Dion Lee’s positive bias for Autumn
Dion Lee has just returned from Paris, where he spent his days taking appointments in a white-walled room in Le Marais district, talking his way through a rack of silks in white, black, inky blue and gleaming teal. He was there to explain to buyers, stylists and members of the international press, with a precision and clarity that is integral to his brand DNA, that this collection is about letting gravity take its course, about leaving fabric to fall of its own device.
Although selling in Paris has been a six-monthly ritual for the past four years, there was something new this time, because Lee – long known as a fashion architect, a master cutter whose patterns, to the untrained eye, are as complex and indecipherable as blueprints – has built a collection around the idea of collapse.
It turns out embracing “the ease of allowing things to happen for themselves” suits the typically more structured designer. Since his Autumn/Winter 2015 collection showed in New York three weeks ago, it has been garnering praise, both in the media and from buyers, for its restraint and, more importantly, for its ease.
Lee has been the golden boy of Australian fashion since before he graduated from the Sydney Institute of Technology (now Sydney TAFE). His work showed a complexity and maturity of vision that made starting a label fresh out of fashion college – something many Australians do, though few should – a perfectly reasonable proposition. Since launching his eponymous brand in 2008, he has won every award Australian fashion has to offer, and his work is described with such breathlessness that it wouldn’t be surprising to see a few more prizes invented purely in his honour.
That the rest of the world hasn’t embraced his talent with quite the same ferocity has been a source of consternation for some. When Lee lost the International Woolmark Prize to Christian Wijnants in 2013, the word “robbed” appeared in the local press more than once.
However, none of that consternation is coming from Lee himself. “It’s really important for a brand to be consistent in any strategy,” he says, “and I have been very focused, knowing that building an international business is not something that is going to happen in one season.”
Since Lee started showing overseas, Paris has been a constant but New York came later. After one show in London in 2012, the designer had his first New York show in September 2013, just three months after entering into a partnership with Cue Clothing Company.
“In terms of where I see the long-term positioning of the brand, New York felt like the most relevant place to profile [it],” Lee says. “Culturally there are a lot of parallels between New York and Sydney, and there’s more of an affinity to the style in both the summer and winter seasons … If you look at all the brands that have been successful in the American market, they’ve been quite consistent in their presence and strategy in order to support that market.”
The partnership with Cue, and the move away from London, were both markers of a new sensibility from Lee, and a new set of ambitions. London embraces eccentricity. Wearability is welcome but not strongly encouraged, and the highest form of visibility is dressing a pop star. Meanwhile, New York is more commercially focused and A-list actresses are the celebrity clients of choice.
There has been a gradual decluttering with each season Lee has shown in New York, and Autumn/Winter 2015 is the cleanest yet. Of his natural restraint he explains, “It’s been happening progressively in elements of each collection.”
Lee’s academic muses, drawn from biology and geophysics, have faded away, but his rigorous approach to craft remains. Although his collection employed mainly traditional evening-wear fabrics, such as tailored wool and silk satins – slashed into ribbons as slinky as a snake’s belly and used to craft skinny trousers and formfitting gowns – he still experimented a little.
This was the first season Lee has cut on the bias, a technique beloved by high-fashion customers for granting a subtle stretch and flattering fall to otherwise ungiving woven fabrics. He also used die-cut cloth as an eye-catching flounce on a one-shouldered top, and draped it over pencil skirts to create an effect like laser-cut paper netting. “[The fabrics were] cut in a circular pattern that allows them to drop down and separate as they move down the body. So if you lay the piece flat it actually becomes a large perforated circular shape,” he explains of the technique.
Leather, crepe and wool–silk blends also received the cutaway treatment. “It’s something that we developed in our studio. There’s a lot of fabric experimentation and different manipulation processes that we play around with in the lead-up to each collection.” The financial support from his business partners at Cue has helped this process considerably. “It allows me access to more resources for each collection, and more ability to build the closest thing to an atelier in Australia.”
Continuing to make clothing in Australia, despite it being “really, really difficult”, is central to Lee’s ongoing vision for his brand. “We’re very much about building a strong foundation for the brand in Australia, while also being consistently present in the international market. It shouldn’t have to be one or the other.” In addition to manufacturing, that foundation also includes a strong retail presence. Lee now has two retail stores in Sydney and one in Melbourne.
The designer tells The Saturday Paper his latest collection was praised for its “softness” and “ease”. Perhaps more than anything, it is his customers who have inspired this effort. “It’s been a really great resource in terms of information… [I’ve learned] from both our retail team and directly from the customer … how important comfort is, and how a garment feels on the body. It all feeds into that concept of wanting to feel comfortable in your clothes, and wanting there to be an ease to everything you put on.”
Beyond conceptual brilliance, in the aftermath of dizzying hype, that lesson was the true revelation of Lee’s latest outing. The cycle of feedback from his retail customers is permeating every area of the Dion Lee brand. It has allowed him to crystallise the role of his luxury basics range, Line II, which he now sees as a “parallel brand” with “wardrobe solutions that cross over between the two”. It has also given him deeper confidence in communicating with his international buyers. But most of all, it has allowed Lee to more deeply understand his woman. “There are many people to please, and many perspectives, I suppose,” he says.
It has often been said that Lee’s signature is found in tenseness and contrast: masculine versus feminine, hard versus soft. But this season, he found compromise instead, and the collection was so much the better for it.
“Even the most tailored clothes need to be functional,” he insists. “It’s always the balance, finding something that balances the aesthetics of how you want it to look, and the fit, and how you want it to feel.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Positive bias". Subscribe here.