Dion Lee’s temporary New York headquarters are located on a quiet street in downtown Manhattan, on the ground floor of a 19th-century loft building. The Tribeca space has been an all-in-one showroom, casting suite and operational home base for the 29-year-old designer and his team over the past week.
On Monday morning, a few hours before he flies to Paris for a fabric fair, Lee and his team are gathered at a table in the middle of a room lined by racks of garments in satin silk, hi-tech jersey, linen gauze and velvety suede. Buyers arrive to browse the sleek, textural collection, and get a closer look at Lee’s latest innovation – a handmade system of plaited jersey that’s evocative of a basket weave.
Lee premiered his spring/summer 2016 collection at Milk Studios on Saturday September 12 – the fourth time he has shown at New York Fashion Week. Warmth, layering and movement are at the collection’s core, he says.
Lee arrived in New York on Tuesday September 8, just four nights before the show. Over three days at the Tribeca command centre he and his team put the final touches on the event: selecting models, trialling hair and make-up and fitting the cast of young women with facial jewellery designed by fellow antipodean label, Sarah & Sebastian. It took roughly three months to put this collection together, from conception to catwalk. However, Lee talks of the process in years, since each season builds on an idea explored in a previous collection.
“I’m not a person who goes on a holiday and decides I’m doing a collection about a certain thing I see there,” he says. “It’s cumulative, rather than starting again each season.”
Lee’s vision for spring/summer picks up where his June Resort collection – with slashed, voluminous ruffles and fishbone slits – left off. It displays all the hallmarks of the Dion Lee brand: highly technical, engineered textiles; luxe and varied textures; transparency and negative space; layering and splicing. But there is a more romantic, sensual quality to this series of garments; scuba-like fabrics, slick sports-luxe and the body-con silhouette – features for which Lee is known – make cameos but are not the protagonists.
“I was drawn to volume and movement but clothes that feel like they breathe, and the idea of air and light moving through the body,” Lee says. “I wanted to bring a softness and more of a sensual, tactile feel to the collection.”
There are sultry silk garments in ivory and copper, and soft, figure-hugging pieces in fawn-coloured suede. On the day of the show, Lee saved his latest innovation for last: garments made with one of the brand’s signature textiles – a special triple-ply jersey Lee developed with an Italian mill – woven in such a way that it resembles chain mail. Architectural and organic, Lee calls it “Lattice Lace”.
“We’ve never created our own weaving techniques before,” he says, holding a black and white mini-dress made from the material. “It’s been made with single strands that loop up on the hem. It’s one continuous piece,” he explains.
For the Sydney-based designer, each collection begins with “very small experiments”. Swatches grow into larger pieces, and draping shows how the fabric adheres to and moves with the body. His designs emanate from and are a reaction to a specific material.
“I have a feeling of what I want the silhouette to be for the season,” he says, “but it’s really about finding the design that is right for the textile.” His initial concept for spring/summer revolved around dimension and movement, and how that could be achieved using the new weave.
He believes a great show demonstrates evolution, building, “on those things that feel new to the brand and displaying things that are a little more experimental”.
This experimentation sees Lee butt heads with his more wary colleagues, but he rarely backs down. In Sydney, machines he regularly uses to cut fabric rejected the enormous digital file associated with the Lattice Lace design template.
“We had the cutters tell us it wasn’t possible; we had the programmers tell us it wasn’t possible,” Lee recalls. Laser cutting was also out of the question – it burns the fabric. Lee’s solution: cut every single strand by hand.
“Everyone always says, ‘No, we can’t do that, it can’t happen’. You really can’t accept a reason why you can’t achieve something,” he says. “There’s always a way around it. There’s always a solution.”