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Daniel Lee on His Burberry Reboot: “People Want to Look Hot”

— Burberry designer Daniel Lee. All subjects wear Burberry fashion and accessories throughout.

Georgia May Jagger has changed out of the stripy sweater she was wearing when she arrived at a photo studio in north London, and is now in a sheer black dress with spectacular silver disco heels. The British Korean model Sang Woo Kim is topless. And Daniel Lee, the 38-year-old designer who took the helm of Burberry in 2022, shows off his impressive guns with a waistcoat slung over his naked torso.

Welcome to the latest stage of the Burberry reboot. Lee’s second show for the brand—which took place last September in a tent in Highbury Fields, a park close to Lee’s house in north London—concluded with a bare-chested male model striding down the runway. So is sex an important ingredient of his vision? “I think sex is important for everyone,” Lee replies. “I like to wear clothes, I like to wear fashion, and I like it to make me feel confident that I look good. So that’s the mantra that I have in mind when I’m designing. People want to look hot.”

Yet beyond injecting sex into Burberry, Lee has a greater mission. The models on these pages exemplify what he is trying to do with the brand—to make it represent 21st-century Britishness at its most appealing and creative: eccentric, inclusive, open to all kinds of influences, but underpinned by tradition. “Burberry is a national institution; it’s almost more than fashion in the way that it’s always been there,” Lee says of the iconic company, which was founded in 1856. “People felt sad when the Queen died because she was someone they’d always known. Burberry has been around for longer than any of our lifetimes. These kinds of institutions give comfort.”

Lee’s sense of who should represent this new direction seems half instinctive, half strategic. Take just a few of the models he is currently obsessed with: “Georgia is all about London cool,” he says. “Jean Campbell grew up in the Scottish Highlands, and obviously the plaid and check is a great part of the Burberry story. We’re shooting Neelam Gill, an Indian British model who started her career at Burberry with Christopher Bailey”—the brand’s designer from 2001 to 2018—“so it’s nice for us to come full circle. Kit Butler is someone I’ve worked with since the first show. I don’t want the people we work with to change every season. Let’s build a family, so that people see these faces and associate them with the brand.”

Lee’s Burberry “family” encompasses much more than models, however. At breakneck speed, he has banded together a whole cultural community behind the equestrian knight logo he has newly revived, incorporating artists, soccer players (Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min is a brand ambassador, and Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka models in its new campaign), and especially musicians. His most recent show was attended by grime pioneers Kano and D Double E, avant-pop star Shygirl, and young rappers M Huncho and Slew, alongside legends such as Neneh Cherry; Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz; and drum and bass godfather Goldie. The soundtracks for the shows have been moody affairs created by the likes of Burial and Dean Blunt, and intended, Lee says, to somehow sonically sum up the U.K.

The designer is personally a fan of hip-hop, grime, and Afrobeats. “Music talent is one of the best things exported from this country,” he says, adding that there is still no one who can turn fashion into a full-on cultural phenomenon like a rock (or rap, or grime) star. “Musicians put themselves on show,” Lee says. “Their personalities are really visible in the way that they dress, more than in any other art form.” He gets particularly excited when musicians wear his clothes, as the way they style them is so unexpected. “That surprises me and the team, and then we’ll be inspired to come up with a new idea.”

An hour after he’s been photographed, Lee sits on a sofa in an enormous, empty, and rather cold attic room at the studio. He has changed into green trousers, a chunky black leather jacket, and a top unzipped to reveal a smooth expanse of his chest. He likes going to the gym: “You definitely feel a direct relationship between what you put in and what you get out, which is the opposite of our work.” Fashion, he implies, is a much more capricious beast than exercise.

