ROAMING THE EERILY EMPTY streets of Manhattan during the 2020 COVID lockdown, Dion Lee came face-to-face with his future. Shops were shuttered, his adopted home was deserted, and many of his friends had decamped back to Australia. But among the ruins of the city’s retail, he chanced upon an empty space that would catalyse the next phase of his career: a 400-square-metre loft space with soaring, five-metre-high ceilings and original columns at 11 Mercer Street in the storied SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District.
At four times the size of his largest Australian store, in Sydney’s Paddington, the former office and gallery space of avant-garde magazine Visionaire is the kind of venue Lee might have only once dreamt of for his first international retail foray. With rents for retail space crashing to historic lows, the idea of getting his foot in the Manhattan retail door with not just another boutique but an entire Dion Lee emporium — spanning fashion, art exhibitions, a DJ booth and even a cafe — was suddenly within his grasp. As a second American outlet, he subsequently tapped a slightly smaller 280-square-metre space in the Miami Design District in Florida, which is due to open in October, a few weeks ahead of the Manhattan flagship and at about the same time as a new large-format Melbourne store.
“I was thinking about the opportunity that might arise from the pandemic and, I suppose, looking for that silver lining of how I could explore positioning my brand here,” says Lee down the line from his Lower East Side apartment. “This happened organically, and it also affected how I approached the design, knowing that the future of retail was also a very changing landscape.”
Since the pandemic, online sales have spiked 1000 per cent and now account for 30 per cent of the business. But COVID also allowed Lee to step back and reflect on “a lot of exponential change within my life and my business”, he says. “It also allowed me to kind of put that back into the work I was doing. It’s a completely different life I lead here. The business has also been changing at the same time, so my team has been growing, the way I’ve been working has been growing.”
Along with the change in store format came a change in architect. Kelvin Ho authored the minimalist look of Lee’s eight Australian stores, using pre-cast concrete and gleaming mirror-polished stainless steel. For the US stores, Lee tasked William Smart, another Sydney architect with a modernist bent. “When I worked with Kelvin, I was a strictly ready-to-wear business, and it was really about clothing, [whereas] this space is really building an environment for us to display accessories, jewellery, eyewear, furniture,” says Lee of the new “modular, kind of multifaceted retail space”, which will feature custom scaffold- ing for conversions from retail space to runway venue and event and performance space, with gold, silver, limestone and concrete fit-out details. “It’s more of a meeting space and a space for performance and activations, allowing us to really communicate the brand and for me to be present and build my community through all of the many collaborations that we do, whether that’s music or art or within the collection,” he says. “It’s so exciting to have a physical space to call the home of the brand.”
It’s 13 years since Lee hit the ground running straight out of design school in Sydney, unveiling his first collection at Australian Fashion Week in 2009 in a Kings Cross car park. “We elevated him straight to his own show, but he was clearly ready for it — it was unprecedented at the time,” recalls AFW founder Simon Lock. The following year, he was upgraded to a presentation within the iconic Sydney Opera House and emerged “absolutely, categorically” as the event’s biggest drawcard for international buyers, says Lock. “He was instrumental at that time in attracting attention to not only himself but also to the industry.”
It’s a completely DIFFERENT life I lead here. The business has also been CHANGING at the same time, so my team has been GROWING, the way I’ve been WORKING has been growing
A burgeoning media profile, international stockists and a London Fashion Week debut followed, as did a cash crunch, a crisis of confidence, and a near-decision to pull the plug altogether. “I launched a business that I was not trained for; I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Lee, who found salvation in the form of Australia’s Cue Clothing Co. in 2013. The company’s majority investment stake and retail prowess helped him navigate the perils of a start-up business.
At 36, Lee is today the face and creative brain behind a budding global fashion enterprise that spans two continents and a staff of 145, including CEO Anna Sergiou, who is based at the Sydney HQ and oversees global operations. His more than 100 wholesale stockists include the cream of international retail, such as Net-A-Porter, Lane Crawford, Selfridges and Nordstrom.
Staffed by 25 and the brand’s design engine room, the NYC office handles international sales and is gradually taking over control of the brand’s manufacturing in Australia, Europe and China. It’s a well-oiled, long-distance operation whose day-to-day communications weren’t too phased by COVID disruptions. “We’re a business that was built on conference calls,” says Lee.
Lee did not arrive in New York empty-handed in 2016, but brought with him a designer, a sales manager and two patternmakers, including Yasuko Masubuchi, a former staffer of Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake and Akira Isogawa. “We were a little micro unit,” he recalls. Importing his patternmakers to the US would have been crucial, given the complex garment construction that has been key to the Dion Lee brand from the get-go. Women’s Wear Daily has referred to it as “experimental tailoring”, while The New York Times dubbed his work “a study in motion and deft engineering”. More than one international luxury brand has come knocking on his door, including Mugler, for whose creative directorship Lee says he was interviewed in 2017.
Nicholas Huxley, the former head of design at the TAFE NSW Fashion Design Studio, Lee’s alma mater, recalls spotting Lee sitting on the floor outside a classroom one day. He was patchworking his patterns together, “as if he was doing a floor plan — what seams can be attached to that, what can be interwoven into this”, says Huxley. “I found it really, really fascinating. I’d never seen anyone do that before.” One of Lee’s second-year garments featured four tailored jackets in one. “Just stunning,” adds Huxley. He got 100 out of 100 for it.”
