About a year ago, Bottega Veneta announced Daniel Lee as its new creative director. This was noteworthy because he replaced Tomas Maier, who served in the role from 2001 to 2018, longer than any head designer of any luxury brand that I can recall in recent history, outside of a designer’s own label. Given the designer musical chairs that goes on among brands within larger, publicly-traded groups, Tomas Maier’s tenure was especially unique. Daniel Lee (whom I’d assumed was Asian at first but is actually a freckly Brit from Northern England) is younger (32 vs. 61) but not lacking an impressive résumé: he previously worked as the head of women’s ready-to-wear at Céline and before that, was employed by Maison Margiela, Balenciaga, and Donna Karan.
Bottega Veneta, for the layperson, is the historic leathergoods nameplate that was established in 1966 in the Veneto region of Italy (northeast, near Venice), recognizable by its iconic woven nappa leather, a technique called intrecciato. The name and look was brought to broader prominence by appearances in movies like American Gigolo (1980)—its Lauren clutch on the arm of Lauren Hutton throughout the film.
The house was acquired by Kering Group in 2001, joining brands like Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent to form one of the largest luxury fashion conglomerates, and with new corporate funding, grew its fashion clout under Maier’s tutelage. During that time, the brand fully built-out its offering, even expanding into furniture and interior design—I took the SDA Bocconi Luxury & Arts Club to the BV Home showroom in Milan on a field trip in 2016.
Throughout my own fashion education and the refinement of my personal style, I have always liked Bottega Veneta’s approach (which for all my adult life was Maier’s BV). Unlike many of his counterparts, Maier practiced restraint with Bottega, never straying into the ostentatious. The brand’s consistent tagline was “when your own initials are enough,” and I loved that sentiment, because it was the antithesis of Louis Vuitton and Gucci (even Hermès), which felt more about displaying that you had money rather than displaying that you had taste, which others would only recognize if they knew what they were looking at. The coy nod rather than the brash exclamation.
Everything that the brand produced under Tomas Maier’s direction looked upscale and elegant, often subtle, but rarely fun. Items across the product spectrum were made to somehow integrate the label’s iconic intrecciato nappa leather (or a woven motif in other materials). It was all very beautiful, but it was also conservative. Safe from a design perspective, neat and tidy as a complete package. I guess it’s no surprise that the German designer exhibited impressive attention to detail and an exhaustive meticulousness that seemed almost sterile at times.
And so now, in mid-2019, we see a dramatic shift at the house of Bottega Veneta, spearheaded by a relative newcomer who is methodically trying to strike a balance between the traditional elements of the label and an edgier nod to the future of it. Has he succeeded?
Daniel Lee’s leathergoods: playing with textures and scale
The first collection of accessories that Daniel Lee released earlier this year were bags and small leather goods in familiar but all-new textures, which I was able to see in person in Las Vegas in March. One collection is made from perforated nappa leather called leggero that is (truly) buttery soft, intended to imitate high-end perforated leather car interiors. The perforations are also done in a diamond pattern which imitates the brand’s woven leather, which I assume was part of the point.
At first I wasn’t a fan, but it’s grown on me and now I love its material suppleness juxtaposed with the perforated, sporting vibe. My picks: a boxy crossbody bag (above) and a diminutive “wearable pouch” (below) just big enough for a phone, wallet, and keys.
Next, Lee upended the intrecciato motif by scaling it: the original remains but is joined by a medium and a large-scale weave, both of which to my eyes, diminish the intricacy and complexity of the original, which requires a greater number of interwoven strands, and thus, its specialness.
What do you think?
Different? Yes. Terribly interesting? Not really. I still like the original.
For other leather accessories (bags and wallets), there are some new finishes and treatments that frankly feel wholly un-Bottega, like: paper touch nylon (screams premium mediocre), Marcopolo calf, which looks quite rubbery online and in person (Marcopolo used to denote the label’s coated canvas fabric, so not sure if the idea is that both are water-resistant?), and a french calf, which is lovely looking but ultimately generic, and forgettable. I’m not sure what the marketing value of french calf is, but it strikes me as sorta low-brow marketing lingo that an aspirational luxury brand might use rather than one with the stature of Bottega.
With all of these new material treatments, I have to wonder if they’re not only an attempt to introduce lower price points and overall variety, both of which were lacking at Bottega during the Maier years, but also an attempt to squeeze a bit more profit out of each SKU. Nylon is incredibly inexpensive to produce, and none of the finishes on those items look especially complicated, but prices still start at $1,150 for a belt bag.
