is leaving the Italian luxury brand, which announced today that the house and designer have come to a “joint decision to end their collaboration.” During his tenure, which lasted just over three years, Lee repositioned the low-key leather goods house as a cornerstone of the luxury hype movement, making lime green (“parakeet,” in house parlance) a cult-like signature, jumbo-sizing the house’s intrecciato into art-fair must haves, and garnering adulation from celebrities including Kanye West and Mary J. Blige as well as fellow designers like Virgil Abloh.

The announcement came as something of a shock, given Bottega’s stellar financial performance under Lee’s tenure; the designer presented his Spring 2022 collection in a buzzy destination show in Detroit, Michigan just last month. Kering said it plans to announce “a new creative organization” for Bottega “soon.”

Lee, who is 35, came to Bottega as something of an unknown in July 2018, but he was pitched upon his arrival as a designer in the low-key, tasteful mold of Phoebe Philo, with whom he had worked at Celine. If his first few collections indeed seemed poised to speak to the so-called Philophiles, with ambivalently minimalist pieces in oversize silhouettes, he soon found his own language, making industrially-inspired garments in unexpected and even confounding fabrics like latex-finished lambskin. His Detroit show, for example, featured pieces made out of cotton blended with metal, which gave the collection a static aggression. Most successful were his accessories, though: he pumped up the house’s famous “intrecciato” woven-leather handbags into wild proportions, and his enormous stompers and bulbous rain galoshes in freaky-organic tones remain bestsellers even among a hype-driven consumer base that moves on swiftly from trendy grails.

He made an equally impactful splash with the brand’s marketing. Under Tomas Meier, who led the brand for almost two decades, Bottega was known for a discretion that amounted to a whisper—a reputation Lee stretched and tweaked with a millennial’s sophistication. Though at first he granted interviews and even posed shirtless for the cover of Document in September of 2020, he eventually turned the company into a pinnacle of inaccessibility in the “main character” age of Instagram fashion, deleting his own Instagram account, and then deleting the house’s own. Seemingly in its place, Bottega launched a digital zine—a high-production, image-only effort filled with artist’s takes on the Bottega line and high-wattage talent, like Travis Scott and Missy Elliot. While many fashion observers appreciated the challenge to the industry’s digital norms, others were left confused by the brand’s messaging. (The house became unusually reliant on the fan account @newbottega to promote their news and efforts online, for example.) Fashion dinners during the shows in Paris this past October were filled with chatter about the effectiveness of the strategy—though, of course, a little confusion isn’t such a bad thing. Lee’s choices were always slightly left of center, which no doubt contributed to Bottega’s current hype, especially for millennial and Gen Z customers, who are rarely cynical about corporate stratagems for coolness.

Even outside of social media, the brand’s strategy has been hard to track. It toyed with salon-style shows, in which only select journalists were invited and images were embargoed until the collection arrived in stores. And the clothes themselves morphed in a short period from the easy, handcraft-heavy luxury made famous by Maier (and Philo) to technical experimentations that made the garments almost unwearable (excitingly so, if you ask the shoppers who could afford Lee’s sparsely-feathered trousers and shearling-tail coats, which run in the tens of thousands of dollars). Matthieu Blazy, the wunderkind Raf Simons protegee who designed the Martin Margiela brand until John Galliano’s appointment in 2014 and worked for Simons during his tenure at Calvin Klein, was hired in June of 2020 as the design director, which perhaps helped stabilize the look.

And regardless of the head-scratching Bottega has sometimes inspired, Lee’s brand was a top seller—consumers needed no explanation for those big boots and bags. While Kering, like most fashion conglomerates, suffered its share of pandemic setbacks, Bottega was touted as a star in the portfolio (its sales were up 8.9% in the third quarter of 2021 versus 2020), and particularly strong in American and western European markets.

That, combined with the abruptness of Lee’s departure, begs the question of whether the designer and leadership had a disagreement, or Lee is headed to an appointment elsewhere. (Rumors are flying across HF Twitter that Lee could be headed to Burberry or Louis Vuitton, for example.) Lee is also one of the finalists for both the International Men’s and Women’s awards at the CFDAs, which will be held tonight. A win—voting closed weeks ago—would help fortify his case for a job at another house, even if a new role isn’t in the cards for Lee immediately.

As for the future of Bottega? Blazy seems like an obvious choice as a new creative lead, and industry sources are already whispering his name. Fashion fanatics have long hankered for the designer to helm his own brand, and his tenure would allow the brand to rework itself gently, rather than fully rebooting—rejoining Instagram, let’s say, but keeping the zine and the wild leather experiments. As it proved with Lee’s hire in the first place, Kering, which also owns Balenciaga, Gucci, and Saint Laurent, has a knack for appointing unknowns and talents from the industry’s back bench.

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