Cero @ 11 Mercer etc.
By Zhi Wei
DION LEE AT 11 MERCER
BY ASHLEY SIMPSON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ZHI WEI
For the Australian designer Dion Lee, known for his minimal and architecturally considered designs, the dream of a New York store has been a long time coming. “It’s been about five years since I moved to New York and it was always the intention to open a retail space in the city since I already have an established retail business in Australia,” he relates over the phone from Los Angeles. “I spent many days just walking around Soho and looking at spaces and inquiring about spaces that were available.” That search led to the four-thousand-square-foot storefront just above Canal Street where this story was photographed—a larger space than anticipated, a silver lining of the long, isolated year that devastated Manhattan real estate.
With the extra room, the shop will be more than just a place to display product. “Being able to increase the size of the store really allowed me to consider what more possibility there was for a retail space outside of the physical retail component of the clothing being available to purchase,” muses Lee. The pandemic brought an explosion in digital retail while also forcing a re- evaluation of the purpose and potential of bricks and mortar. “What is the future of that?”
His answer will take form as a store serving not just as a physical entrypoint to his clothes and accessories, but also as an exhibition and events space. Lee worked with the Australian modernist architect William Smart of Smart Design Studio to create a modular language for the shop—a concept allowing the space to transform as needed depending on its purpose for the day. There will be permanent art installations, a café for more social and community-based engagements, and a DJ booth for performances, which will allow Lee to bring in friends and similarly-minded creatives for regular events. “A lot of the fixtures that were designed are really customizable and are able to be used within the space in many ways, so that idea of functionality and future possibility was really what informed the design,” says Lee. “I really was drawn to this idea of a language of construction and this idea of a construction site in the sense that it’s evolving constantly and being built and unbuilt.”
This concept fits well with Lee’s own design aesthetic. He’s a designer whose approach to clothes and the body is consistently and beautifully rooted in architecture. His Spring 2021 collection draws reference from Monstera leaves and standard pieces of the military camouflage uniform, deconstructing these forms and reimagining them through a shape-driven logic that is at once elegant, assertive, and subversive of tired gender standards. Traditional camo forms are abstracted and reconfigured onto faded, lace-drawn vests and layered skirting for all genders. Cargo shorts are re-envisioned with fringe detailing, and leather cutout dresses are both organic and technical. The clothes are sexy, refined, and just as easily at home for a night at the opera or a rave in a warehouse. “We are also fitting the same style on both a male and a female body and that really does change how you select the textile to accommodate for many different fits and many different body shapes,” says Lee. “Obviously for me, it is often inspired by how I dress and how the people around me dress.”
Dressing up for its own sake has also changed the way Lee designs. “I think it was really just this feeling of strength and more empowerment from dressing that I’ve felt connected with over the past few months,” he continues. “Without anywhere to wear clothes during quarantine, there has been this very different approach to dressing, which really is dressing for yourself, dressing to walk down the street, or dressing to go to the bodega.”
Slated to open in late Fall, the new shop—a cultural outpost and exhibition space as much as anything else—will serve as a New York home for Lee’s community as we enter a new world. “To be honest, it’s been a very organic process for me and not something I would do in a way that wasn’t engaging people very close to me or people I have very strong respect for or whose work I admire,” the designer says. “It definitely feels like there is an optimism that is approaching.”