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 Has the label we once sought for lush pieces of rich anonymity, an acceptable compromise with that toad, maturity, been replaced by hype, by the unwelcome curled lip of recognition from the teenage drop-catcher?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.