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.

Dries Van Noten Men Fall 2021

Dries Van Noten’s digital Autumn/Winter 2021-2022 menswear show is, like the past twelve months, a little bit stressful. A fixed camera trained on a patch of sky at dawn. We are looking up, past wide steps, at a grand stone entrance, a frame from which models materialize, from dawn to dusk, to take a couple of steps down to the viewer, before disappearing again. Where are we? The stone of the building seems institutional, grand, noble. But why have we been deprived of context? Are we inside that kind of institution? The anxiety swells as daylight appears, then fades, until finally the label’s beautiful evening wear heralds the close of the day. It is an all too familiar feeling of confinement. 

A significant proportion of the collection reckons with the familiar compromises of this confinement. To its credit, Dries does not attempt the contrived undergarment positivity present in other menswear collections this season (see Fendi; Prada). Even so, some will view the blended work/casual pieces with the weary recognition of familiar asylum uniforms. We have here boyfriend sweatshirts, office shirts stretched to dress length (the Zoom surprise), oversized friar’s hoodies and loafers in a swollen leather that gives them the look of downmarket Christmas gifts.      

It is perhaps telling, however, that the most groomish look, an oversized knitwear cardigan and matching shorts, is complemented by one of the fixtures of the collection, mid-calf length knit socks. The effect is of a cut or (rather sexily) exploded trouser, a casual at-home fixture destroyed in a peal of rage or inspiration. 

Because this is a hopeful show, too. The instrumental soundtrack—overlapping sounds of a clock, metronome, and the desperate banging of a captive—by Belgians Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch is entitled “Eerste Beweging:” first movement (new beginning?). Against darkened skies the models appear before the viewer in shadow, almost as Platonic forms, creatures who still move in the outside world, who see truth. Divine Uber delivery-drivers? We will emerge one day, this show seems to say. And when we do, we have work to do, a world to fix. And we’ll do it in beautiful tailoring. 

gyungyun’s take: 

Dries fans will snap up the dressier jackets and trousers—cinctured beautifully by a smart chain and circle buckle belt—in the familiar varsity colours of his AW collections, but in much wider cut and higher waist than last year. These are contrasted in the collection with a gorgeous cropped trouser, styled brilliantly with oversized tops and coats. The leather version is a must buy

The miserly Uncle in us is tantalized by the fabric per dollar proposition of the generously cut denim in this collection, as well as the utility of pairing with chunkier jackets. Their flowing, straight tailoring provides the additional benefit of moving beyond the ‘90s ( industry) or ‘70s (Gucci) silhouettes. A buy.

Dries collectors will snap up the lovely zodiac embroidered jackets, no matter their inexplicable presence in this show. The turtlenecks, of lovely print and pattern oughtn’t be seen solely as a gesture to at-home wear. Diehards will recognize them as a fundamental part of his explorations of layering and draping. See for example, AW 16-17. Old boys will also have their eye on the black leather/rubber hybrids, in both boot and lace-up versions, both buys, and a mainstay of the gyungyun wardrobe labyrinth since the mid 2000s. 

The leather loafers, a big part of the collection, were initially rated a pass. Jonathan Anderson has been doing versions of these the last couple years. On closer examination, they are, as ever, intelligent and desirable. Skip the rubber soled version and buy the elegant leather split sole, with a practical elasticated ankle and cool chunky heel tab. We would still pass on the pillow bags, however, which are currently in favour at Lanvin and Bottega Veneta. The mixed leather finish backpack and tote, reminiscent of the “giant pocket” trench from Lagerfeld’s SS19 Fendi (womenswear) show, are the outstanding accessories.  

Gyungyun tends to wait until sales on the casual art-inspired print pieces. Unfortunately, these tend to be copied quickly and quite explicitly by other labels, in some cases the inspiration for whole labels, and are heavily inventoried by Western online merchants who have picked up and popularised Dries in the last few years. This comes at the expense of the suiting, which rarely translates well to third party merchant models and styling. A shame, since there is no better value casual suiting for originality, fabric, and price in ready to wear. 

Dries is the anti-”drop” (“dump” as our house style manual would have it) label. It is only by handling in-person the fabric, construction, and more discreet prints from Dries that one can appreciate the house’s profound singularity, its emphasis on merit beyond the algorithmic winners of a phone screen, and, by extension, the achievements of this season. Here’s hoping for an in-person examination.