Reviewing Issues

Regular readers will know we have closely watched the early collections of Daniel Lee’s Bottega Veneta. Our concerns are easily stated: is there any room for younger fans of the old BV in the new? Has the label we once sought for lush pieces of rich anonymity, an acceptable compromise with that toad, maturity, been replaced by hype, by the unwelcome curled lip of recognition from the teenage drop-catcher?  

An examination of the first two numbers of BV’s new digital magazine, Issued by Bottega Veneta, ought to tell us whether we’ve lost a home. On the heels of their withdrawal from social media, a protest, we imagine, of toxic politics and the gonzo celebrities who dull us to it, here is a magazine, a kind of recent-retro late aughts slick PDF e-zine, a collectible modern lookbook for our personal archive, set lovingly aside our collection of the season’s clothes. Or so we thought. At our desk, setting up our working materials, we recovered the email announcing the first issue and clicked on the link. Dead. Gone. Deleted. Just another “snap.” So it is with the BV’s new marketing strategies: bold, near revolutionary ideas (which is to say, restorative: of human interaction and consumption) followed by confusing and often disappointing execution.

There are more worrying paradoxes in this social media retreat. Mere days before the label withdrew from social media in January, it held a widely publicized private viewing (filmed as a pandemic runway show) in London of their Salon 01 collection. The most celebrated attendee of the innovative and diverse new media outlook of BV? Kanye West, fresh off a presidential run which, had it been successful, in his own victory or in the splitting of votes from Joseph Biden and reelection of Donald Trump, would have rolled back even further the tenuous protections of black lives in America. Why would Daniel Lee, who has bravely celebrated black models in all of his collections, continue to associate, and so publicly, with a man whose self-loathing manifests in destructive anti-blackness?

The most recent issue of, ahem, Issued, is another grappling with this tension between innovative, intelligent art and our revanchist single-channel media moment. It contains lookbook photographs in Lee’s so-far signature dim, greasy flashbulb style. Clingy monochrome looks in a just-right formality-it’s in the fabric and cuts-washed out by an overexposed shot of the evening as it begins to turn sweaty. The models are mostly brilliant; diverse, and deceptively common: a few are B list film stars, the kind of whom mother would say aloud, in a machine-gunned satisfaction: “You know who that is, don’t you?”

Other photospreads are more puzzling. Jeremy Scott, father of an heir to the Kardashian/Jenner media monarchy, posing in a camp-masculine version of an album cover for The Cars. Naomi Campbell in an anaemic conceptual piece, heavily (apparently unironically) airbrushed. To be fair, the magazine may be going for a “group show” gallery effect, made up of highly individual interpretations of the BV collections/look. Nevertheless, we are in these shots a long way from those leering, big pored shots preferred by Lee, and in the choice of models, a much longer way from anything approaching a departure from our social media death spiral.

The magazine’s best photography showcases the label’s outstanding, and from a look at the online stores, quick-selling jewelry. These close zooms, of rings on disembodied fingers, on bodies painted to flatter their lustre, represent something of a controlling thread of Lee’s BV. Bodies in these images are a backdrop, a contrasting tone to mid-century colubrine shapes. The confusion of models, then, from anonymous and vaguely familiar to nauseatingly oversubscribed, all suggest a generosity from Lee, a generosity which, like most, is of a kind most easily given: Lee appears not to care very much about his models. 

Some designers work from a muse backwards. A collection, sometimes a career, as an extended grope for an elusive, embodied youth. Daniel Lee is not, it seems, one of those designers. Take, by contrast, Hedi Slimane. Here he describes the inspiration for his Eau de California perfume for Celine:

THE HOUSE IN BEVERLY HILLS WHERE I LIVED FOR TEN YEARS IN THE SCENTS AND AROMAS OF PALO SANTO. THE SAN CLEMENTE AND SAN ONOFRE SURF BEACHES WHERE I SPENT MY SUMMERS, THE SMELL OF CONNOLLY LEATHER IN MY ROLLS ROYCE CORNICHE HEADING OUT ON THE PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY 

Given Slimane’s habit of removing unknown coastal upper-middle class rocker and skater boys to Paris for runway shows, there is an appealing plausibility and coherence to this story. Although to an outside viewer these boys constitued, over the years, a certain type, one verging on predictability-lean, petite, fair, white, androgynous punks-they all nevertheless represent for Slimane so many fresh, thrilling encounters; each model a revelation of that beautiful pyrotechnic period of youthful exploration via subcultures: identity-making. Slimane’s project is to match the most interesting boys with the most interesting times to have been a boy. Models are for Slimane at the core of his creative activity; in his casting he cannot afford like Lee to be generous, flexible, and wilfully incoherent. Slimane will compromise and sanction Celine logo sweaters, but not his jealously guarded concept of models.

