At twenty three, Dion Lee was a boy genius of the fashion world. Now, at thirty one, Dion is not only one of the industry’s foremost innovators, but also Australia’s most lauded designer.
Hey Dion. Talk about your recent move to New York?
It’s something that had been in the works for me personally for over two years. It took a long time to put all the pieces in place in order to make that happen. Early on, I realized that showing internationally from Australia was a huge challenge. I showed in London for a few seasons and realised the only way to make it work was to be based in the place I was presenting my collections. I had a much stronger affinity with New York as a city than London.
Talk about life in New York?
I like being able to have everything at my fingertips all the time. I live in South Williamsburg. Coming from Sydney where I had an amazing place in Bondi with beach views and accessibility to open space and nature and light – natural light is such an important thing for me – I was happy to move out of Manhattan and be in a place that gave me space and light and a sense of outlook.
Talk about the parallels between life in the US and life in Australia.
There is a parallel between living in Australia and living in the US, in terms of the lifestyle. There is kind of that relate-ability between the two, especially in LA where you’ve got more beach culture. I consider that parallel to the Sydney lifestyle
What are the other important things now that you surround yourself with to make sure you are productive and successful?
Balance is the most important thing for me. We go through a lot of really heavy work periods and I really need to balance that out, so I always make sure that I give myself the time to spend with myself, time to re-energize and reset. We do four collections a year and it does take a lot out of you, it’s quite taxing going back to back. I need to make sure I have that time to refuel, otherwise it impacts not just myself, but also the business.
How do you back yourself, I’m sure there is a fear moment when you are thinking – is thing going to work or is this good – tell me about the fear and the insecurities that come with being a designer and putting yourself out there and not being safe and how you deal with that?
Any creative has to have the right balance between confidence and insecurity. You need to look at things and pick them apart and be able to critique yourself and understand why you’ve done something wrong and why it didn’t work, how you could correct it next time. One of the positive things about fashion is that it moves at such a fast pace, you are constantly giving yourself new opportunities to correct yourself.
Do you remember early on, that moment of like ‘fuck it, I’m going to do this’ – did you have a fuck it moment?
Yeah. The evolution of my brand was quite reactive. When I finished college I was presented with a series of opportunities to present collections that, I look back on now and think I had no idea what I was doing. In retrospect I should have taken a bit more time and had a bit more experience, but that’s kind of my character: I didn’t want to back down from anything. I enjoyed the challenge and the first few years especially were pretty tough, but you are also enjoying the challenge and learning a lot and evolving at a fast pace.
Is there anything, now reflecting on the Australian character, is there anything that might have helped give you that kind of freedom or confidence?
It’s been an opportunity in many regards because there is less pressure and a smaller community and a more supportive group of people, but on the flip side it’s not somewhere that people are looking to. That’s given me confidence in some ways and in other ways it’s made it more challenging.
Tell me about your process, the creative process for you, maybe speak about this collection specifically and this room as a design studio and how it all comes together?
To be honest, each collection is quite different in terms inspiration and how it evolves. This collection in particular, is a combination of these military and sportswear references. For me, design is very intuitive and very based on what I see in my surroundings when I travel. After my last collection I went on holiday for a couple of weeks and it’s when you’re most relaxed that you find creative inspiration. This collection took a lot of influence from the time I spent in Berlin observing how people were mixing military vintage with a contemporary sportswear aesthetic and it evolved from there.
Talk a bit about the shows? Do you get to relax and enjoy your handiwork when the fashion show starts?
It doesn’t really stop when the show starts. Throughout the show you have model changes, but it is fun, the sense of adrenalin is pretty intense but enjoyable.
Talk about the importance of a show, and how that relates to the larger project of a collection?
A show gives you the opportunity to communicate more of a story through the collection. It allows you to create a narrative through the movement of one look to the next, through the environment, through the set, through lighting, through music. It allows you to weave in the influences of a collection in a way that lets people understand it on more of a visceral level.
How much do you enjoy walking out for the wave after a show?
My mum always tells me I never spend enough time out there, but with each collection I’m trying to walk a little bit further, make it a little less awkward. But generally, I hate it, it’s the worst. Unfortunately, the times when you are the most photographed or most interviewed are the times you feel like shit. I’m always like ‘get the fuck away from me’ at that point, so it’s challenging.
What’s your escape? How do you forget about fashion for a second and just enjoy your time?
Two things that really transport me out of everything are nature and being in open spaces, whether that’s swimming at a beach or going on a hike.
Do you have an escape in New York?
The beauty of New York is that you are centrally placed to travel to lots to places. Something I’ll continue to capitalise on is the proximity to South America, to the West Coast and the East Coast – there’s so much here in terms of travel. You don’t really get that escape in New York. It’s more about using New York as a base more than thinking that the city can be all things to all people.
What would you do if you weren’t designing?
There’s a bunch of things that I’d love to do. I’d love to get an architecture degree, I’d love to have the time to explore sculpture, I’d love to direct film. There’s a whole bunch of things that I’d love to do if I had the time.
Hear that, Dion. Thanks for the chat and best of luck with everything.