NOTHING COULD RAIN ON DION LEE’S PARADE – NOT EVEN HIS HOMETOWN’S NOTORIOUSLY UNPREDICTABLE WEATHER. HIS FASHION WEEK OPENER AT THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE SHOWED WHY THE DESIGNER IS MAGIC WITH FABRIC.
Three hours before Dion Lee begins his final show in Australia, under the sails of the Opera House, it starts to bucket down. Tourists scatter for shelter and the construction of the runway is halted. Lee is being told repeatedly he has to move the show inside: lights cannot be put up as staff may get electrocuted. His team are frantically trying to come up with a plan B. Is there enough room inside? What about moving that bench to this corridor next to the theatre or what about the foyer? Could that make a runway?
But Lee does not want a bar of it. This show means too much to him. The designer is opening MercedesBenz Fashion Week Australia, he is venturing into menswear for the first time and it’s the last time he will show here for the foreseeable future – he has moved to New York, where he has been showing for some years. This is not just any collection; this is a turning point for Lee, a graduation from Australia to the world. It is his time to reflect, pay tribute to his hometown and look forward. And the sails of the Opera House are key.
“I really wanted to remember this show for a long time. It feels really special,” Lee says. “Having moved over to New York, relocating myself personally and relocating the design studio, it feels like it will be the last show I will do here for a while. In that context it has held more weight. It is important that the show does feel iconic and Australian and I have such a history with the venue.”
Six weeks earlier Lee is sitting at a café in Sydney, with the sun pouring in through the windows and over his shoulders, conceding to WISH the weather is an unknown variable with his resort 2018 show. “It is a huge gamble doing a completely outdoor production,” he says, in the first of a series of interviews he does with WISH, agreeing to let us follow his collection from start to finish: from Sydney to New York and back, from the ideas in his head to how it appears on the runway.
“There is always an element of context in the collection that does inspire you,” he says. “Knowing where you are going to present a resort collection, knowing the environment of where you are going to present a collection, knowing it is the opening of Australian Fashion Week, I wanted to do something that really communicates my brand signatures and reference things that have existed in collections previously.”
So Lee begins with the Opera House. The designer does indeed have a history with the place, having shown there three times in the nine years since he started his label. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lee does not start with a sketch; he starts with a mood board. For this particular collection, his mood board has architectural drawings of the Opera House and close-ups of the chevron tiles that line the sails. “There is not really a bad angle in the place,” he says. From the Opera House, his thinking goes to water and to sailboats to ropeknotting techniques to flags. “Creating parallels with the environment is something I have been focused on with this show,” he says. This translates to finding materials that reflect the light like water, or have an architectural pattern or texture like the tiles.
“We were looking for fabrics that were either spun with silk or something that gave the fabric a gloss,” Lee says. “So we started creating textiles that would really play on light within that environment.” The designer has become well known for experimenting with materials and construction and this collection is no different. One of the fabrics he creates is a silk organza mixed with “really fine plastic to give it a water feel” and another is a silk satin bonded on to Swiss lace.
The next step is the shape of the clothes and how they will work on the body. “I think the silhouettes of this season do feel a bit more unisex – a lot of soft tailoring, relaxed shapes on the body, nothing too formfitting,” says Lee. “We want textiles that move off the body and create a sense of movement. This is where we go into the design stage; combining those textile developments and concepts with the silhouettes.” This relaxed shape and soft tailoring is informed by two things; one is the move by Lee into making clothes for men this season and the other is his long-standing affinity for deconstructed tailoring in his clothes for women. And this is where the next design element comes in – perhaps one not associated with being particularly fashionable: the sports uniform.
“Olympic uniforms, that was one thread of references,” he says. “The concept of men’s and women’s uniforms together, unisex uniforms. Because we are showing a selection of menswear on the runway for the first time – that is what has reinforced a parallel between men’s and women’s tailoring.” On Lee’s mood board in his New York studio, there is even a picture of one of the famous logos for the Sydney Olympics – the