The most breathlessly hyped debut in this month of fashion shows was not a new urban streetwear label, or an avant-garde couture house. It was for Bottega Veneta, a venerable Italian brand rooted in leather craftsmanship.
The buzz at Bottega Veneta emanates from the new creative director, a Central Saint Martins-educated 32-year-old Brit, Daniel Lee – and specifically from Lee’s previous role as director of ready-to-wear at Celine, where he was right-hand man to Phoebe Philo.
Philo’s departure from the fashion scene a year ago left a chasm in fashion where her achingly cool aesthetic had been. A legion of women in mourning for Philo seized on the idea that Lee would be their saviour.
The hyperbole is deliberate. “Old Celine” – as it is known in the industry, to differentiate it from the shrunken and sequinned “New Celine” under current designer Hedi Slimane – was not just a wardrobe, it was an identity.
It cannot be defined by any one silhouette or colour palette – it bent toward a generous trouser shape, and toward colours like brick red and cream and olive – but it was, above all, an emotional tone. It was grownup without being old-fashioned, dignified without being prim, cool without being posturing. It was a lot to live up to, especially viewed through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia.
In the event, the new Bottega Veneta unveiled under glorious sunshine at Milan’s Piazza Sempione was not Old Celine. There were moments when the Philo-Lee axis was clearly visible: in a blood-orange knit dress with a languid front tie; in a scoop-neck cream sweater worn with black leather trousers that managed to look both effortless and daring; in round-toe soft leather pumps. But the heartbroken ex-Celinites looking to Lee to be a knight in shining armour were not swept off their feet.
Lee’s first full catwalk show showed an aesthetic more distanced from Philo’s Celine than pre-show teaser offerings had suggested. The show opened with a black leather dress with an angular sweetheart neckline. Bare décolleté proved to be a theme.
Backstage after the show, Lee said that he adopted the style from Italian Renaissance paintings, in which women often expose skin above a low neckline. “It’s a part of the body that women feel comfortable exposing, no matter what their age,” he said.
It was Bottega Veneta’s Italian heritage, rather than Lee’s background at Celine, which was foregrounded at this show. Lee, who has also worked at Maison Margiela, Balenciaga and Donna Karan, was reluctant to engage in backstage deconstruction – “I’m too tired,” he said – but did say that he started by looking at “Italian fashion, and all that it stands for”.
A distinctively Italian appreciation for urban dressing that is neither sneakered streetwear nor shoulder-padded power dressing but a soft-power chic somewhere between the two – an exquisite loafer, the softest leather bag, a perfect knit – made itself felt here. There was a beautiful sculpted trouser suit, worn with a ruffled black silk blouse and a sleek envelope clutch; chic kitten heel courts; and totes in the intrecciato basket-woven leather, which is a house signature.
The show was not the emotional reunion that fans of Phoebe Philo had been hoping it would be. But, in its own way, it could be the start of something special.