Two weeks ago we received at headquarters the first of a steady trickle of deliveries from an unfamiliar source. DSW: Designer Shoe Warehouse? Familiar to us from unhappy suburban interludes, DSW sells made-for-outlet pieces produced by fading middle class brands long since sold for their logos. Sniffing misappropriation of company funds, we descended the service stairs and entered the intern breakroom cum cleaning closet. “Ooooh. Open one,” stammered a faceless voice, the dim light revealing beneath an old card table two white Gucci sneakers, scuffed, not intentionally in Italy, but from knocking about in our dim corridors, the lateral angle of a worn heel the only distinguishing feature of this nameless creature. “Please, open one.”
We prized open the box and found inside a white soft cloth bag. Spying a few green letters printed on it we supposed the bag to contain a summer sports accessory. In fact, folded as if in surrender in this expedited wooden trunk was the furled white standard of Daniel Lee’s bag and garment covers, introduced during his highly publicised and wildly uneven tenure at Bottega Veneta. Lee’s time at BV revealed his gifts: for interesting and luxurious fabrics, innovative tailoring, and skillfully synthesised street and athletic references applied to shoes and bags. This first DSW shipment revealed a stocky polyester drawstring cylinder wrapped in thick black bands of leather exoskeleton. A typically intelligent combination of material and implied purpose.
Further deliveries arrived. First, a light blue athletic anorak with exaggerated ripstop cords and heat appliqued zipper channels. Later a matching pair of trousers in nylon gabardine. Both of them interesting tech fabrics, but none implausible as a capsule collection from Lululemon or Rapha. Both shipped from DSW for under $300 USD. A worrying sign, surely. Was this the endgame for Bottega Veneta, or simply a hard departure from Lee’s spell? Less pessimistically, was this simply the orphaned clothes of the long COVID pandemic? Despite all the talk of BV’s revival, was this a sign that they weren’t actually selling all that much?
Although Daniel Lee’s gifts were quickly evident, he seemed more comfortable offering them, in a multitude of looks so variable that they could have supplied several sub-labels, than he was demanding anything from BV buyers in return. There was no sense of what Lee might want or expect from his imagined women, or if he had any at all. His Spring ‘22 show for BV revealed a Simonsian degree of obsession with a cultural moment-motown, was it?-but without any clear narrative connection to the clothes themselves. Instead we had white clingy tennis dresses. Too often, as with his withdrawal of the brand from social media, Lee was exacting about irrelevancies.
Matthieu Blazy’s first show promised, in its degree of continuity or change, perhaps the clearest explanation yet of Lee’s departure.
Continuities. Blazy has in many ways continued Lee’s shift to a more demotic Bottega Veneta. The show’s opening looks were a women’s cotton tank top and parent jeans followed by a matching men’s look with button-down shirt. Streety and trendy rather than conceptual, the viewer is expected not only to marvel, but also to pay Dior/Hermes prices for these looks because the ironic cotton tops are doubly so: they are made of expertly cut and draped leather. Fortunately, this gambit was, despite being our first taste, not the presiding theme of the show. It was one of several ideas, like a gorgeously tailored oversized boyfriend work shirt cut large in the arms and back, which revealed a crescent, kicked-by-a-horse silhouette. And yet, the neck and bust are gorgeously fitted. Paired with black thigh high leather boots and a pillow bag, it was an unexpectedly sexy look.
Nevertheless, the post-Maier BV era has placed far too much pressure on the surprise fabric. The fabric has so often needed to be a surprise because the look was so conventional, especially given Lee’s, and to a lesser extent Blazy’s, preference for monochrome pieces/looks. Eager to appeal to a less stuffy demographic, Lee swapped the playful colours and patterns of the rich-Dad looks of Tomas Maier for streetwear essentials in rich-Dad materials. The resulting clothes are far too serious. Making streetwear collectible or desirable is so much more work-for designer and pressed to do their research consumer-than a playful or beautifully coloured cashmere top from the Maier era. The old BV tried far less hard. Gimmicks are stressful. It is far more rewarding to dress down or camp up adult fundamentals, where you have a chance at a range of ages, than it is to luxe up undergarments.
Departures. This debut from Blazy revealed several promising points of departure. Blazy’s woman, so far, is a more historically oriented woman than Lee’s. Where Lee preferred monochromes, flat ‘70s colours and clingy and cropped boucle, his models tended to rely on their bodies and indigenous sex appeal. Kate Moss, not modelling but partying, in a dim ’90s club. Blazy’s women by contrast seem to appreciate the history of dressmaking and clothing. They understand the power of dress to simultaneously attract and conceal.
A series of lingerie-strapped semi-transparent dresses (looks 61,63,65,68,69) combine a bold sensuality with classic formality. Visible undergarments paired with gestures of feminine formal dress—opera gloves, thigh high leather boots, elaborate print and embellishment—suggest a more productive play with high and low dress codes than Lee could muster. Even if Blazy’s woman could rely solely on her shape, she nevertheless appreciates the transformational, rather than amplifying possibilities of dress. Bruno Sialleli got off to a great start at Lanvin by similarly appealing to the traditions of femininity and dressmaking at his historic fashion house.
Another welcome change is Blazy’s willingness to combine colour in a single look. The best looks in this show use colourblocking, rather than monochrome, like men’s look 23: a classic Maier era use of colour. Gorgeously cropped purple leather pants paired with a perfect high shine black boot. Blazy should pursue these playful combinations, reminiscent of pre-Lee BV, rather than the latter’s shaggy tailoring, which suggests a single coloured uniform for a firm or operation about which the viewer still is not clear. These combinations of colour also offer a pathway out of the skinny moto pant and thick soled shoe pairing that again offered a hollow futurism: all the bad style without spelling out the utopia. Surely that future isn’t Kanye West, who loved this look, which served his disruptive desire to implode fashion which did not look good on him (all of it).
An emphasis on tailoring, for both men and women, represents a happy return to the elevated status BV once claimed. The men’s suits are a marvel, particularly a narrower silhouette evident in look 62, composed somehow of larger cut sections which are tidily joined to form a petite, girlish waist. This beautifully androgynous look is shaped as if the suit was preeminently a women’s garment repurposed here rather than the other way round. An excellent look.
Bottega Veneta after Tomas Maier have had ideas, but they must, in order to keep pace with a marketplace that resembles much of the West in eating its own middle-class, avoid the utterly gratuitous loss of their luxury identity. By making hotted-up colloquial clothes, the brand came in for criticism in some markets for the pricing of its leather goods. Streetwear consumers were queasy bag-buyers. It is far easier and appropriate to make fun with luxury, by making play with print, colour, and cut to surprise the banality of getting and keeping, than it is to disrupt with an eclectic mix of working class images. Often such gimmicks are insulting and subject to cancellation. Blazy, by his commitment to the luxury and glamour of dressmaking with clothes of varying fabric and colour, suggests a much more universal (and international) concept of cosplay, of the idea that feminine clothes ought to inspire transformation and fantasy, to suggest rather than simply reveal the human body.