As the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents Program Turns 10, Dion Lee Reflects on a Decade in Fashion

The Australian designer looks back at his first 10 years as a designer.

Mercedes Benz Fashion Talents 10th Anniversary
Darren Gerrish

Inside Somerset House on the Sunday night of London Fashion Week, a lively assembly of guests arrived in flocks to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Mercedes-Benz International Designer Exchange Program, now renamed Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents. There, guests found an impressive installation showcasing the works of 10 of the program’s talented alumni designers, Amesh Wijesekera, Dion Lee, Situationist, Julia Seeman, Vivetta, Steven Tai, Tiziano Guardini, William Fan, Wataru Tominaga, and Xiao Li.

Photo by Rebecca Maynes. Looks created by the emerging label Vivetta and the designer Dion Lee at the cocktail celebration for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Talents.

Since the launch of IDEP in 2009, Mercedes-Benz has aimed to promote emerging young designers as they embark on their careers both locally, within their home market, and globally. The program has supported more than 90 designers on 30 international platforms including Mercedes-Benz Fashion Weeks in Australia, Tbilisi, and Berlin. Needless to say, there was certainly cause for celebration on Sunday, as the brand looked back on a decade of design. Likewise, the Australian designer Dion Lee, who attended the party, had his own reason to celebrate: This year also marks his namesake brand’s 10-year anniversary. Here, Lee reflects on his career, including the impact of Mercedes-Benz.

How do you think the fashion industry has changed since you started your brand in 2009?

I started my brand upon graduation from college, and over the past 10 years so much has changed. I never worked for another designer prior to starting my own brand, which has meant that much of what I have experienced is the result of learning from my mistakes and constantly growing and evolving my aesthetic. Over the past 10 years, the industry has shifted significantly. I also moved from Sydney to New York, relocating my business, and consequently the product has evolved and matured.

Photo by Darren Gerrish. Dion Lee with his designs in London.

Darren Gerrish

Did you have a specific moment when you thought to yourself, This is happening? What advice would you give someone who wants to start his or her own line?

My career stared in a very organic and reactive way, responding to opportunities that presented themselves. However, my approach now feels more considered and focused on the big picture. I would encourage young designers to hold themselves back until they feel they are really ready, as running your own fashion brand can become fairly relentless.

You debuted at Australia Fashion Week with Mercedes-Benz. Why was this an important experience to you? What has been a highlight of being part of the Mercedes-Benz program?

Mercedes-Benz has been an ongoing supporter of the Australian fashion industry and always supports emerging talent. Two years ago, after showing in New York for the previous four year, we presented our resort ’18 collection on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, with the support of Mercedes-Benz. This was such an iconic setting and one of the most memorable show experiences of my career.

Photo by Getty Images. Dion Lee’s resort 2018 collection show, on the steps of the Sydney Opera House.

Matt Jelonek

A number of emerging designers from all over the world have been supported by this Mercedes-Benz program. Have there been any up-and-coming designers that you’ve taken a liking to or have been inspired by?

I liked the collection of Situationist, from Tbilisi, one of the other designers showing as part of the Fashion Talents event in London.

Is there a project or season that you are proudest of?

A few years ago, I changed my approach to become less seasonal, as the idea of completely starting again every season started to feel less relevant. My approach now is to evolve brand signatures and continue to refine the same ideas season after season. I think this allows me to continue to elevate my perspective on fashion, rather than constantly shift with what is happening around me. Each season I feel like I am strengthening and refining my own aesthetic.

What is the most rewarding part of your day? What is the most challenging?

I run my design studio from New York, but I also have an office and team based in Australia. It is really special having a team on the ground in Australia; it keeps me connected to the place I am from. However, managing between the time zones and vast geography between the two places is an ongoing challenge.

Where do you get inspiration from? Is there a period in fashion you feel a real connection with?

I find inspiration through the process of making and constructing clothes and the exploration of cut and silhouette. A lot of the time, inspiration comes when I am traveling, seeing new places and having new experiences that stimulate my eye and the way I think. I grew up in the ’90s and would say that aesthetically this is the decade that left its greatest mark on me, not only through fashion but through music, art, film, et cetera. It is something that feels most authentic to me and is an aesthetic I always come back to.

What item of clothing does every closet need?

Even though the runway collections have an emphasis on graphic shapes and signature fabrications, I am often drawn to the simplicity of the classic pieces: a black tailored Jacket, a crisp white shirt, a clean T-shirt. I believe these are the fundamentals of style and taste and often the building blocks of a collection.

In your opinion, what is the difference between Australian and American style? What makes Australian style unique?

There is an ease that comes with the Australia lifestyle. It comes from the environment and where you spend your time. When you are dressing to be outdoors, in the sun, at the beach, it influences how you layer and put clothes together. There is also an athleticism that also comes from being active and connected to nature.

Photo by Darren Gerrish. All of the emerging talents being honored at the celebration, including Tiziano Guardini, William Fan, Dion Lee, Vivetta Ponti, Amesh Wijesekera, Julia Seemann, Irakli Rusadze, Louis Chasserot, Steven Tai, and Xiao Li.

Darren Gerrish

If you were not a designer, what do you think you would be?

An architect and a sculptor. I like to think that I have time for a few careers in my lifetime! I have nine Dion Lee stores in Australia and I have learned a lot through the process of working with architects and interior designers. I would like to explore the same language of ideas I explore with my collections within the materiality of a physical environment. I have also started designing furniture and have a small capsule that I will be releasing this year at Salone Del Mobile in Milan.

So many incredible women have worn your designs. Which red-carpet moment over the past decade has been the most exciting and rewarding for you?

Dressing Cate Blanchett was particularly special, as is dressing anyone that you have significant respect for. I love seeing my friends wear my clothes, and often that is the most rewarding.

You have a large social media presence. Do you remember your first Instagram? How has social media affected your collections and business?

Instagram is incredibly important for communicating product and brand identity and has been amazing for connecting my brand with people from all parts of the world. I do miss the naivete of Instagram when it was purely a creative outlet, rather than something that needed to be planned and scheduled. I like being able to show the process of building a collection through social media, giving people more of an understanding of what goes into each collection.