Janice Alida first discovered Dion Lee’s designs at Bergdorf Goodman. The item that caught her eye was one the Australian designer’s twisted-back swimsuits. “Both my husband and I stopped and were like, ‘This is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it,'” the Canadian model recalls. “It’s actually a huge compliment, because the only thing my husband and I ever disagree on is fashion, and we were both obsessed,” she laughs.
It’s also a compliment because Alida knows fashion: since making her runway debut at the Margiela show at Paris Fashion Week in October of 2010, she’s walked for the likes Proenza Schouler, Marc Jacobs, Dior, and Opening Ceremony, and appeared in campaigns for Adidas, Louis Vuitton, Jil Sander, and Anna Sui.
Alida isn’t the only industry fan of Lee’s. One year after launching his eponymous label in 2008, Lee was profiled by Australian Vogue; the following year, one of his designs was worn on the magazine’s cover by model Abbey Lee. In 2012, Lee was the Australian winner of the Woolmark International Prize. Now, he shows as part of New York Fashion Week and counts Net-a-Porter, Browns Fashion, Matches Fashion, and, evidently, Bergdorf Goodman, among his stockists.
Here, Alida interviews Lee via phone for our Models Off Duty feature.
JANICE ALIDA: When did you know that you wanted to be a designer? How old were you?
DION LEE: I wasn’t thinking seriously about doing fashion until I was probably out of high school. I was always interested in art and design, with much more of a focus on visual arts. And slowly all my major projects—my art projects—started integrating clothes so I started studying fashion design in Sydney. I studied here for a couple of years before I started my label.
ALIDA: So it was pretty organic. It wasn’t a huge abrupt change.
LEE: No, not at all. It was an evolution I suppose.
ALIDA: Did you want to go to art school through high school?
LEE: I was considering it. I was more drawn to the wearable nature of clothing design and the fact that it was something that you interact with more directly on a daily basis.
ALIDA: After you graduated, did you start doing your own collection? Was it a while before you had your first show?
LEE: Actually my graduate collection, I was invited to show that at Australian Fashion Week. From there it was a bit of a reactive process. I had some guys in Sydney who were interested in stocking the collection and one thing led to another. I had the support from these amazing people in the local industry—journalists, stylists, and buyers. They helped me a lot in my starting-out youth.
ALIDA: That’s great! It’s really nice when people are interested in your work and, rather than just expressing that, they take it one step further and talk to people about it or write about it. When you’re starting out you’re really dependent on people who are above you to take a chance on you.
LEE: I wouldn’t be anywhere without the help of those people.
ALIDA: Looking back, do you have a high point in your career?
LEE: I think this year has been really exciting, to be able to open my first retail store in Sydney. As a designer you dream of one day being able to create a space to present your collections, to really represent the brand. Within my work I’m really interested in how things are made and construction and architecture and all those elements, so being able to apply those ideas in a built environment was really amazing. It’s nice to do things outside of fashion medium to keep you really stimulated.
ALIDA: Do you find that it’s difficult to maintain creative integrity—doing what you want, taking risks—while remaining commercially accessible?
LEE: I do think that’s a bit of a challenge, but I think that’s kind of the name of the game. What separates fashion from other creative mediums is the balance between art and commerce and how fast moving it is. The biggest area in which that’s come into view for me has been the retail stores.
ALIDA: Did you develop the light-reflective knitwear you use yourself?
LEE: Yeah, we did. Originally we did it through stripping up a light-reflective fabric to create a yarn, and then mixing it back with more traditional knitwear yarns. But we’re working to develop a finer yarn. I’m interested in trying to find industrial fabrication and using them in a way that feels luxurious. That’s what I’m drawn to – that industrial path of fabrication.
ALIDA: Have you always sourced your materials from Australia? Were you taught how to source fabrics in school or did you have to discover that on your own?
LEE: I’ve had to do a lot of discovering. It can be challenging in Australia because there’s not really an established manufacturing industry, nor is there a very large textile industry. Australia, being a kind of new country, doesn’t have many of those things that fashion designers really rely on and a sourcing network is not really there. But I’ve been sourcing out of Europe and buying from different parts of the world since I started. It makes you a bit more resourceful because it’s more of a hunt—everything isn’t at your fingertips. You’ve really got to go out and find what you’re looking for.
ALIDA: Were you born and raised in Sydney?
LEE: Yeah, I was.
ALIDA: What keeps you there?
LEE: I really love the lifestyle in Australia. It’s pretty amazing to be able to get up and go for a swim in the morning; the pace of the lifestyle here is really a balancing quality to how intense my work life can be. There’s an element of focus that’s brought about —when I’m in Australia I feel like I can go into a bubble. [But] I’m exploring whether or not I might be able to spend some more time in the States at a more regular basis. It’s a bit of a challenge trying to be involved in other industries when you’re so far away. Even though we’ve been showing in New York for the past three seasons, it’s still challenging because I’m only in New York for a short amount of time around the shows. In the next few years I’ll be spending a bit more time over there. I’ve got a lot of friends who are based there. I feel really connected with the place
ALIDA: Would you ever want to collaborate with anyone else?
LEE: I’d love to. I’d love to collaborate with a sportswear brand.
JANICE ALIDA IS REPRESENTED BY ELITE. FOR MORE ON DION LEE, VISIT THE LABEL’S WEBSITE.