Lee’s signature techno bodycon mesh dresses, artfully braided knitwear and deconstructed tailoring replete with idiosyncratic detailing — such as the filter braided spine details on jackets that create the illusion that some mysterious force has flayed the wearer’s flesh to expose their spine — would not be out of place in a sci-fi blockbuster. Power suiting for futuristic CEOs, perhaps, poised to save — or destroy — the human race. “I don’t think I’m necessarily referencing anything specifically futuristic,” notes Lee. “But I do love the harmony of architecture and design and how they interplay together. And a lot of that is really just the lines and language of how design lines feed off each other. Whether or not that’s a building or an animal or an insect, a body … they’re all design lines. And I kind of channel that together.”
There is always an over-arching message of EMPOWERMENT, STRENGTH and SEXINESS throughout Dion Lee’s collections
Meanwhile, his more recent utility bent of butter-soft parachute combat pants in cotton twill or leather, leather harness tops, Garter Muscle Tanks and combat boots (done in collaboration with Paris-based rubber footwear specialist Both) could be the uniform of a new cadre of fashion-forward foot soldiers. If you’re staring down the end of the world, you might as well look fierce.
Lee has been faulted at times by the international fashion press for too much intellectualism and “thinkyness” in his designs, but the move to New York has coincided with newfound confidence and maturity. Corsetry and cut-out details — both of which are having a major fashion moment but were part of Lee’s brand from the beginning — now resonate through a far more grown-up prism via elements such as Latex lace, workwear componentry and tough-chic leather harness details (the latter courtesy of collaboration with London-based luxury fetish wear brand Fleet Ilya for spring 2020). “I think it [the corset] has become a brand signature, in terms of something that people recognise as being a Dion Lee garment,” says Lee. “To be honest, that became kind of like a breaking point for my entry to the US, this T-shirt- corset concept: taking the ease and utilitarianism of a T-shirt and injecting it with the formality, structure and execution of a corset.” Lee’s fall 2019 Sheer Jersey Corset was particularly successful, being photographed on Michelle Pfeiffer, Bella Hadid, and sisters Kourtney Kardashian and Kendall Jenner, with Kim Kardashian later seen in his Unisex Rib Corset Tank.
“There is always an over-arching message of empowerment, strength and sexiness throughout Dion Lee’s collections,” says Holly Tenser, buying manager at London retailer Browns, where Dion Lee is being merchandised directly alongside Saint Laurent in the new Mayfair flagship.
While Lee’s designs have been a popular red-carpet choice for years, the past 18 months have him graduate to the speed- dials of Hollywood’s power stylists. His looks regularly pop up on celebrity Instagram feeds, in music festival appearances and on magazine covers. Lisa from K-Pop’s Blackpink wore a look from Lee’s spring 2021 in the video for her solo single “Money” in September last year. Canadian electro-pop artist Grimes is the star of his spring 2022 campaign, styled up like The Lord of The Rings’ elf queen, Galadriel, meets a Stargate Atlantis Wraith.
Launched in 2017, Dion Lee menswear currently accounts for 30 per cent of sales. Today, there is a far more prominent focus on unisex dressing in both Lee’s show castings and sales offerings, which coincides with a deliberate skew away from dresses to separates. Lee’s male corset devotees range from Sydney photographer Wendell Teodoro (who rocked up in head-to-toe Dion Lee every day at this year’s Australian Fashion Week and told Harper’s BAZAAR he owns at least 50 Dion Lee pieces) to Broadway star Jeremy Pope (who has worn custom Dion Lee at the past two Met Galas). “When I’m shopping and I’m looking to buy a product, I’m drawn to something that subverts my taste,” Lee says of the man-corset. “If it’s ‘wrong’, that’s why I like it. The subversion is definitely something that came through in the corsetry and breaking down that notion of gender codes.”
I’m really grateful to be present in that DIALOGUE of how we EVOLVE fashion as a LANDSCAPE
Does he miss Australia? You bet. “I’m so homesick,” says Lee. “I’m so longing for nature and environment, and [I] try to build that into my lifestyle as much as I can, but also as I travel. I try to immerse myself in what feels familiar to me — beach and waves and water.” Heading back Down Under, however, is not on Lee’s priority list for the time being. “I don’t foresee how it’s possible [to run a brand] without being present and without having the experience and living the life of the people that you’re selling the clothes to.”
After Miami, Manhattan — and potentially Los Angeles, where the company is currently eyeing space — Shanghai has been earmarked as a store location for 2024.
Wherever the brand goes, the large-format Dion Lee World will be the new retail template. “The plan is to have these experiential touchpoints … physical spaces that people can go and experience the brand, on different continents,” says Lee. “It’s so exciting. It’s an incredible time in fashion. I think people are doing really inspiring things. And I’m really grateful to be present in that dialogue of how we evolve fashion as a landscape.
This article originally appeared in the AUGUST issue of Harper’s BAZAAR Australia/New Zealand. Get your copy here.
Models: Jordy Ortiz (DNA Model Management), Jay Pak (Muse Management NYC) and Sarah Brown (The Society Management). Casting by Bert Martirosyan.
Hair by Matthew Sosnowski; makeup by Ai Yokomizo at Bridge Artists. Prop stylist: Michael Newton.