MILAN — What happened at Bottega Veneta?
The news on Wednesday evening that the Italian company and Daniel Lee were parting ways took the industry by surprise, given the success and level of attention the creative director brought to the brand in a little more than three years.
Precisely because of this upward trajectory, sources, who mainly spoke on condition of anonymity, were left wondering what could have triggered this abrupt split. Many speculated that Kering’s decision was a “brave” one that had to be taken despite the successful streak, which leads them to believe personal issues were stronger than the bottom line.
One source said a “highly dependable, veteran expert in the operations and supply chain department at the Vicenza headquarters, a key reference point for the company, quit last week, and this is just the latest exit in so many. It must have been the last straw.”
Another source said several highly skilled artisans in Vicenza were “struggling and “unhappy with the atmosphere at the company.”
According to multiple sources, Lee was highly creative and influential with his designs, but clashed with several people within the company and was defined as “uncommunicative.”
“At a moment when the company is healthy and the brand performing so well, there must have been personal reasons behind this decision, which is clearly a brave one given his successful streak,” said one source.
“There’s no denying his talent, but on a personal level, handling relations is another matter — also given his working hours, often at night,” said one source. “So many people left, it was a revolving door.”
Just a little more than two weeks ago, Lee staged the latest Bottega Veneta show in Detroit, but it appears the stress and drama of the organization took a toll. “This must have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” a source said.
Another source contended that Lee was “fired with immediate effect,” because of the tension created in Detroit.
On Wednesday, Kering said the 35-year-old British designer would be leaving the brand after more than three years, during which he energized the label with seemingly ubiquitous designs, including woven mules and pillowy clutches. Lee joined the house on July 1, 2018.
“Bottega Veneta and Daniel Lee are announcing their joint decision to end their collaboration,” the group said. “He brought new energy to the house and greatly contributed to the new momentum that Bottega Veneta is enjoying today.”
Kering did not elaborate with a reason for the decision, but added that a new creative organization for the house will be announced soon.
“What’s next? Is there someone within Bottega Veneta that could rise to the top à la Alessandro Michele at Gucci? I doubt it,” said one source. “Kering may decide to promote a number two from another brand, maybe even from Gucci.”
Bottega Veneta design director Matthieu Blazy could be considered an internal possible successor.
The former design director of Calvin Klein under Raf Simons, joined the Italian brand last year.
Blazy spent two years and seven months at Calvin Klein working on men’s and women’s collections and was part of the inner circle that Simons brought with him to New York. That circle also included Pieter Mulier, Simons’ longtime number two who carried the title of creative director at Calvin Klein and joined Simons for runway bows.
Before Calvin Klein, Blazy worked in the studio of Celine under then-creative director Phoebe Philo, and for four years at Maison Margiela, ultimately responsible for its couture line, dubbed Artisanal.
Alessandro Maria Ferreri, chief executive officer and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm, wondered if, given the three-year mark, Lee was renegotiating his contract and perhaps an agreement was not reached with Kering. “There were no signs that this could happen, and I don’t think this was planned in advance,” contended Ferreri. He underscored Lee’s brave new take on the brand, without focusing on the archives or the heritage, but also wondered if his “extreme takeover and statement pieces” balanced other categories that lagged behind, such as men’s ready-to-wear.
Lee, a relatively unknown Céline alum at the time of his nomination, took home a record four prizes at the 2019 British Fashion Awards, including designer of the year and brand of the year. He is nominated in two categories at the CFDA Awards on Wednesday — global designer of the year in men’s and women’s wear.
In recent seasons, Lee has built momentum for the brand with disruptive strategies like erasing its Instagram account and staging traveling fashion shows in locations including London and Berlin. On the latter occasion in early April, the company was at the receiving end of some harsh social media backlash after staging Salon 2 to parade the fall 2021 at the city’s Berghain techno club, as the show attracted guests such as U.K. rappers Skepta and Slowthai, DJ Honey Dijon, Nigerian singer Burna Boy, ballet dancer Roberto Bolle and designer Stefano Pilati. This was seen as an untimely decision to throw an event as the German city was still in lockdown and grappling with surging COVID-19 cases.
The backlash grew even stronger after fashion enthusiast and fashion watch dog @ideservecouture reposted on its Instagram Stories videos of guests partying at Berlin’s Soho House after the show without wearing masks, or respecting social distancing.
“Social media represents the homogenization of culture,” said Lee in March. “I feel that everyone constantly sees the same stream of information. As a creative, I find that very limiting,” Lee added as the brand revealed the release of Issue 01, a new visually focused, quarterly digital journal aimed at exploring an alternative way to engage with its collaborators and worldwide audience.
Commenting on the split, Leo Rongone, chief executive officer of Bottega Veneta, thanked the designer for his dedication to the label.
“He provided Bottega Veneta with a fresh perspective and a new sense of modernity, while remaining respectful of the brand’s 50-year heritage. The remarkable growth of the brand over the last three years bears testimony to the success of his creative work,” he said.
“My time at Bottega Veneta has been an incredible experience. I am grateful to have worked with an exceptional and talented team and I am forever thankful to everyone who was part of creating our vision. Thank you to François-Henri Pinault for his support, and for the opportunity to be part of Bottega Veneta’s story,” Lee said in a statement.
In 2020, Bottega Veneta was the only Kering brand for which breakout figures are disclosed to post growth, with sales up 4.8 percent in comparable terms despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In the third quarter of 2021, organic revenues at the house rose 8.9 percent year-on-year.
“Bottega Veneta continues to do a great job attracting new clients, with sales to younger generations growing faster than the average. At the same time, it is strengthening its appeal with existing customers, resulting in a very well-balanced client mix,” Jean-Marc Duplaix, chief financial officer of Kering, said at the time. “Bottega Veneta is demonstrating quarter after quarter the success of our strategy as it expands the house’s territory, tightens its exclusivity and turns into a truly global luxury brand.”
Last year, the brand represented 9 percent of Kering sales. Leather goods accounted for 74 percent of the total, followed by shoes with 16 percent and ready-to-wear representing only 7 percent of revenues.
François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, thanked Lee for his passion and energy. “His singular vision made the house’s heritage relevant for today and put it back to the center of the fashion scene. I would like to personally thank him for the unique chapter that he has written in the long history of Bottega Veneta,” he said.
A graduate of Central Saint Martins, Lee was previously director of ready-to-wear at Céline, owned by rival conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. This followed earlier stints at Maison Margiela, Balenciaga and Donna Karan. He succeeded Tomas Maier, who helped shape and and elevate Bottega Veneta for 17 years.
On Wednesday evening, Barclays issued a note stating Lee’s departure “is a negative, in our view,” since the designer “brought back some momentum to the brand, which returned to positive organic growth in 2019 after a phase of brand transformation.”