Lee was born in a town called Bradford, in the north of England, to an office worker mother and a mechanic father. His brother is a plumber, and his sister is a nurse who works in the accident and emergency unit. “Quite an intense job,” the soft-spoken designer says with deliberate understatement. Obsessed with fashion magazines growing up, he studied at Central Saint Martins art college in London. Then, after interning under Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga (where he used to love pulling all-nighters—“I didn’t want to go home while they were still there”), he worked with Phoebe Philo at Céline, rising to head of ready-to-wear. He was relatively anonymous until he landed the top job at Bottega Veneta in 2018, and accepts that now, at Burberry, he is the public face of the label. He no longer drives a white Porsche, his company car at Bottega Veneta, and is now found behind the wheel of a Land Rover, which, he says, chuckling, is “more on brand.”

That brand, of course, was built on the most quintessential of British staples: the trenchcoat. In 1879, Thomas Burberry invented a weatherproofing cotton fabric—gabardine—which meant that raincoats no longer needed to be rubberized and could be breathable. Britain’s War Office was impressed by the coats, which were initially worn by officers. They exploded in popularity and acquired Hollywood’s seal of approval in 1942, when Humphrey Bogart sported one in Casablanca—the first of a long line of screen appearances, including in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Wall Street.

But how do you reinvent such a famous staple? “It’s not easy,” Lee says. “I think some things just need to be kept precious. Obviously, you can play with silhouette, with form, with volume, so that’s what we’ve done. People know Burberry mostly for the trenchcoat, and second is the check celebrated in most of the scarves, so I think the project now is to communicate this idea of modern Britishness and to build product that sits around the trench and the scarf. So, what would you have underneath the coat? What is the shoe? What is the bag?”

When it comes to shoes and bags, Lee certainly has excelled. His pouches and boots turned Bottega Veneta into one of the hottest labels on the planet, before he abruptly departed in 2021. The following year, he was appointed at Burberry, replacing Ricardo Tisci, whose tenure at the U.K.’s only true luxury fashion brand never fully jelled. Burberry has declared its desire to increase sales from $3.5 billion to $5 billion well before the end of the decade, and as an accessories maestro, Lee would seem well placed to make that happen. “There’s no iconic bag that people have associated with Burberry before,” he muses. (Let’s not even mention the “ludicrously capacious” pre-Lee design lambasted by Tom Wambsgans in the final season of Succession.) “I don’t think Burberry is necessarily known as an accessories brand today, so it’s an exciting challenge because it’s a blank slate.”

Lee also wants Burberry to be part of high culture. The company will continue its sponsorship of the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which this year will showcase the work of John Akomfrah, whose most famous piece, The Unfinished Conversation, is a three-screen video installation about the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Burberry also sponsored the recent retrospective by rambunctious art star Sarah Lucas at Tate Britain, near its Westminster headquarters, and hosted a dinner for her at London’s quintessential art restaurant, St. John. The guest list was another index of the names Lee wants to represent Burberry, from actors Barry Keoghan and Micheal Ward to model Adwoa Aboah. “Britishness is made up of so many different influences,” he says. “Think about Jamaica and India and Nigeria, all these influences in terms of food, in terms of music.”

Whether Britishness is a particularly alluring and salable quality post-Brexit is another matter. The prevailing mood in the country is exhaustion, with a cost-of-living crisis hitting all but the superwealthy, an overarching fear that institutions such as the National Health Service are crumbling, and fury at a period of political turbulence best summed up by the fact that the U.K. has had five prime ministers since 2016. The day after I meet Lee, the prestigious Turner Prize is awarded to the artist Jesse Darling, whose winning installation depicts Britain as a teetering garbage heap of bent crash barriers, ratty strings of flags, and a maypole swathed in police tape. Nonetheless, when artists such as Lucas, Albarn, and Goldie first shot to fame, in the mid-’90s, Britain was at the end of a long period of Conservative government, economic stagnation, and cultural doldrums. “Cool Britannia”—the explosion of creativity embodied by artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin; bands such as Pulp, Blur, and Oasis; and actors like Ewan McGregor and Jude Law—was around the corner. It’s not hugely far-fetched to hope that the nation might be at a similar stage now, just when Lee is harnessing its best talents.

