PARIS — Goodbye seasoned superstar, and hello hidden talent!
Friday’s appointment of little-known British designer Daniel Lee as creative director of Bottega Veneta seemed to underscore a generational shift at the helm of top luxury brands. In recent years, houses including Hermès, Chloé, Courrèges, Mulberry, Oscar de la Renta and Mugler have taken a chance on studio members used to working in the shadow of a star designer.
And with creative searches still under way at brands including Lanvin, Nina Ricci and Emilio Pucci, the future is looking bright for the next generation of design talents, even as established figures like Alber Elbaz, Phoebe Philo, Stefano Pilati and Peter Copping remain on the market.
To be sure, marquee names still have plenty of currency: Witness the recent appointments of Riccardo Tisci at Burberry, Hedi Slimane at Céline, Kim Jones at Dior Homme and Off-White’s Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton men’s. Before them came Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior and Raf Simons at Calvin Klein.
Yet headhunters describe a changing of the guard in the industry’s top echelons.
“A new generation of highly competent designers is arriving on the scene,” said Agnès Barret, founder and chief executive officer of Paris-based fashion recruitment agency Agent Secret. “I think it reflects a moment in fashion. People are looking for deputies who know how to do the job, who have learned a lot, who have a degree of expertise and who are not necessarily well-known.”
“There is a whole generation coming up that have a real point of view,” said another headhunter, who asked not to be named. “They are future stars.”
Several of these rising designers studied at the altar of Martin Margiela, dispensing with seasonal themes and inspirations to focus on individual garments with a rigorous approach to design.
Among the Margiela alumni who have stepped into the limelight are Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski at Hermès, Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga and Nina-Maria Nitsche at Brioni. The latter two brands are owned by French conglomerate Kering, which is also the parent company of Bottega Veneta.
Lee, who interned at Margiela while studying at Central Saint Martins, has a similarly meticulous approach to design that should make him a good fit for Bottega Veneta, best known for its discreet Intrecciato weave handbags, according to Mary Gallagher, European associate for New York-based search firm Martens & Heads.
“He’s very interested in the process: the design, the creation,” said Gallagher, who is familiar with Lee’s work but was not involved in the Bottega Veneta search. “He’s very 3-D on the model — he doesn’t work with computers, no Photoshop.”
The 32-year-old British designer also completed stints at Balenciaga and the now-defunct Meadham Kirchhoff while studying for his B.A. and M.A. at the London fashion school. After graduating in 2011, he briefly worked at Donna Karan, joining Phoebe Philo’s team at Céline the following year.
Starting out as lead designer of leather and fur, contributing to knitwear, jersey and shoes, Lee graduated to director of ready-to-wear in 2017. Lauding Lee’s maturity, Gallagher said: “He’s so poised. He has presence.” Barret said that like his masters, Lee has a conceptual approach to designing.
“He has taken the best of Margiela, without spending years there, and Phoebe happens to work in the same way as Martin. They develop a concept before creating a product,” she said. “I think he’s going to bring a wind of modernity to Bottega. The brand was running out of steam.”
Lee is set to join the house on July 1, though Bottega Veneta did not specify when he will show his first collection. He succeeds Tomas Maier, who helped shape and elevate Bottega Veneta for 17 years with a subtle approach summed up by the slogan: “When your own initials are enough.”
“Maintaining the ingrained codes of the house, craftsmanship, quality and sophistication, I look forward to evolving what has gone before, while contributing a new perspective and modernity,” Lee said in a statement on Friday.
François-Henri Pinault, chairman and ceo of Kering, has a track record of appointing little-known designers at its top brands. The most successful recent example is Alessandro Michele, who has powered a spectacular turnaround at the group’s cash-cow brand Gucci. When Slimane wound up his four-year tenure at Saint Laurent, the group chose the more low-key Anthony Vaccarello.
“I think they can afford to. Some brands can’t afford to because either they want to have stars, or they need to have stars to get people to sit up and take notice and take them seriously,” said Gallagher, noting that Lanvin was a case in point, having cycled through two designers in less than two years.
“But Kering can shake it up a bit, especially after 17 years of having the same creative director. They almost need someone who can usher in the new generation of customer,” she said.
Thomas Chauvet, head of European luxury goods research at Citigroup in London, noted the stakes were lower at Bottega Veneta, which is the group’s third-largest brand after Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.
“Bottega is not a fashion brand. It’s a classic, understated, no-logo brand with a high degree of craftsmanship, so hopefully this guy will bring some newness and buzz and desirability to the brand,” he said.
“It’s not Saint Laurent, it’s not Balenciaga — it doesn’t have a strong fashion content simply because 85 percent is leather goods, and a large chunk of those leather goods is the classic Intrecciato bag,” Chauvet added.
Under Maier’s tenure, revenues vaulted from 48 million euros to almost 1.2 billion in 2017, representing a compound annual growth rate of 24 percent, according to Luca Solca, managing director and head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.
In recent years, the brand has struggled to keep up with rapid changes in the consumer landscape, as demand waned in its key market, Asia, and it failed to tap into a Millennial audience. In 2016, Kering brought in former Hugo Boss chief Claus Dietrich Lahrs as ceo, succeeding Carlo Alberto Beretta.
In a bid to increase its visibility in mature markets, Bottega Veneta recently opened a flagship on Madison Avenue in New York, in tandem with a big fashion show, and will unveil another in Tokyo’s Ginza district at the end of the year.
The company is also set to renovate 30 stores out of its network of 270 and enrich its offer of small leather goods to entice younger consumers. Despite its ongoing turnaround efforts, revenues at Bottega Veneta were down 6.8 percent in the first quarter, even as Kering reported a 27.1 percent jump in sales.
“Daniel Lee has a deep understanding of the house’s current challenges both in terms of creation and development,” Lahrs said in Friday’s statement. “He will bring to Bottega Veneta a new and distinctive creative language that will continue building the house’s success based on the ambitious foundations already developed over recent years.”
Pinault added: “His work is characterized by great rigor, a mastery of studio expertise, a true passion for materials and an energy that I cannot wait to see take shape at Bottega Veneta.”
Chauvet said Bottega Veneta’s turnaround strategy was taking longer than expected to bear fruit, and markets will now have to wait for Lee’s design strategy to emerge.
“They want to grow the non-leather goods product, for sure — ready-to-wear, shoes, small accessories, more affordable price points generally — and they want to move away from the Intrecciato pattern, and it’s difficult,” he said.
“Maybe that rejuvenation, that new eye and angle on ready-to-wear and new categories, will help create a halo effect on the core leather goods business, which has been underperforming other Kering brands for the past couple of years,” Chauvet added.
Barret said Céline offered a great blueprint for revitalizing a brand starting with rtw. “I think they need a total revamp. A runway show raises the profile of leather goods, but if the leather goods don’t evolve, it won’t be much help,” she said. “You have to start with fashion, and the bags will follow.”