The same is true for Marcopolo, which has a textured, hatched finish not unlike Prada’s Saffiano or Louis Vuitton’s Taiga, which are achieved by shaving down pieces of hard leather and adding an artificial texture and lacquer. This process allows the brands to use lower-quality hides since any imperfections get eliminated or disguised by the treatment. The end result is a hard, scratch-resistant leather that is great for travel, luggage, or perhaps on utilitarian pieces, but is far from supple or beautiful. Far from scrumptious!
On the other hand, Daniel Lee has developed several more interesting, more notable shapes and finish concepts. One is the hard-sided small bag, almost like a masculine minaudière, which is classically a woman’s accessory. Lee executed this idea in medium-scale intrecciato and also in a more modish, pop-art-esque geometric padded leather. As soon as I saw both, I thought those are cool. They speak to the increasing cross-pollination between gender-specific collections within brands, which are making more and more unisex pieces fit for men, women, or non-binary individuals.
With all of these designs, Daniel Lee is clearly asking more questions and questioning assumptions about menswear. Why not this? And I’m happy he’s at least exploring those answers.
It’s also nice that with any new treatment, there are smaller items to satisfy the itch without having to drop $3k. Like this card case in padded paper calf ($300).
Regarding leathergoods and bags, I have a few other observations. First, you’ll notice that many of the bags now lack connecting hardware, like rings that attach handles and straps to bodies. Instead, straps and handles are attached directly to the bag. Probably irrelevant to most, but something that I notice. Maybe it lends a more streamlined, less bulky, more monochromatic silhouette, but something tells me it also reduces the production cost of an item, and ultimately was a business decision.
For those items that do have hardware, like clips, rings, and zipper pulls, they’ve moved from leather zipper pulls and matte dark metal zippers and pulls cross-hatched with the intrecciato look to a shiny silver metal zipper and larger, shiny silver pulls with no visual branding or special treatment.
Again, fairly minor, but an overall move toward a more generic look and a less special Bottega Veneta experience. Add to that the very cheap-looking branded lining of some of the new designs (above)…ick! For sure not a fan.
I much prefer the gray cotton lining that was simple and elegant to this, which is closer to something Tumi would do than a brand known for its beautiful leather bags.
My last comment on the leather accessories is this one: why the external branding stamp? That’s one way Bottega was always so cool, because it didn’t have BOTTEGA VENETA MADE IN ITALY front and center. Of course its designs were iconic and recognizable, but it had an almost “you have to be in the know” attitude that I appreciated, almost unlike any of its contemporaries. This change has got to be a business calculation, since the Instagram generation is (still) clamoring for logos and loud branding. Subtle is out.
Can I deal with it? Yeah. Do I love it? No.
Daniel Lee’s footwear: solid and sturdy
Whereas Tomas Maier’s footwear was more delicate, perhaps more slight and reserved, only occasionally touching on the rugged, Daniel Lee’s footwear is bolder and more utilitarian. The shapes are bigger and more shocking, but the color palette is decidedly darker, like looking at what Lee’s version of a uniform might be. There’s a lot of black (this is true across the whole collection of products), and much of Maier’s footwear was often in strange hues (like mustard yellow or raspberry pink) that frankly no chelsea boot should ever exist in.
I won’t complain about the basic colors or greater use of non-leather soles, because even expensive footwear takes a beating (I have resoled and repaired many), and by equipping his range of boots with chunkier soles, many with rubber or foam, they’re much more comfortable to wear all day long and in uncertain weather (hello San Francisco and Milan).
I actually really love several of the boots this current season. They’re simple and unembellished, and appear to be wardrobe staples that could truly last year after year. True investment pieces.
Initially, this first pair looks a bit out of proportion, and a true in person trial is the final decider, but I kinda love how bulky and ready for the worst they look. Plus, and this is no minor point, they’re pull-on. There’s nothing worse than getting home after a long day or night and having to unlace shoes in order to get them off. I prefer the brown (@ Barneys) for a touch of contrast, but my contact at Bottega tells me the boutiques are only getting black. At $990, they’re no bargain for sure, but are in-line with the going pricing for high-end, name-brand boots.
A variation on these that is a slimmer, less extreme design, and probably better for prolonged walking are these pictured below, in both pull-on and laced versions. They are extremely light, and again, I love that they have details like the bonded rubber toe box that appear equipped for the elements.
Elsewhere in shoes, per the current trend of blocky, ugly sneakers, Daniel Lee has introduced a new shape that speaks to that aesthetic without going completely off the elegance reservation. The Speedster is about as balanced as one can get within the scope of extra bulk, and I think it’s a pretty decent looking shoe. It also comes in some interesting colors, with a variation that includes contrasting laces.
