Back in October, Bottega Veneta managed to stage the buzziest show of the spring-summer ’21 season—this, despite the fact that a mere handful of people had actually seen the clothes. Eschewing the new world order of digital live streams, creative director Daniel Lee opted to unveil his newest collection under a shroud of secrecy, inviting only a dozen members of the press and a few key celebrities (Kanye West; Rosie Huntington-Whiteley; Stormzy) to preview the collection at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, an internationally-renowned dance venue in central London. Now, the rest of the world is being let in on the action, with the brand unveiling the Tyrone LeBon-lensed runway this morning.
Since his appointment in 2018, Lee has enjoyed an unchallenged reign as the fashion industry’s golden child, turning around the fortunes of the Italian behemoth seemingly overnight with his souped-up minimalism and culty accessories. From March onwards, British-born Lee spent much of lockdown in his Milan studio and appears to have filled his hours mulling over the role fashion plays in a post-Covid world. As a person uncannily attuned to what women want to wear, his insight into the future of dressing has a large, captive audience—and the resulting collection tapped into an undeniable shift that has taken hold of the fashion world this year.
Image: Courtesy of Bottega Veneta
Even before the pandemic, there was a brewing cultural burnout at the incessant ‘newness’ of fashion. Instagram influencers wearing an endless rotation of off-the-runway outfits had started to feel not only shamefully wasteful but chronically uncool—and then Covid came along, a proverbial slamming of the brakes on our reactive, impulsive consumerism. We’ve seen fast fashion giants topple in the aftermath, while brands like Gucci and Levis have embraced the so-called ‘circular economy’, the former actually promoting the re-sale of seasons old pieces through TheRealReal, the latter offering buybacks on secondhand items that will be upcycled for new collections. To put it simply: Change is afoot.
Lee’s hysteria-inducing accessories have been front and centre of the kind of digital clout-chasing we are beginning to tire of, and his last two collections have revealed a quiet desire to shift away from this market. Yes, the culty woven pouch bags—a continual bestseller since his debut in 2018—featured throughout, as did strappy sandals and sure-to-sell-out cartoonish platform mules, but the true highlight was the ready-to-wear, a collection of intelligently designed pieces that perfectly encapsulated how we’ll want to dress next summer when, hopefully, this global nightmare is over. There were short, clingy skirt suits, an impeccably cut cotton day dress (the kind you’ll live in once traveling to the Mediterannean becomes an option) and, a personal highlight, chunky knitted mini dresses worn over contrasting polos.
Even the show’s setting—a highly intimate salon event that Lee planned to take around the world before the pandemic broke out—is evidence of a kind of exhaustion with the old world order. The rigmarole of fashion month (say nothing of its environmental impacts) has struggled for relevance in the Covid age, and brands have tried increasingly innovative methods to cut through to customers. Jonathan Anderson created an arts and craft-style coffee table book at Loewe; Jeremy Scott created a puppet show at Moschino; Gucci staged a week-long virtual ‘film festival’, unveiling their collection piece-by-piece in a cinematic spectacular directed by Gus Van Sant. Saint Laurent is no longer showing on the regular fashion week schedule. Daniel Lee’s vision of the fashion show as an intimate, personal event fits neatly within this changing paradigm.
At its core, Bottega Veneta’s spring-summer ’21 collection was a love story to the emotional investments we make in our clothing. The British singer Neneh Cherry crafted spoken word poetry which played during the runway show, which was largely an ode to fashion’s emotive power (“It’s armour that you can fly in.”). In one of three books (and a record featuring Cherry’s full monologue) crafted by Lee to accompany the collection, anonymous figures from fashion, film, and art share anecdotes about the clothing items that informed their creative processes. Book 02, as it’s called, was created by the German conceptual artist Rosemarie Trockel (Trockel’s early work was made using knitting machines, making her a particularly good fit for Lee’s new vision for Bottega).
In a moment where our global values have shifted so drastically, many of us are left wondering what the role of clothing is, or can be. Daniel Lee provides as simple and convincing an argument as anyone: As something to love.