The biggest night of the Australian fashion industry calendar is mere hours away and Dion Lee is already running late. “So sorry,” he says apologetically after dialling GRAZIA’s office. “My last call ran 10 minutes over.” Given he’s probably the most in-demand guy in the local fashion arena today, we’re quick to forgive.

The purpose of our mid-morning chat? To gauge his feelings on being told he’s won the Australian fashion industry’s equivalent to the CDFAs in New York, or to nod at another creative industry, the Academy Awards in Los Angeles. (See here for a full list of the 10th Australian Fashion Laureate Award Winners 2017.)

Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before Lee adds a CDFA to his trophy cabinet too, given the newly-crowned Fashion Laureate 2017 is now based in NYC and fast gathering an impressive US fan base comprised of top editors, stylists and clientele.

Dion Lee with retired supermodel Gemma Ward who presented an Australian Fashion Laureate Award
Credit: Supplied

WE SHOOT THE BREEZE WITH DION LEE

GRAZIA: Congratulations Dion! How does it feel to know you’ll be an Australian Fashion Laureate alum tonight?

LEE: [Laughing] Thank you, thank you so much. It’s terribly exciting. It’s a really big award to win and it means a lot to be voted by members of the industry. I think that makes it something really special.

GRAZIA: You’re actually based in America now, aren’t you?

LEE: Yes, I’m based full time in New York now with our design office and sales team. I’ve been over there for the past 18 months.

GRAZIA: What’s the biggest difference to you between living in NY and Sydney, apart from the obvious weather and beach benefits here?

LEE: I think the lifestyle is very different, the pace of the city is very different, but I definitely appreciate both. Coming home gives you a greater appreciation for the lifestyle in Sydney, the environment, the beach, everything really, so it’s always super special when I do come home. But I feel very lucky to have a balance between the two – the chaotic New York City life and the beautiful Sydney lifestyle.

GRAZIA: Do you think that’s a natural step for designers when they get to a certain level to move overseas and to have a foot in both the local and global camps?

LEE: I think everyone’s path is very different. There are examples of Australian designers who are still based here and have incredibly successful international businesses. For me, it was both a personal decision to really continue to expose myself to new experiences, live in a new place, work with new people, along with really being there to support the growth of the business internationally. So yeah, I think it kind of went hand in hand for me and felt like a right time to really take the business to the next level.

GRAZIA: A lot of Australian designers say that the sensibilities here do influence the way they design. Have you felt that being over there has changed your aesthetic or approach at all?

LEE: Yeah, I think it has. I think there’s definitely a more urban nature in New York and you definitely come to understand the utility of the city. I mean, it’s really kind of like going from place to place in very urban environments, and I think the climate does have a big impact. We’ve definitely become more outer-wear focused since being over there and come to understand the weight of winter season and the importance of how to dress in that climate when you’re going from super hot indoors to artic snow outdoors.

GRAZIA: What’s been the biggest challenge of your fashion design career so far?

LEE: There have been many, so it’s really hard to single out one thing. I think it would be learning to balance the ability to build a strong brand in Australia while also continuing to grow internationally, plus everything that comes along with that – the pricing, the communication, the logistics, the travel. Geographically we are quite far away and there is an element that is quite challenging about that in terms of feeling sometimes slightly disconnected from the international industry. But at the same time, I think that’s where a lot of brands have really found opportunity – through focusing on their digital presence and how they communicate within the online landscape.

GRAZIA: Apart from this accolade of course, what would you say has been your biggest career highlight so far?

LEE: Um, it’s really hard to say! I showed at Australian Fashion Week earlier this year and that was a really special show for me. [Note: Lee’s MBFWA 2017 show was backed by key sponsor Mercedes-Benz to open fashion week] It was one of the first places I showed when I started my brand, so coming back to Sydney from New York and being able to show on the forecourt outside around the Sydney Opera House was a really surreal and special experience. It was a big ‘pinch me’ moment… something I feel I will remember very dearly for the rest of my life.

GRAZIA: What do you think this kind of award will do for your label and yourself brand-wise?

LEE: I think in some ways it kind of marks the maturity of the brand, for me anyway. I was quite young when I started the brand straight out of college and there was a lot of learning in the younger years for me. So yeah, it definitely does feel like a slight coming of age in terms of being an established designer perhaps, rather than feeling for many years that I was considered a younger designer, or an emerging designer.

GRAZIA: You are no longer emerging. You’ve well and truly emerged!

LEE: [Laughing again] Yeah, potentially.

GRAZIA: What’s next for the brand? You’re taking it overseas and expanding it globally. Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you’re looking to for the future?

LEE: We’d love to explore a store internationally. We’re continuing to focus on the categories of the brand, so we’re really focusing on accessories across shoes, eyewear, leather goods. So that’s the next chapter for us, I suppose.

GRAZIA: So we can expect more hot Dion Lee shoe action in the near future?

LEE: Yes, definitely more of it. It’s exciting.

GRAZIA: How will you celebrate your big Fashion Laureate win tonight?

LEE: I’m not sure since I’m flying out very early tomorrow morning, but I’m really looking forward to toasting with my team and my friends and everyone who I can manage to get a hold of this evening.

GRAZIA: Most importantly, how good is your game face, because nobody knows that you know ahead of time?

LEE: [Laughing nervously] I think it is a really special award and I won’t have any trouble feeling emotional regardless. I think my performance will be fairly authentic.

Follow Dion Lee the brand on Instagram here.

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