I tried them on at the San Francisco store, and they looked totally silly with my slim-skinny trousers. I haven’t quite mastered the baggy, slouchy pant look and the whole trend (looser, boxier, and blockier) requires total commitment.
In any case, I do think these are the best-looking of the blocky sneaker trend, the longevity of which is uncertain, so I wouldn’t consider them a great investment.
Daniel Lee’s jewelry: flashier
I loved a lot of the Maier-era mens jewelry designs in sterling silver. They were artistic, masculine, and muted, but with just enough of a glitz factor. While living in Milan I purchased a silver band ring with smoked quartz stones added in varied sizes (below left). It was a great ring, but ultimately too delicate—I had to repair it (have the stones replaced) several times, all at Bottega’s expense under warranty. Then I sold it on eBay to a woman in Australia.
Then in New York a few years back, I fell in love with a sort of signet ring composed of three garnet stones surrounded by black enamel (above middle). That particular collection was really elegant, and one of Maier’s last before the changeover.
The newer Daniel Lee jewelry is less intricate, less embellished, but rather bolder and brighter. I can’t say I love much of it. I tried one ring on—a sort of flat cushion signet, and the finish was simply too shiny (above right). I felt like I was wearing a woman’s piece of costume jewelry, or perhaps something highly-polished from Tiffany’s. I returned it.
I do however have hope: these simple bands in antique silver are nice (if not too plain?) and there looks to be more enamel coming. For now it is only applied to cufflinks, but I can imagine it showing up on rings or bracelets too.
Another early element that appeared in some of the pre collection jewelry is the curb chain, which I really detest and think looks incredibly unrefined. And trendy. It’s everywhere lately, and feels far too hip-hop for Bottega. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And Daniel Lee’s ready to wear: a mixed bag
Last but not least is ready-to-wear, arguably the least important part of Bottega’s business as I’d posit that most of its sales come from the previous three categories. Or perhaps they’re more evenly matched, but the conventional wisdom is that accessories are the sellers for these brands while ready to wear is a halo product that helps brand cachet but is ultimately a financial write-off.
The new, Daniel Lee apparel is 100% edgier, more on-trend, and ultimately, wearable. I say that because it’s more casual, slouchier, and less buttoned up—exactly the way the world is moving. It’s also more technical, showing up in synthetic fabrics like polyamide (not a fan), and in a less earthy, more primary array of colors. There’s lots of black, white, red, and yellow, with a few instances of teal or olive, but very few warm, autumnal shades. And that’s fine by me, as I generally prefer richer, more saturated primary hues to anything with a washed, vintaged, verging on pastel look. Oh, and almost no patterns or prints, unless they’re tonal and imprinted.
Some things I really like, pictured below from left to right: the plain boxy t-shirt in thick cotton, the sweater in techno knit (polyamide) with flashes of primary blue, and this ridiculously lux anorak in hidrology calf (heat bonded, unlined). I’m a big fan of color-blocking, and if nothing else, the new Bottega ready to wear is good for that.
I haven’t however tried any of the apparel on to see how it fits, so I can’t speak to how it may have changed from the Maier era. During that time, everything was cut particularly slim, such that anyone with broader shoulders (me) had to go up a size in order to fit from the chest up. A lot of Daniel Lee’s garments appear to have some stretch or be boxy to begin with, so I’d imagine they would fit most frames just fine.
Aside from basic things like cotton t-shirts, cashmere or wool sweaters, and some leather jackets, there are also a few peculiar items made of mesh/sheer knits, others with bits cut out completely, or with exaggerated shoulders that have an almost Balenciaga-esque sharpness. Great for the fashion show crowd or as statement pieces, but not truly wearable.
With all that said, the apparel is even more astronomically-priced than shoes and accessories, relative to all the alternatives out there, which is another reason it tends to not be the main seller. A t-shirt for $350 is a little intense for even the wealthiest of shoppers. I might however consider it (as I did in the past) at half-off during the biannual sales.
A note on Daniel Lee’s women’s collection
I’d be neglectful if I didn’t at least mention how the women’s side of the label is going under new creative director Daniel Lee. I won’t speak to how things have changed, as I didn’t spend much time analyzing those pieces in the past, so I don’t feel qualified. However, I do like some of the new bags that Lee and his team have designed, which are quite the departure without feeling completely off-base.
