Vanessa Friedman The New York Times
One evening in early December 2019, Daniel Lee, the newish designer of the Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta, went to the Fashion Awards in London to see how his brand had fared.
He sat at a table with the Bottega chief executive, Bartolomeo Rongone, and the Bottega owner, François-Henri Pinault. Pinault is the chief executive of Kering, the French luxury group that includes Bottega as well as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, among other brands.
Lee had been at Bottega for only about a year and a half; he was the youngest and newest designer in the Kering stable. He had never been to a fashion awards ceremony, but he was nominated in four categories.
A few days before the event, the British Fashion Council, which runs the awards, had been in touch and suggested he prepare some notes, so he had a feeling he might win something.
Then Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the model who was presenting the brand of the year award, announced: “The winner is… Bottega Veneta.”
Lee was so excited he ran up to the stage and left his speech at the table. That turned out to be OK, though, because he had a second chance, when he won accessories designer of the year. He thanked his team, assumed he was done and thought he could relax.
But then came the British designer of the year award, womenswear. Won by Daniel Lee. And then the designer of the year award. Won by Daniel Lee.
“He was so embarrassed,” Pinault remembered a few weeks later. “He asked me if I would go up and get it for him.” (Pinault declined.)
No designer had ever won four awards in one night at the event. Was Lee, with all of two main collections shown really that good?
Sometimes, being crowned the Next Big Thing is the worst thing that can happen to a designer. As Lee approaches the one-year mark after his first show, just as the annual results under his tenure roll in, he knows everyone will be wondering whether this is one of those times.
The Return of the It Bag
“I don’t want to be a designer of just hype, but of longevity, so I feel a lot of pressure this year,” Lee said in late January, sitting in his office in Milan.
Unlike his predecessor Tomas Maier, who was creative director from 2001 to 2018 but who was based in New York, Lee, who had been living in London, relocated to Milan after he got the Bottega job in June 2018.
The hype was a reference to the awards but also to the Pouch, a squishy clutch bag made from butter-soft leather crushed in the middle that feels kind of like a soft toy or a therapy dog. It was among the first products Lee made when he arrived at Bottega, and it was a phenomenon: An It bag when It bags were no longer supposed to exist.
“It was the time when there was a lot of logos,” Pinault said. “Everyone was making a frame bag. Everyone said you needed to have a hand free to carry your phone and text or whatever. He absolutely went against the trend. He made this soft thing you had to carry instead of your phone. It was a brilliant idea.”
According to Kering’s 2019 annual report, released this month, the Pouch was “the fastest-selling bag in Bottega Veneta history.” It was followed not long afterward by aggressively square-toed leather slides with the trademark basket-weave intrecciato of the brand blown up to steroidal proportions, more bags, and quilted leather skirts and coats.
At the Milan ready-to-wear show in September, half of the front row was wearing the shoes or carrying a bag.
Kering reported Bottega revenues of 1.167 billion euros (approximately $1.3 billion) in 2019, a 2.2 percent increase from the year before. That’s tiny compared to Gucci’s double-digit figures, but after three years of not entirely positive numbers, it was widely taken as a sign of a turnaround, especially because sales were up 9.4 percent in the fourth quarter. Overall, Rongone said, they were far above market projections.
Nothing to Lose
The irony of the Pouch is that Lee hadn’t even been hired as an accessory guy. In 2018, Pinault and Claus-Dietrich Lahrs, then the Bottega chief executive, had decided that if the brand were ever to move to the next level – and it already had revenues of 1.1 billion euros a year – Bottega had to become known not just for leather goods, which were responsible for approximately 80 percent of revenues, but also for its ready-to-wear. So after Maier left, they started looking for someone who was really good at clothes.
At Central Saint Martins, where he did both his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, Lee concentrated in knitwear and did internships with Giles Deacon, Margiela and Balenciaga under Nicolas Ghesquière.
“He was very focused and committed and determined,” said Sarah Gresty, his tutor for two years of his B.A. For his final-year fashion show, she said, he used money from an outside job to hire his own model, so his patterns would fit perfectly.
After graduation, Lee worked briefly at Donna Karan before moving to Céline under Phoebe Philo, where he was hired as a member of the design team in 2013. By the time Pinault started hearing about him, he had been promoted to design director of all ready-to-wear collections.
Philo resigned just before Christmas 2017, and although it was suggested within Céline that Lee should replace her, he left in January. His plan, he said, was to take a year off and think. He made it as far as Japan. Then Pinault got in touch.
Not that the Kering chief wanted another Céline. But he was interested in the clarity of that vision.
Lee came in to meet with Pinault on a Friday. On Sunday, Pinault offered him the job.
More to Prove
So far the Bottega accessories have made a much bigger splash than the ready-to-wear, which has had a mixed reception. The clothes can be constructively tricky but are rarely decorative. Once you know what to look for, they are identifiable, but the signs are pretty insider at the moment.
Lee has stayed mostly behind the scenes, although he will do rudimentary press
scrums after his show. He knows he is “playing catch-up” on that part of the job. “If I never had to have a public presence, I would feel much more comfortable,” he said.
Pinault didn’t seem too worried. “He will gain confidence, and I think he will become more and more a strong ambassador for the brand,” he said. He believes Bottega will be “a pillar of the group,” although he wouldn’t put a time frame on that prediction.