The first time Daniel Lee came to the Motor City was by accident. The British designer was on his way to Jamaica when a daylong layover led to a love affair with what many would consider flyover country.
Fast forward six years to now when the Bottega Veneta creative director chose to stage his third road-tripping Salon series runway show there, the first time in America.
“I wanted to shine a spotlight on Detroit so people can see what greatness is here,” said Lee, a lover of fast cars, techno music and interesting architecture, who was also drawn to the city because it felt a bit like home.
“Detroit and Manchester have a connection,” said the native of northwest England, which experienced a similar economic boom and bust. “Manchester is the industrial heartland of the U.K., and Detroit is the industrial heartland of America.”
Lee became further enamored of the city after seeing Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 partly shot-in-Detroit vampire romance “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which led him to his show venue, the decadently decaying parking deck at the historic Michigan Building Theatre.
A legendary music spot for Big Bands and rock ‘n’ roll until 1976, the theater had to close in part because it didn’t have enough parking for Detroit’s car-reliant citizens. When it was later converted into an office building, some of the floors were turned into parking structures, which still retain the ornate plasterwork archways and balconies from theater days past.
It was a gorgeously moody spot for 200 or so guests to gather to see some spring fashion, including Mary J. Blige, Lil Kim, Burna Boy, Debi Mazar and Jeff Koons, alongside local celebrities Awenate Cobbina, chief executive officer of Shinola parent company Bedrock Group; Library Street Collective gallerists JJ and Anthony Curis; fashion designer Tracy Reese, and pioneering techno DJs Moodymann and Carl Craig, who designed the light and sound.
On the runway, Lee conjured a potent glam Americana with sport utility, innovative materials, high shine and curving lines paying homage to the city’s industrial and sonic history.
Oversize jeans and denim jackets were engineered with metal threads, so they could be squashed and shaped. Technical nylon shirt dresses and parkas came with sculptural, perma pushed-up sleeves, some as big as Michelin man muscles. Knit tracksuits with zip front jackets and flared slit pants had a new, spongy industrial-looking wide weave reminiscent of seatbelts, with sleek knit tank dresses ending in carwash pleats.
Lee also tuned into the city’s history of Motown glam with a fab chartreuse crystal dusted knit polo and skirt set, fit ‘n’ flare leather-edged eyelet dance dresses, black liquid jersey draped dresses and a diva’s dream of a white shearling coat. He used a seductive Tyrone Lebon 2020 legs-and-heels image of Mica Arganaraz wearing Bottega on a cool toweling wrap dress, a duster robe and several other collectible pieces.
He served up plenty of his beloved acid-laced flouro colors and wonderfully weird surface textures, including barnacle-like rubber beads that rustled as they hustled down the runway, and glossy metallic sequins. (Lourdes Leon, whose mama Madonna hails from Detroit, was one of the high-profile catwalkers.)
“The idea was to think about American design, workwear, denim and sportswear and doing that in an engineered way,” said Lee, sharing that for him, Bottega is about simplicity but also innovative technique.
The effect was exciting, sensual and pleasingly modern with enough casual-accessible sportswear to easily merge into an everyday wardrobe.
Accessories were covetable as ever, from new glossy leather hobos and soft-woven Intrecciato squeeze bags to the sport mesh heeled sandals, pointy-toed pumps and the Puddle boot reinterpreted as a high-top sneaker — all of which should keep the Bottega Veneta hype engine running.
Cool clothes aside, the optics of a European luxury brand swooping into an American city that has been a symbol of de-industrialization, racial tension and urban blight, and using it as a set piece, must be considered.
What exactly will it do for Detroit?
Gucci, set to use gritty-glam Hollywood Boulevard as the backdrop for its next show on Nov. 2, announced $1 million in grants for community organizations that work on the key issues of homelessness and mental health in L.A.
Bottega Veneta did not make any similar dollar pledge, but Lee and his team tapped several community collaborators for their pop-up shop at a historic firehouse-turned design consultancy in the trendy Corktown neighborhood, which will soon get its first boutique hotel.
Open through Jan. 16., the store features Bottega mini Jodies, cassette bags, roller skates and parakeet green woven puffer vests alongside curated art, ceramics, music and books from Underground Music Academy, which provides support and education for electronic musicians, and Asmaa Walton, founder of the Black Art Library, among others.
The brand also organized a sightseeing media tour of the city, touching on architecture, design and sound, with stops at the art-stuffed modernist Hawkins Ferry House in Grosse Pointe that’s owned by a gallerist/real estate developer couple; the Techno Museum (a.k.a. the home of Submerge Records) near historic Milwaukee Junction, and the Hamtramck art studio of Chris Schanck, who makes sculptures from foam, tinted resin and automotive finishing paint for high-end collectors and museums.
“He took the time to come in and was curious, it made me feel comfortable. I’m glad they are here,” Schanck said of Lee and Bottega.
Detroit, like many cities, is grappling with gentrification, and its abundance of abandoned buildings and homes are reminders of a city still in crisis even as the creative class grows and expensive condo developments rise. Then again, the widening gulf between haves and have nots is hardly a unique American story.