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Dion Lee to design Opera House uniforms

Australia’s young fashion star is bringing his very own brand of magic to the masterpiece that inspired him.

Matthew Drummond
Online Editor

Most people of a certain age remember the first time they saw the Opera House. Not Dion Lee. He can’t remember a time when it wasn’t part of his landscape.

Born in Sydney in 1985, twelve years after Jorn Utzon’s masterpiece opened its doors, Lee was an Opera House habitué from the start. “I loved theatre,” he told Backstage recently. “I remember going to many performances with my mother - theatre, contemporary dance and ballet. I studied drama for a lot of my youth. I was interested in acting and at one stage wanted to be a director, but at high school [Sydney’s Newtown High School of the Performing Arts] I became more interested in art and design.”

That fledgling passion led him first to the Sydney Institute of Technology’s Fashion Design Studio and then into a career remarkable not only for the heady heights achieved in less than a decade, but the way one thing has led, apparently inexorably, to the next.

The latest milestone: designing a new range of uniforms for the Sydney Opera House that will be worn by more than 600 staff, including theatre ushers, tour guides and even the crew working backstage. It is the first time the Opera House has chosen a designer of such calibre to make its uniforms, and the first such engagement for Lee. But the fit could not be more natural.  

"The Opera House is something that I’ve always looked to and that I’m proud of as an Australian."

Dion Lee

'Resort 2018' on the Forecourt

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“The Opera House is a place that I’ve consistently looked to for creative inspiration,” he says. “I’m truly honoured to be working with the Opera House and its staff to design their new uniforms.”

Lee launched his eponymous label at 23, shortly after graduating from fashion school. Two pieces from his graduate collection found their way into the Powerhouse Museum’s 2008 Student Fashion exhibition, garnering a Westfield Fashion Graduate of the Year award and an invitation to show his graduate collection at the next Fashion Week.

That first solo show in 2009, just two years after graduating, won Lee the Prix de Marie Claire award for best up-and-coming designer and early acclaim from local and international press. 

A year later he became the first designer to show in the Concert Hall Northern Foyer, winning both the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival Designer Award and Qantas Spirit of Youth Award with only his second solo show. “Unveiled as the morning sun poured through the same Jørn Utzon designed atria whose presence is keenly felt in much of his work since, Lee’s ‘Façade’ collection quickly cemented his place at the forefront of Australian fashion,” Grazia magazine wrote of the show.

“Showing at the Opera House for the first time felt like such a huge privilege,” Lee remembers. “It was such an early stage in my career and I was still a relatively unknown designer. What really struck me at the time was how that sense of space resonated internationally and how iconic the images of that presentation became.“It brought together a lot of things that became important to me personally and became important to the brand: that cultural layer, involving other creatives and being very collaborative. I’ve always thought of fashion as theatre. You involve a musical director and a creative director in a show and there are staging elements. That drew quite a few parallels with being at the Opera House. And the architectural elements, which are something I’ve always drawn upon.”

“I’ve always been interested in sculptural design and structure. Tailoring has been something I have really focused on from my college days, drawing on menswear and traditional tailoring techniques. For me there has always been this overarching parallel between pattern-making - the process of drafting a pattern for the body - and architecture. It’s a mathematical process of plotting a structure, plotting something physical.

“I work on the stand quite a bit and I drape, which parallels sculpture. Where you’re building things on a form, looking at them from 360 degrees, seeing how they look at different angles, seeing how they move. For me, fashion is the mode of production but I would say my interests extend beyond that. That’s just how I apply them.”

'Facade' SS 2010/11 in the Northern Foyer

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It’s hard to miss the echoes as he speaks of a building designed to be seen from all sides, reflecting every fluctuation of the movement around it. A building described in fact as “a great urban sculpture set in a remarkable waterscape, at the tip of a peninsula projecting into Sydney Harbour” in its 2007 World Heritage listing, one that “brings together multiple strands of creativity and innovation”.

Lee made that inspiration explicit three years later when - as the first Australian representative at the prestigious International Woolmark Prize - he designed his acclaimed ‘Utzon’ collection, named in honour of the architect of the Sydney Opera House and drawing on Max Dupain’s celebrated photographs of the Opera House shells under construction.

“The concept of the prize and a designer from each continent gave it this context and context for me is a starting point,” Lee says. “It made me look at what it meant to be an Australian designer and what I wanted to say as an Australian designer who’d been given this global platform. I have always seen the Opera House as something that holds a high level of cultural significance. It’s something that I’ve always looked to and that I’m proud of as an Australian. It just felt instinctively right.”

A year later he would make his debut at Fashion Week in New York, the city he now calls home to manage his expanding international business.

But it is the Opera House that Lee has chosen for another milestone collection, his opening show for the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia on 14 May 2017, which marks not only his first foray into men’s wear but a whole new project, designing uniforms to be worn by the people who bring the Opera House to life every day for the millions who experience the art on its stages - or the work of art that is the building - each year.

The collaboration was launched on the morning of the show, just days after the Opera House announced the Joan Sutherland Theatre would close in a week so that work could begin on its first major Renewal project, part of a larger $273 million program of upgrades to prepare the Opera House for the next generation.

“Renewal is transforming the Opera House for future generations of artists, audiences, visitors and, most immediately, for the hundreds of staff who make the magic happen on-and-off stage, 363 days a year,” said Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron AM.

The suite of uniforms will be the first in more than a decade for many of the 600 staff who will wear them, including front of house, tour guides and even the crew working backstage. Staff will work with Lee during the design process. Design and manufacturing of the collection is expected to take up to 12 months.

Lee is very aware that that design process represents a new and very different challenge. But this most disciplined of designers relishes the strictures – and restraints - that come with it.

“That is what design is about; solving the problem,” he says. “Every design brief you do, you establish parameters and you give yourself limitations within which to work.”

“Within this context, it’s working within the parameters of what would really function, what would really feel good to wear both on the body and visually. Meeting the needs of the Opera House’s very diverse workforce and making sure the clothes combine elegance and utility, inspiration and practicality is critical. It is important that a cultural icon such as the Opera House projects an image that parallels the architecture of the building.”  

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