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Dion Lee ETC
From Dion Lee ETCPhotography Gadir Rajab

Dion Lee on leaving Oz for NYC, Kanye, and his first book

The Australian fashion designer has turned his Sydney label into a worldwide entity. After opening the city’s fashion week, he catches up with Dazed

Clocking in at just under 10,000 miles is the distance between Sydney and New York, or, between Australian-born fashion designer Dion Lee’s home city and his adopted one. Currently, he’s Down Under, having been invited to open Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia Resort 2018 with a show at the Sydney Opera House. It’s four days since the occasion when we finally speak, with Lee having had to cancel a meeting days earlier due to his busy schedule – “It was back to back,” he apologises.

Lee is no less frantic this morning, but who am I to blame him? At 31-years-old, he’s the jewel in the crown of Australia's fashion scene. Having catapulted from the Sydney Institute of Technology right into Australian Fashion Week after being invited to show elements of his graduate collection there – a moment which he pinpoints as “the starting point for the brand, really”. From there he went on to collaborate with high street stores such as Target and Australia’s Cue, as well as with Yeezus himself. Soon after, he showed in London and was a contender for the 2013 Woolmark Prize, where he came face-to-face with Victoria Beckham and Donatella Versace. Most recently, Lee has moved his studio and his personal life to New York, where he debuted his AW16 collection during the city’s own fashion week. At the time of speaking, he was also about to release his first book and its online iteration, titled ETCa tome of collaborative imagery and an antidote to fashion’s disposable nature. 

He tells us more about working with Kanye West, fast fashion and holding landmark shows in landmark spaces.

Congratulations on the show – how picturesque to have it staged at the Opera House.

Dion Lee: Yeah, it’s always a pretty special place to visit. It definitely makes you know where you are.

In 2010, you were the first designer to stage a runway show there. This was your fourth show at the Opera House, but the first time showing outside of it. Tell us how this opportunity came about and why you wanted to do it?

Dion Lee: We were invited last year to be the opening show at Australian Fashion Week. Although I’ve shown at the Opera House for a number of times, I’ve always wanted to do a show outside. It’s an opportunity to present the collection in an iconic setting. And that has me looking at my own brand identity along with the identity of being an Australian designer. Now I live in New York, so my design studio is based in New York and coming back and showing a resort collection felt like it needed to have some kind of context around it in terms of what that meant to me. It was a really special thing to do in terms of being able to be the opening show and reflect on when I did my first show there and all of the elements that have evolved since then.

“There are ideas that I’d like to explore, or artists and photographers that I’d like to work with, that tell the story of the brand but sit outside of a runway show or a campaign” – Dion Lee

You’ve previously revealed that you’re inspired by architecture and design. It seemed as though the aesthetics and techniques of the building were manifested into the materials and the patterns of your collection.

Dion Lee: Yeah it was. We’ve worked on this show since last year so I was very conscious of the environment in which I was presenting the collection in (having still been living in Sydney at the time). And it was nice to draw some parallels between the sculptural nature of the architecture, also the textures of the building. We took a chevron kind of motif and adapted that into a few different hardware elements. 

Tell us about growing up in Sydney.

Dion Lee: I grew up south of Sydney by the beach, so I was very much familiar with beach culture when I was growing up. So definitely feeling an affinity to that culture as well, and swimwear is a category that we also design and this is the first time that we really put that on the runway in the context of the ready to wear collection. Which felt like something nice to do to give full context to the brand.

After graduation, you were invited to show some of your collection at Australian Fashion Week, was that part of the decision to start your own brand?

Dion Lee: It all happened very reactively, and looking back I probably would’ve done many things very differently. But I still feel extremely lucky to have been able to do what I wanted to do from a very early age. 

What would you have done differently?

Dion Lee: As a designer straight out of college I didn’t have a strong business background and there wasn’t a whole strategic pathway for what I was doing with the brand because it was very organic. I learned a lot of lessons on the job, I suppose. In terms of product, production, finance – the whole thing. But in the early years, it was great for me to really have a hands-on involvement in every element of the business.

How has support for young fashion designers in Australia changed since your time?

Dion Lee: The Australian Fashion Council is about two years old now and it's a similar model to the BFC, so that has been great for new and emerging designers more recently. It's really a creative resource for them to draw upon in terms of many of those elements that are important when starting a business. 

From Sydney, you then showed in London and now you’re in New York – you’ve also moved there. What made you do that?

Dion Lee: It was a bit of a scary leap, but the geography in Australia is quite challenging. Presenting collections internationally means that you are constantly moving around and travelling all the time. And for us, especially with show seasons, you're establishing a studio – a temporary studio for every show that you work on. It felt like a way to streamline the process. 

Three years after beginning your brand, Kanye West designed shoes for your AW12 collection. What was it like working with him?

Dion Lee: It was pretty amazing. It was the stylist that I was working with named Christine Centenera who was working with him and yeah, the process just really happened in a very organic way. Which was pretty cool. He was passionate about design and really specific in terms of what his vision was for his products and for his brand.

Tell us about your book ETC. What made you want to make a book, as well as an online version?

Dion Lee: It was really a space for collaborative projects that existed outside of the seasonal structure of fashion. For me, there are so many creative projects that don't really fit into a traditional campaign. There are ideas that I’d like to explore, or artists and photographers that I'd like to work with, that tell the story of the brand but sit outside of a runway show or a campaign. Those are the things that really excite me most. So I’ve created a platform to do that. It’s about the different layers of the brand that people often would not normally see.

You mention in the foreword that you wanted to “create a platform for projects that exist outside of the seasonal cycle of fashion.” Why was it important to do that?

Dion Lee: As a brand, the most important thing rather than the idea of time is, when building a brand, it is more cumulative and it’s more about things like consistency and evolution of ideas. It's great to be able to revisit those things and not feel like everything is so disposable.

ETC is available now. Special thanks to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia and IMG