This may be generational. There is in Slimane an older, more cautious and constrained gay male gaze, a kind Proust associated with a man called the “solitary,” who jealously guards, from risks of social censure but also from a collector’s personal inclination, their preferred sites of beauty, a man who

“…regard[s] homosexuality as the appurtenance of genius and the great periods of history, and, when they wish to share their taste with others, seek out not so much those who seem to them to be predisposed towards it, like drug-addicts with their morphine, as those who seem to them worthy of it, from apostolic zeal, just as others preach Zionism, conscientious objection, Saint-Simonianism, vegetarianism or anarchy.”

Lee doesn’t invest in models in this way. Lee’s form of inspiration is not the uneasy, possibly illegal application of pure theory to cute boys at the Orange County locals beach. If Slimane is the creepy guy that doesn’t conceal his stare quickly enough, Lee would seem to be upshore, laughing among friends. The new BV employs a slicker and more accessible range of references, hovering breezily over concepts and decades before skipping on to the next.

Consider one of the short snapchat style videos in Issued. The camera follows closely a black and purple feathered trouser bottom as its wearer proceeds down a mostly obscured urban street. The audio is ambient noise: a car passes with windows down, vernacular pop music blaring. Finish. Although the city and its pleasures enhance the garment, they remain strictly ambient, incidental, not, as they would be for Slimane, part of the rigorous structuring theme of a season. In a Slimane production, the model would have been the musician who created the audible pop music. Here, there is no such deep dive into the fabric of an era.

If the marketing people at BV were a contemporary filmmaker, they would be Ryan Murphy. Creator most recently of costume-nostalgia streaming series which have skillfully woven American pop and gay histories, Murphy’s interest in the iconic stories covered in The Death of Gianni Versace or Halston comes with an equally profound challenge: most viewers know how the stories end. Murphy’s shows as a result don’t attempt intricacies of plot. Nor is much time spent on development of character. The streaming series are both too long and too short for this: we tire before long of the repeated flaws of our anti-hero, while briefly important characters appear and fall away without much explanation as the protagonist swiftly reaches his fate.

What then, makes up the six episodes of a season? Murphy’s climaxes are not of plot, but of a coming out, or, more precisely, a going out, with a dedication to the ambience and materiality of a historical moment. Gianni Versace’s most powerful scenes depict Andrew Cunanan intoxicated by his power to appropriate glamour by association with and dominance over the wealthy and powerful. Recall Cunanan exultant while dressing in an older boyfriend’s mansion, seated on a Steve Chase lounge chair. In Halston, the lush and compelling sets hook the viewer before another frenzied going out moment, when our hero marches in full fig to his first night at Studio 54. These music video set pieces, heavily indebted to skillful prop work, suggest in both content and method a kind of glut, a satedness, an excess in both the characters and the limited commitment to plot in these films. The point is the surfaces, the art of the props; in Lee’s case: the clothes.

While Slimane grudgingly reveals the tension between his freighted gaze and its amplification through his models, Murphy gives us Halston snorting cocaine on a red Steve Chase dining table, the legs of which look like nothing so much as the smooth serpentine shapes of BV’s new jewelry. This is gay history for a much more confident audience, one attuned to irony and slow to blush, plenty familiar with that kind of boy, that kind of party.

The Murphy/Lee nostalgia of surfaces is encouraging for fans of Lee’s Bottega Veneta. A persistent and not inaccurate criticism of Slimane over the years has been his repeated harvesting of his own back catalogue. Lee’s inclination for surface inspiration, of ambience or mood over deep narrative is evident in the already impressive range of styles in his collections. So far this has been limited, because of his interest in shapes rather than prints and patterns, to tailoring and the outstanding footwear. But as Lee warms to a wider range of colors and prints in the clothes (we are encouraged, if not convinced, by this season’s Chanel-ish Boucle in wavy stripes), we might hope for further explorations of the epochal surfaces that seem to inspire him, of cultural histories prodded and handled in a utilitarian utopian craftsmanship which happily insists on the centrality of new and underrepresented faces. Here’s hoping BV will follow its own advice and drop the social/reality media dinosaurs as well as their platforms.

Southern California Fieldwork

Yesterday we sent one of our assistant content researchers to explore their local fashion ecosystem. Their official assignment was to compare the colours of Lanvin’s Bumpr sneaker there with our inventory in Asia. Afterward, with a two digit per diem—that’s 00.00, not 00,000.00—local observation for future features.

Turning into the Lanvin store we were greeted with: ‘Are you here for the Curb sneaker?’ After a rapid self-examination of our clothes, we drew ourselves up proudly. What gave the impression that we were contributing to the Foot Lockerfication of the most ancient fashion house? But of course, we were; for the other model, we explained. 

