Dion Lee Is Having a Moment

Surface sits down with the Australian designer as he takes Manhattan by storm with his first menswear and eyewear collections.

Lee in his New York City office.

Eight years after establishing his namesake ready-to-wear label, Dion Lee is at a turning point. The 32-year-old Sydney native shifted his design and sales team stateside in 2016, dedicating the brand’s Australian office to production and retail. If moving half his business across the world wasn’t taxing enough, Lee chose 2017 to launch his first eyewear and menswear collections. Alongside his angular yet sensual womenswear, these additions exemplify the designer’s keen understanding of construction and materiality—a quality that makes him one of the most valuable fashion exports from Down Under. From his Tribeca office, Lee reflects on the events that contributed to the most transformative year of his practice.

How does splitting time between Sydney and New York inform your clothes? Do you try  to reconcile both cultures?

Yes, particularly in the [spring 2018] collection. I was shifting between observations of urban and leisure-based cultures. Leisure is also relevant for New York because people, especially in the summer, like escaping the city. It was about mixing urban workwear references with more athletic, surf-culture influences. 

Like with the leather flip-flops and relaxed tailoring?

Right. It’s there in the fabrications, washes, and silhouettes as well. Elements that are in between two places show how I put ideas together. Seeing two different cultures frequently is interesting. In Australia, you spend a lot of time outside. There’s a balanced relationship with nature that has subtle influences on how you dress. There’s more of a casualness that comes through there.

Fabrics on a cutting table.

In recent seasons, your silhouettes have softened and adopted that sense of relaxation. Is this subconscious or intentional?

I think it’s both. I’ve softened the collection as a result of my tastes evolving and my understanding of the customer growing stronger. The core ideas are the same, but the silhouettes evolve with time.

You reinterpreted lapels to create the shoulder of a dress in your spring 2018 collection—one of many tailoring references.

I always work the tailored jacket into the collection quite early. The collection often starts with tailored silhouettes. It’s something I enjoy designing. It comes naturally to me and is instinctively how I explore the lines of the collection and shape its signature pieces. As I’m sketching one thing, it starts to influence everything else, so I pull that influence across [the collection]. I’ll explore the same line in a jacket, a dress, and a T-shirt.

A close-up view of a mood board in Lee’s Tribeca studio.

You recently introduced menswear. Why now?

Tailoring has always been a foundation for me. I often work from a masculine perspective, referencing pieces from my own wardrobe. I’ve reached a point of culmination with menswear ideas. The menswear puts a lot of the womenswear into context; together, they give a full view of the brand. It’s important for me to have both present to balance out what I want to say.

How do you articulate that?

Part of a new collection starts in response to my previous work. There’s always a period of reflecting on what I’ve just done and what I wanted to say that I didn’t. New ideas are the second part. For example, I saw a Henri Matisse exhibition in Los Angeles and started picking up on colors in different places—like a particular pink from a painting or a blue from a fabric header. Eventually I built a framework of different keynotes that made sense together and felt unlike anything I’ve done previously, but also felt relevant to the brand.

Do you translate your vision differently for clothing and accessories?

I don’t think there’s much difference. Whether you’re making a shoe, a jacket, or a piece of jewelry, it’s about how you refine the idea and execute it.

(Photos by Shyam Patel)

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