There are other elements of the British character that Burberry wants to tap into, Lee says, such as greasy-spoon cafés: The tiny scrambled egg purveyor Norman’s, in a far-flung part of north London, was recently redecorated by the brand, a project that involved covering the curtains in Lee’s “knight blue” check and serving breakfast on plates with the house’s logo. The national love of the great outdoors in defiance of the mostly terrible weather is exemplified by Burberry’s tougher bags and, of course, the trenchcoat. Lee referenced the famously dry British sense of humor with knitted duck hats in his debut collection. “I like the fact that people in this country don’t take themselves too seriously,” he says. “It’s nice to introduce humorous moments in the clothes. For me, ultimately, fashion is entertainment—it’s joyful.” There was also the bombastic takeover of Bond Street during London Fashion Week, when the brand replaced the signs on the Tube station entrance and platforms with blue ones reading “Burberry Street.” “It caused a bit of a stir,” Lee says. “You’ve got to be provocative.”

For Lee, moments like that, geared for social media, are a way that people can feel involved with the label without necessarily having to buy anything—he is aware that his prices, which have risen so that Burberry is on par with its luxury competitors, put the clothes out of reach for the kind of fashion fan he was growing up in Bradford. At the time, he was obsessed with fashion imagery but was certainly “not a luxury consumer.” Nonetheless, he believes that Burberry has a broad, cross-sectional appeal. The faces of his first season’s ad campaign ranged from Oasis scion Lennon Gallagher, 24, to the actor Vanessa Redgrave, 87. “For me, Vanessa almost represents the royal family,” Lee says of the former parliamentary candidate for the Workers Revolutionary Party. “Vanessa’s got a very spunky personality—she’s very outspoken and comes from a time when people weren’t afraid to say what they thought. She’s obviously a very talented actress, a national treasure, and very beautiful.”

After the W shoot, Lee will move directly on to his spring advertising campaign. Image making, he says, is one of his favorite things about the job. “When you look at an image, you allow your mind to dream—you invent a story,” he says. The story of his Burberry is still in its opening chapter. “It’s only been a month since we’ve had a decent amount of my product in stores,” he says. He’s eagerly consuming the sales data he’s receiving about which pieces are connecting with the public: “Oh, this is what people are excited about, okay. That gives me a starting point, and I can work around new versions.” As Britain attempts to shake off its malaise, hopefully Lee can rebrand a renewed nation too. It might even start to look hot.

Hair by Claire Grech for Oribe at Streeters; makeup by Miranda Joyce for Clé de Peau at Streeters. Set design by Amy Stickland at Second Name Agency. Casting by DM Casting.

Models: Kit Butler at Next Models, Alva Claire at IMG, Georgia May Jagger at Tess Management, Kai-Isaiah Jamal at Elite, Sacha Quenby at Squad Management, Liberty Ross, Ned Sims at the Perfect Magazine, Stevie Sims at Kate Moss Agency, Sang Woo Kim at Lumien Creative. Casting assistants: Brandon Contreras, Evagria Sergeeva; produced by Alex Bassford at Farago Projects; production coordinators: Keri Hannah-Pettigrew, Phoebe Bunje; photo assistants: Alessandro Tranchini, Daiki Tajima; digital technician: Mattia Pasin; fashion assistants: Julia Veitch, Ella McKiernan, Ned Sims; production assistants: Hugh Stewart, Austeja Cheg, Paulina Dodot; hair assistants: Valentina Ingrosso, Kreszend Sackey, Lachlan Mackie, Charles Stanley; braider: Bianca Porter; makeup assistants: Hannah Mastreanzi, Rocio Cuenca, Zahra Redgrave; set assistant: Matty Mancy Jones; tailor: Lina Krukauskaite.


Source: W Magazine

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