Daniel Lee’s Bottega Veneta Menswear

A reliable source informs me that Bottega Veneta’s sales were up 18% in the second half of last year, the only Kering brand that grew. That’s no small feat in a tumultuous year for the industry. Is this the expected honeymoon period for Daniel Lee, the label’s new(ish now) designer, the numbers reflecting a second (or first hard) look for buyers after nearly twenty years stewardship by Tomas Maier, the man who made the brand relevant today?

Or do the positive numbers illustrate Kering and Lee’s successful bet on a clean break of image and demographic for BV, to a millennial and younger group with cash, enough world-weariness about them to see through the “sneaker drop,” and the patience to invest in the long-term quality projects which traditionally have justified the label’s elite pricing? Does this person exist?

But first a confession. I am not certain that BV’s great numbers aren’t mostly because I’ve scoured the outlets for all the Thomas Maier era menswear I can find, lots of womenswear, and some of the “heirloom” (for me) accessories, i.e., luggage etc.

I liked the Maier BV. A lot. Many of his collections are worth a review on the Vogue website, especially the womenswear “details” photos. Maier’s work wasn’t as understated or as fogeyish as the advertised shift to a younger audience might suggest. The Maier era menswear ranged widely, but at its best produced a lovely cross between the colour and patterning of Missoni, traditional Italian business-leisure silhouettes, and an elevated feeling of luxury—evident in embroidery, or metallic and leather patterned details—that brought the work in good seasons quite rightly near to Hermes status. Conservative yet casual, the best winter collections inclined toward an autumnal Art Deco palette (something about those intreciatto shapes), made elegant and louche with glinting details that suggested an interwar streetlamp on a foggy night, the driver sent on ahead. With its slightly too obvious suggestion of expense there was a youthful swagger in these clothes.

It is perhaps characteristic of the imagined menswear consumer today that Maier’s replacement has gone simpler, cleaner, attempting to create a signature not from a galaxy of colours, patterns, and detail strung together by excellence in fabric and construction. Instead we have from Lee a consistent sculptural monochrome, a kind of sleeping policeman, hands always clung to the body, a very English postwar modernism. We have, mercifully, no logos, but there is a concept that will be at once recognizable on the street, an effect not true, outside of accessories, for Maier. A logo, then, of another kind.

The new clothes aren’t so much postmodern—that must be something like Balenciaga or Y/Project—as, in the first few seasons, post-apocalyptic, the most profound departures the big structural suits, exaggerated rubber soled shoes and sci-fi armored leather jumpsuits. These have since softened, nicely. BV after all, surely must be a wearable label? In Fall ‘20 we saw a very appealing angled tailoring, more fitted now, retaining a boxy look but with tapered sleeve and leg. For Spring ‘21 the pants ballooned, like similar offerings at Bruno Sialelli’s Lanvin and Dries van Noten (Fall ‘21). This suggests a willingness from Lee to play with proportions in order to find, or make clear an unwillingness to fix, a single trademark cut.

The big news in accessories is the explosion of the signature intrecciato leather treatment, the weave swollen to broad patchwork proportions, which works in some instances but not against the thin leather lip of the tote version. This appeared initially to be a more systematic overhaul than the current website offerings indicate. There are more of the traditional intrecciato dimensions than the “bruised” bags. The new textile bags of mixed technical material, on the other hand, are a head scratcher. Maier made some lustworthy leather and textile backpacks in his last seasons, but these new technical colourblock bags, in an era of ever higher-end sportswear brands, look like they are made by Rapha. Tim Coppens also used to make jackets and leisurewear in earthtone technical colourblock. A notable shift from leathers to textiles in shoes and bags can feel like a move downmarket for fans of the old BV, but then again, it isn’t the elegance or costliness of fabric that sells out Dior’s buzzy sneakers.

Fittingly perhaps for a one-time understudy of Phoebe Philo, one emerging code during Lee’s brief tenure has been an insistence that each garment contain a single colour, and no more. This is particularly noteworthy in the fresh and diverse shapes of knitwear, a diversity one could imagine being reflected in its buyers. There’s something there for everyone (in funds). But our heart aches for some variety in print, pattern, and colour as well. Monochrome is, after all, the uniform of that zombie American reality/social media couple that a truly progressive label should be eager to leave behind.

*

Anecdote:

I spend holiday afternoons each year at the home of a friend, who I met through a hypermasculine hobby. We have a friendship that skirts any reference to fashion, in consideration, I think, of the other guests at his gatherings, all “conservative” voting, who might take issue with such a dissipated interest. There is nothing more unforgivably wasteful, after all, than costly pleasures unrelated to our own.

Although sharing their confusion about an interest in clothes, my considerate friend cares less for these guests’ feelings, of longer acquaintance and so equipped to handle a little rough treatment, than mine, of my horror at upsetting anyone, or being insulted by them.

I am a people-pleaser with (thus) thin skin—is this the majority of fashion people?—so I try to dress at these gatherings with a casual sobriety, though not too diffidently, for fear of producing a closeted costume effect, since I have a voice of high pitch. Tomas Meier’s BV was the best I could do on these occasions. Sober and classy, these were pieces from a Continental resort novel, with an unnecessary stitch or cashmere collar serving as armour, a private reminder that after all, it’s still me. On the whole I do okay, but there is always the proverbial bracelet slipping out from cuff moment, when I’m just not plausible as a guy’s guy. Some of the male regulars at these events, wife and kids in tow, simply don’t speak to me.

But Halloween comes every year. And each year I’m the same character. One of these guys, standing before me, of flabby body and invariably attractive and alert wife, sheds for this one moment his aloof pose and stretches his forefinger in front of his face, a sobriety test, an incantation, one classmate recognising another across the years. “Austin Powers.”

And on this holiday, just this once a year, my friend our host, observing this game between his guests, attempts to break the barrier. He looks me up and down: a broadly striped or monogram Gucci suit, Elizabethan collar shirt and Chelsea boots. “Huh? This is just his ‘Tuesday.’”

*

Daniel Lee’s collections take BV from a broad Church that served equally well at an in-law dinner and a lunch with art types, to a label that some could only wear to see the first group on Halloween. True, BV has continued to fill out store and website with safer non-runway pieces, where the less brave can pick out a collared shirt here, one half of a suit there. But that isn’t how I shop. I am a Romantic completist, and I want the whole of the most glamorous looks. Otherwise, why bother?

There’s nothing at all wrong with the new look. In fact, most of the clothes in our wardrobe labyrinth are of the statement—demand people embrace their funky side—kind. But the passing of the Maier BV means we have lost a brand that satisfied those of us who felt too young and weird for Zegna or Brunello Cucinelli but too sophisticated for trendy and logoed streetwear. Daniel Lee’s work combines a limby, stretchy monochrome reminiscent of Rick Owens via a late 60s and 70s palette with highly structured, futuristic, power tailoring. It is an often uneasy compromise, as if we aren’t quite sure whether the next generation will be a liberation in casual diversity or, after the apocalypse, a world of imagined leisure controlled once again by men in big suits. Each garment, however, taken singly, shows merit and thought. It will be a pleasure, following the company’s delicious withdrawal from social media, to follow the new BV in-store.

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