First, there are new versions of familiar shapes. The Lauren clutch has been redesigned and streamlined, now called The Pouch, and comes in smaller sizes and different textures and finishes, like: a crackled metallic lambskin (gorgeous and glam), hand-knit in nappa leather loops (abstract and textural), and in medium-scale intrecciato (timeless). A friend sent me a photo of the one she bought, which is The Pouch in black butter calf. If I had to pick on item to buy on the women’s side, it’d be this bag ($1,250 entry point).
Otherwise, there are a bunch of unfamiliar things in new and interesting shapes and sizes, with lots of hardware or without, referencing other brands and moments in time.
The Arco (below left) feels very Céline to me (old, Pheobe Philo Céline though, not the new Hedi Slimane Céline). I don’t dislike it, though I think contrast stitching is chintzy. The Drop bag (below middle) is gorgeous and organic-looking, something right out of the 70s, and something my mom would have loved. And then there’s this mixed metal minaudière (below right), which is positively art deco and amazing.
Women’s footwear is a similar mix, of familiar things, new things, and influences from elsewhere. I get a lot of 90s Gucci from the square toe boxes (something BV is doing both in menswear and womenswear) and metallic leather (below left). Margiela shows up with the almost deformed-looking Bloc and Padded Bloc pumps (below center), which have a similar eye-catching toe to the Tabi, one of his earliest signatures.
And I get a bit of The Row’s slightly dowdy, plain aesthetic in things like the Almond pumps and flats (below right). But oddly I don’t dislike any of these, in fact I think most of them are quite fun and interesting and different. If there are references to be made, these aren’t bad ones.
There’s a lot of change and newness to absorb at Bottega Veneta, especially after so many years of a consistent look and feel. I think Daniel Lee is doing remarkably well, balancing tradition and evolution, to bring the brand to a more modern stance, both because it’s simply the nature of things—to change and evolve—and because the bottom line necessitates it.
The phrase that came to me while writing this post is “an imperative for practicality,” meaning that while beauty and artistry will always be important in fashion, ultimately there is an imperative for all products, but especially very expensive ones, to be practical as well. What is the point in buying beautiful things if they are delicate, wearable only in very specific conditions, so much that you’re afraid to wear and use them and thus, they end up languishing in the closet? That is no way for an item to have life.
Within these new collections, there are elements of trendiness, of gratuitous visible branding, and of minute changes in fabrics and finishes that diminish some uniqueness, but the core of Daniel Lee’s vision for Bottega Veneta is practical, relevant, and beautiful in a more widely useable way.
I wonder sometimes if I loved Tomas Maier’s Bottega Veneta because it was dignified, infinitely Milanese (i.e. stoic), and is how I would have seen my mother dress in another life, with more resources and a different set of priorities. For those reasons I will always have a fondness for those years.
The new design direction headed by Daniel Lee is a reminder that Bottega Veneta, via Kering, is ultimately accountable to shareholders and stock price (i.e. the business), and thus, requires fresh novelty and an offering that speaks to the zeitgeist. A part of me resents that profitability informs creative direction, but I also understand that newness is what holds consumers’ attention and evolution is inevitable.
The process of completely overhauling the design language of a brand (down to the logo and the retail spaces) has become the norm for high-profile brands that have the potential to make millions in revenues for their corporate parents, but perhaps aren’t realizing enough of that potential. Gucci swapped Frida Giannini for Alessandro Michele in 2015, moving away from more conservative, classic designs to a decidedly younger, more playful aesthetic. And it worked—Gucci saw a massive boost in revenues, though that momentum has slowed lately.
The same has been true for other efforts to modernize established brands: Hedi Slimane took over Yves Saint Laurent in 2012 (and dropped the “Yves”), followed by Anthony Vaccarello; Nicolas Ghesquière ran Balenciaga from 1997 to 2012, followed by Alexander Wang and now Demna Gvasalia.
Prada, by contrast, has had the same head designer for its entire existence as a fashion label (circa 1988)—that’s Miuccia Prada, daughter of the founder. But, the brand and larger group (which includes Miu Miu, Church’s, and Car Shoe) are only partly publicly-traded. The family still retains approximately 80% ownership, meaning they can make design decisions regardless of how the business is doing. And many would argue that the brand is in need of a serious shake-up, both from a design and business perspective.
It will be interesting to see how Bottega Veneta continues to evolve in time, and I’m sure Daniel Lee won’t be the last leader of the brand’s creative direction. For the time being, he seems like the right creative visionary to ruffle feathers, reinvigorate the internal culture, and signal a new period of creativity at a brand that so many hold in high regard.