Just one year ago, a then-unknown British designer was tasked with reviving a luxury Italian label he called a "sleeping giant" and catapulting it into the millennial zeitgeist, and suddenly, without so much as hitting the snooze button, Daniel Lee's Bottega Veneta has become the brand of the moment.
Before Lee took the reins in June 2018, Bottega Veneta — a Kering-owned house of such understated elegance that its mantra was originally "When your own initials are enough" — was far from the periphery of the Instagram era, who tended to favor logocentric accessories over the traditionally subtle polish of the label's leather goods.
For his edit of the Spring 2019 collection, Lee unveiled The Pouch: a now-ubiquitous dough-soft calfskin bag that seemed to have lost a handle, but gained the fashion world's attention in the process. Since February, Instagram's most prevalent mega-influencers have been photographed nestling the bag in the crook of their arms. Earlier this month during New York Fashion Week, the omnipresence of The Pouch was undeniable. Similarly, the strappy, square-toed Stretch stilettos and the quilted Lido sandals — not to mention the opinion-dividing mesh-and-anklet Stretch Pumps — from Pre-Fall 2019 seemed to be everywhere from Spring Studios to the streets of Soho.
This quickly led to suspicion about an influencer marketing strategy, with many citing a similar occurrence of how Dior bombarded the social media world with its relaunched Saddle Bag in 2018. "How does literally everyone have [the] new Bottega Veneta items? Is it being gifted to all influencers?" reads one of many skeptical cries on Twitter. Rumors circulated that the brand both spent eye-watering numbers on seeding these products and that they didn't gift a single soul; a request for comment from Fashionista remains unanswered by the brand.
A globally-renowned fashion blogger, who declined to be named, is of the opinion that any gifting was restricted to leading stylists, consultants and editors, as opposed to social media influencers. The source noted that for Lee's first runway outing, no "influencers" were even invited to the show.
"I do know for sure that they gifted plenty of stylists and editors," the individual told Fashionista. "I think it's a classic case of the hype machine in full force. Bottega is the epitome of cool now, so it's natural for fashion girls to gravitate towards something that is perceived as such."
They continued to speculate, "A lot of influencers are 'faking it'[...] by borrowing from stores that carry Bottega Veneta, or by shopping it, to get their attention because it's the 'hottest' label around and they want to get on their good graces."
Indeed, many influencers who were quick to promote The Pouch did seem to tag the likes of Moda Operandi and Net-a-Porter while doing so (perhaps even simply regramming photos of items they did not personally own). This could also suggest that those influencers used gifted credit from those sites to purchase the items.
While no one seems to have declared outright that the accessories are gifts by using the relevant, FTC-outlined protocol, Bottega Veneta's Communications Manager has been tagged several times on Instagram since Milan Fashion Week began, with leading fashion insiders "thanking" him as they revealed their new pieces.
One thing is for sure: The Pouch seems to have everyone under its spell, but what is it about the 7-inch x 15-inch arm candy that has everyone so captivated?
Central Saint Martins-educated Lee notably honed his craft at Céline, Maison Margiela, Balenciaga and Donna Karan. Some have noted that The Pouch bears more than a passing resemblance to Céline's Purse Clutch for inspiration (but it's also likely that Lee mined Bottega Veneta's archive, as would any newly-instated creative director). In 2005, during Tomas Maier's 17-year tenure at the helm, an ad campaign shows supermodel Christy Turlington with her leather bag cradled in her arm. That same year, models carried their intrecciato bags down the runway clutched in their hands or nonchalantly tucked under their elbows.
At a time when Jacquemus is launching bags that will just about fit a paper clip and logomania fanny packs reign supreme, the antithesis of those "must-haves" is The Pouch. Of course, the fact that Lee is from the school of Céline sure helped put him on the industry's radar in the wake of Phoebe Philo's mourned departure. One of Lee's first actions was to enlist photographer Tyrone Lebon, who had shot Céline's Resort 2015 campaign, to capture Bottega Veneta's Spring 2019 imagery. Subsequently, his runway debut became one of the most anticipated of the season.
"The atmosphere was super special," she tells Fashionista of February's show. "When the first models came out on the runway, you felt the positive vibe amongst the crowd and I knew instantly that this collection would be a great success. I was blown away by the minimalistic aesthetic and the amazing quality of product."
She noted that The Pouch "in every size and color" has been a commercial hit and it seems the proof is in the pudding: Every one of them is sold out on site.
"Since Daniel Lee took over, the demand is on a constant high. I think he understands the needs of a modern woman and how she wants to be dressed," Hsu says.
Hsu believes that social media is driving popularity for The Pouch right now — "You see them everywhere and they're instantly recognizable," she says — but she's confident they are here to stay and that Lee's future designs will be equally as lust-worthy.
Keen to see what about The Pouch is so alluring, I hot-footed it downtown to New York City's Brookfield Plaza store. I was greeted by a sales assistant who was virtually out of breath as she photographed the bare shelves on her iPhone to send to the head office. In her nine years of working there, she has never witnessed anything like the current furor.
Deliveries are barely making it to the shop floor, she said, the demand is that intense. The Pouches are selling out in hours — the Mist, Mustard and Carmello varieties are virtually unattainable now — and even though you can put a deposit down for those, it could be months before the orders are fulfilled.
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The sales associate doesn't think it's just a result of Instagram, either. She noted one client who flocked to the store after a trip to Saint-Tropez to get her hands on The Pouch as "everyone" in the French town of one-percenters was brandishing one: real-life influencers!
For Gab Waller, an Australia-based personal shopper, there's no incentive like the words "sold out." Waller's clients include Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (who seems to be the biggest New Bottega fan of all), Revolve's Raissa Gerona, Ouai hair founder Jen Atkin and influencer Brittany Xavier. Without a doubt, she said that Bottega Veneta has been her "most requested" designer ever.
"The influx of requests for The Pouch started back in February. I posted that the 'Bottega effect was coming' and that couldn't have been more accurate," she tells Fashionista. "I feel the Carmello version started it all and in May when I opened pre-orders for the Pre-Fall 2019 shoes, that is when it exploded."
"I specialize in sourcing sold-out and high-demand pieces and I receive all of my sourcing requests via Instagram," she explains. "From there I work with numerous international contacts to source the item. Once it's been located, I advise my client and proceed with the order. It is extremely fast-paced, with Bottega Veneta in particular; I can't hesitate for a moment or it will sell out. That is the level of demand these styles currently have."
"I've never seen or experienced this level of demand before, and it's not slowing down. The [shoes and The Pouch] are selling out immediately, prior to them dropping online or within the boutiques. That includes any restocks," she elaborates. "With stock levels and product assortment different within each region, with certain regions also receiving exclusive color ways, I'm working across multiple timezones daily to secure these styles for my clients."
Maybe the product drops are small enough to keep demand high, or maybe we're all just suckers for what we can't have, but the buzz for "New Bottega" is palpable.
Back in December 2018, Lee told Vogue that Bottega is a brand "that talks about sophisticated elegance. "It's almost about being quiet. A silence in all the noise. A kind of stillness. For me right now, designing real clothes is more exciting than a fashion message." It seems like that stillness caused a ripple effect, and perhaps more "noise" than even he, or the executives who hired him, expected.