So very many colours! Slight variations of synthetic upper, the latest—we ought to have anticipated it—in full grain leather. Attractive on first release as a retro middlebrow athleisure reference, the lux irony loses its gild when the luxury house itself produces infinite on-demand variations. Thus our discomfort at buying, rather than simply admiring, luxury sneaker trends. 

Jealousy, no doubt: we have been delighted by the resort ‘21 collection, which suggests some of Bruno Sialelli’s range. We wish there was as much of it in our local store as there are sneakers. The resort collection, making use of prints from the twentieth-century Russian artist and designer Erte, is much more grown-up. The preferred wider cut of Sialleli’s trousers are a natural fit with these more formal, wide cut blazers for men. Did we say wide? They aren’t in fact; and this is an attractive conjuring trick of Sialelli’s tailoring. Fitted at the chest, with slim and elongated drainpipe sleeves similar to the women’s, the monochrome colouring, square shoulders, and play with buttons all add a formidable, martial punch to an otherwise androgynous look. It appears that the suit will be as masculine or feminine as its wearer, or better, their mood at the moment. An achievement.

Finally, Sialelli’s preference for warm weather wear doesn’t look quite so sweaty. These clothes might be worn to a glamorous dinner. The womenswear is all about the hardware: gorgeous metal, self-fabric and leather buttons, fixed to jackets and coats (the leather lapelled peacoat is particularly good) with variations of balloon and rounded sleeves, all combined skillfully with refreshing Erte printed silks, scarves and blouses. This, not a hoodie and a bag of Cheetos, is what we aspire to after lockdown. Note the Erte collaboration in our blouse below, bought at Harbour City, Hong Kong.            

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Cross the way at Louis Vuitton, a dozen shoppers wait in line. So, down the corridor, at Gucci. Elsewhere, including Saint Laurent, empty. Black people now shop at South Coast Plaza, something which, before the renewed publicity of the Black Freedom Struggle, was not the case. It is not without shame that one imagines the discomfort that kept them away in the past. 

We explored emerging and underappreciated designers at feel-good local French-owned boutique Please Do Not Enter and, extinguishing our allowance, bought socks. 

Then, to Bottega Veneta, to get, for the first time among our American staff, hands on the latest collections by Daniel Lee. It was, in our brief glimpse, impressive. Despite BV’s apparent resurgence, there was no line at its door, which was moreover, open. Losing ourselves in the moment, we entered, noticing one employee reviewing an accessory with a pair of Chinese women. 

As we paused at the sunglasses, we noticed a tall, lean, bespectacled man polishing a jewelry case in the center of the store. His suit, at the second half of its laundering cycle, brought Dickens to mind, its colour no longer quite black. As we made our way to ready-to-wear he grasped the shoulder-width sides of the jewelry case, as if bracing himself before fainting. Doubled forward over the glass, his neck was peeled stiffly back, like an opened tin of sardines, over which his head lolled heavily. He gasped. 

“It’s ok,” we said, forgetting the times, hoping in this way to indicate a “browser.” 

It’s no wonder Daniel Lee has overseen the label’s retreat from social media. Short on logos, he makes use of impressive combinations of textiles and leather, as with, for example, the Plat Lace-Ups, which looks like an elegant if slight ‘50s football boot with asymmetrical lacing. The woven upper is in fact, to the touch, ingenuously structured, with a beautiful contrast leather tongue. Neither would be evident digitally. 

Examining the shoe, we heard a breathless sigh. “..Lisa…” 

We looked up at the still-stricken store minder. He leaned further over the jewelry case, his back by now as flat as its illuminated glass. He spoke again, this time the syllables stretching to a moan: “Lisaaaa!” 

Unaware, from too much unbroken lockdown, of the agony we were inflicting on the man, we assumed, at best, that he worried of a missed sale; at worst, of theft. 

We had our eyes trained on the curious Quilt sneaker, imagining its proper use, when we heard a dry, halting whisper at one ear. 

“Excuse me, would you leave?” said the polisher, who had silently liberated himself from the liferaft of his jewelry case. His speech, like all which pass through the turmoil of a body suffering from harmless unsociability, was utterly royal. 

Horrified, immediately, on recognizing our violation of health protocol (all of us to a man are devout rule-followers), we fled, giving the polisher, by now perhaps rising at the chance to express a long suppressed occupational wish, our quickest and sincerest apology. Taut with personal anxiety, the polisher’s face softened as we departed to one of sacerdotal benevolence, of commiseration at our recklessness unchecked.

Meanwhile back (far) East, we have added a few BV pieces to the wardrobe labyrinth. About which, more to come. 

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Whenever staff undertake such assignments, we ask—with gyungyun HR staff present—what they are wearing. Our assistant researcher wore a Haider Ackermann sweater styled with BV necklace (unremarked on in-store), Lanvin shoes, and a pair of jeans which were incinerated between research and publication. 

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.

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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.’”

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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.