#940 Dion Lee: Australia’s new design star (from the NZ Herald)

Image /Nick Hudson

Here’s the profile I wrote about Dion Lee for the NZ Herald while I was in Sydney…

Wunderkind. Boy genius. Overnight sensation. Rising star. Mention Dion Lee’s name to those in the know and these are the breathless exclamations you’ll hear. He’s young, only 23, but already he’s being tipped as the greatest talent to have come out of Australia. Ever. Imagine the pressure. It all got a bit much after his show at Sydney Fashion Week in April. I wandered backstage to grab a quick picture and found him sobbing between interviews and photo requests. But he lived up to the hype – the reviews were glowing and unanimous. Fashion Wire Daily‘s Godfrey Deeney described it as “the best debut collection by any designer on the planet this year”.

Lee is on the telephone when I arrive at his workroom. On the telephone and writing an email. He’s speaking so quickly and typing so furiously that he barely has a moment to wave as I walk in the door.

It’s a two room space. He’s in the small room. I venture into the larger room. A giant cutting table stands in the middle. Long racks adorn the walls, laden with samples and patterns. It’s all very tidy.

“It’s not usually this tidy,” he says, “we had a big cleanup yesterday.”

We walk to a cafe ten metres down the road. He’s polite but not shy, well spoken without a hint of pretentiousness.

We sit down. His phone immediately rings. This happens nine or so times over the course of the interview. He answers it twice, both times apologising profusely.

He tells me how it all started for him.

“We do a full graduate collection when we finish our final year at college, and then we do a parade which all the industry is invited to but never really attends. Christine Centenera from Harper’s Bazaar asked for a couple of pieces then I started working with her quite closely.

“Then I did a show at Fashion Week in 2008. Belinda Seper who owns the Belinda stores and The Corner Shop asked me to bring the collection in and she was really impressed and supportive. For those first two collections she was pretty much my only stockist.

“She also helped me with PR and helped me to build really slowly. Six months later I was organising to do the Sydney Show [April 09] and then from there it built up quite a bit.”

His story reminds me of Yves Saint Laurent’s – though of course it’s a little early in the game to be making such wild comparisons.

But here’s what I mean. The young Yves showed his sketches to Michel de Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue, who in turn showed them to Christian Dior, who hired him immediately.

When Christian Dior died unexpectedly in 1957, 21 year old Yves Saint Laurent took over as head designer. The pressure was immense, but he was surrounded by a core group of powerful women who nurtured him and protected him fiercely from the outside world.

Likewise, Lee’s success can be attributed to a combination of precocious talent and the powerful women around him.

Discovered by top Australian stylist Christine Centenera, supported by top Australian retailer Belinda Seper and now represented by top Australian PR agent Holly Garber, his future success seems almost guaranteed – as long as he stays on their good sides and keeps designing consistently good collections.

He’s quick to assure me that what we’ve seen is just the beginnning.

“I believe that I have better collections in me than these. For me it’s great and really rewarding to have people supporting me from such a young age, but I feel like I’m still undeveloped. On every collection I look back and think, I could have done that better.”

Besides a three-day-a-week assistant, Lee is a one-man army.

He designs, makes patterns and looks after the production, the invoicing, the ordering, the money.

With a little more help with the day-to-day running, more time would be freed up to focus on developing that design talent.

“I definitely know that once I do have people to help me in other areas and I have more time to spend on design, I will be able to progress on everything I’ve done so far.

“I know that [what I’ve designed already] isn’t that great in the scheme of things. It’s very easy to pick apart your old work and think ‘what the hell was that?'”

I mention that George Lucas has a similar attitude to his movie making – he once said that Star Wars was 25 per cent of the movie he would’ve wanted it to be.

“It’s true, and it’s hard because when you design something you have a really clear idea in your head of what you want it to be, and then you’re so busy and you almost lose that time to reflect…

“Once it’s done there’s this period of ‘okay, I don’t really understand it’, and then a couple of weeks after that you start to really understand where the flaws are.”

He’s mature. And level headed, and patient. Over the course of the conversation I keep marvelling that I’m two years his senior – he seems light years ahead.

So I try to bait him. I keep mentioning Paris (where he recently travelled with Holly Garber), and how amazing it would be for him to be based there, or to work for one of the big houses, or to show his own label there alongside the big names.

I think I might be getting somewhere.

“I love Paris, I’ve had an idea for quite some time that it’s where I want to show my collections.”

Then the level head kicks in.

“But since it’s the last leg of the fashion week circuit people seem a bit fatigued. It’s almost like there’s a slight desensitisation to things that are new. You’re competing with the most amazing people in the world.

“The main reason we went wasn’t even to gain wholesale accounts but to meet with PR and sales agencies and get their feedback. They told me that there isn’t a rush. It’s more important that my brand becomes known and is financially structured enough to take that step. For that reason I’m fairly relaxed, I don’t feel like I need to rush.

“I’m trying not to get too ahead of myself. I want it to be really thought out and really calculated.”

I’m simultaneously frustrated and fascinated. Who ever heard of a level headed fashion designer?

But of course, he’s right. If he tries to grow too quickly, he could bankrupt himself with high production costs. If he attempts to open up wholesale accounts in Europe with no name recognition, he’ll die a quick and painful death.

If he shows once then can’t afford to follow up the next season, he’ll fall off the map – out of sight, out of mind. Slow and steady wins the race.

As we’re winding up I ask if it’s a concern for him that all of the big name designers are overseas and that very few designers make it big if they’re not based in one of the centres.

His response, once again, is mature and measured.

“At this stage it’s not a concern, but anything could change. I’ve only been doing this for two years so I’m sure whatever I say now will be complete nonsense in, like, a year. But it’s just good to know that it’s healthy to be organic and evolve in a way that I don’t feel pressure.

“After the Sydney Fashion Week show I was quite overwhelmed by everything that went on and prior to that I put a lot of pressure on myself because I was hearing from so many people that there was such a high expectation to that show, but now I think that I’m happy to take things as they are and keep building stronger collections season after season.

“And I think that’s the thing that will satisfy me more than anything else.”

From the NZ Herald


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  1. says

    Blimmin’ fantastic article. I want to save up my hard earned pennies (it could take a while) and own a piece from Dion Lee…I think he’s going to be one of the few who have the talent, the foresight and the right to succeed in fashion.
    I read an old article in an Aussie Vogue about up and comers and he was one of them. I still heart his blue blazer with the “cut out/fold outs” in the sleeves….

  2. Anonymous says

    They are great pieces, well made and i have seen them in person, but the majority of them are hard to wear and really expensive.
    Realistically for N.Z consumers they will be too expensive to be carried in any retail store i can think of here.
    He should do well in Aussie if he keeps himself grounded but it is really early and as he hinted himself, design talent is only a very small part of making a viable business in this industry.

  3. expensive buyer says

    this is what NZers should think about.. have you ever gone outside of NZ and buy designer cloths? NZ would be only country in the world over $600NZ is a lot.. but really, over $1000.00NZ designer cloths is very well priced and reasonable. like what Anna Wintour said to Alexander Wang.

    If NZ care about NZ designer.. they should pay for THAT kind of price :)

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