Designer Dion Lee burst on to the scene after his debut solo show at Australian Fashion Week in 2009 and is now one of the industry's most sought-after names. This week, Lee is the only Australian of six finalists competing for the International Woolmark Prize, judged at London Fashion Week on February 16. An initiative of Australian Wool Innovation, the prize supports emerging talent. The winner will take home $100,000 and the opportunity to be stocked in top boutiques around the globe. Kate Waterhouse chats with the 27-year-old about his success, and the pressures of representing Australia.
Did you always want to be a designer?
No. When I was growing up I studied acting and I went to performing arts high school in years 11 and 12. At that stage I was really into the idea of being a filmmaker or doing something like that, and then I kind of grew out of it and became much more concentrated on art and design.
Were you surprised by the instant success of your Fashion Week debut?
I don't know. With fashion it feels like you are never there yet; it always feels like you're working to the next thing. I was really lucky I was supported at that early stage, but I still feel like I have a long way to go.
Do you feel a big weight of expectation to win the International Woolmark Prize?
I think so. I think a lot of people are really excited about the opportunity to show Australian fashion on an international scale. I suppose from everyone in Australia there is that level of patriotism that they want me to be successful, but regardless of the outcome I think I'll just be extremely excited to be exposed on that level.
What would it mean to you to win?
I think it would be a pretty surreal experience. For the past two years I've been working on building the brand within the international market, so more than anything it's such an exciting opportunity to be able to really broaden the exposure of the brand.
What is it like to have such influential people judging your work at the International Woolmark Prize?
It's pretty scary. I think I'll probably be freaking out at that moment when I'm standing in front of everyone. There are judges from media, design, retail, and designers such as Diane von Furstenberg, Donatella Versace [and] Victoria Beckham, plus really influential journalists such as Tim Blanks and Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia.
What was it like meeting American Vogue editor Anna Wintour when you showed at London Fashion Week?
It was quite surreal. It was like meeting the Queen in a way, but she was great. She was very pragmatic about her approach to meeting a new designer and asking me about the context of my brand, how long I'd been established, and where the product had been made. She was very interested in the construction, and made the comment that it was really well made. She has a very acute eye; you could tell she was taking everything in. We have just shot something for American Vogue so it's exciting.
Is your goal to continue to show internationally, or will you show at Australian Fashion Week again?
Hopefully I will be able to achieve a presence in both markets. The good thing is, Australian Fashion Week is only once a year and I really want to continue to support that event that has been supportive of me in the past … There are lots of opportunities to do something really fun with the event. We are also looking to open a store in Sydney later this year, so I really want to continue to have a presence here and support the Australian market.
Will you ever expand the brand into menswear?
Yes, but it's just really about finding the right time to launch it. Obviously the focus now is launching the womenswear brand internationally, so it would seem strange to differentiate the brand so heavily and so quickly.
Do you ever see women in your designs and think, ''That is all wrong''?
(Laughs.) Yes, I think every designer would say that, but that's kind of the nice thing about it as well. People bring their own style to things and often you are pleasantly surprised.
Which Australian designers do you admire?
There are so many designers I admire, because I now know how hard it is to run a business from this country that is internationally focused. I was really lucky to have an internship with Zimmermann a couple of years ago, and I have lot of respect for what those girls have done with their brand.
WE WENT TO Toko, Surry Hills.
WE ATE Sliced kingfish, yuzu, chives; Japanese salad; seasonal vegetable tempura; and a selection of sushi.
WE DRANK Sparkling mineral water.
DION WORE Acne jeans, Bassike T-shirt and Givenchy sandals.