By giving a sophisticated spin to sportswear, fashion designer Dima Leu has found a new approach to garment-making that appeals both men and women, and those who wouldn’t usually wear sporty clothes – such as himself. The Moldova-born, Italy-based designer is always looking for innovation, and he recalls his childhood having a huge influence in his work today: from overcoming the country’s poverty after the fall of the Soviet Union to his training in classical music. Today, we sit down with him to discuss function versus beauty, sustainability and confinement in Italy.
What was your first contact with fashion like and how did your brand emerge?
While I was completing my economics studies, I took a break from numbers to create clothes. At that time, I was sharing my home with an amazing artist who had invited me to seriously consider a course in fashion. The idea of starting a new path fascinated me a lot, and this is exactly how I got in touch and started to study fashion design.
After graduating from fashion design and several experiences as a designer assistant, I moved to Milan and started to work as a designer for a well-known Italian luxury brand. During this experience, I felt the need to express something personal that was difficult to elaborate in those circumstances. Before starting a career as an independent designer, I was aware of having to give up that privileged position in order to face new challenges. In this way, I started an internship in textile design and consultancy for some brands, and after two years, in January 2016, I launched my first collection.
After four years with the successful Sport Suit series, you have released the Fall/Winter 2020 collection, divided into three series. All these new designs feature contemporary shapes highlighted by a colour palette inspired by the domestic imaginary of an old mansion house – black, brown, green, blue, grey, violet. How do your Moldavian roots influence your design and work?
Our future has deep roots in our childhood. I was born in 1987 in Moldova, during the fall of the Soviet Union, and my childhood was marked by a strong economic crisis that made me live many strong experiences. I still remember the long, hard winters without heating at school and at home, the warm-up exercises every fifteen minutes during math and history lessons, the evenings spent studying by candlelight due to the lack of electricity and limited access to water and some primary goods… An intense exercise that generated a sense of survival, courage and freedom with which I face my life and my work every day.
On the other hand, every afternoon I was involved in classical music studies, coming into contact with a noble dimension I found myself in, and I learned to love art and beauty. Studying music has greatly influenced my way of being; it has taught me the discipline and respect for deadlines, to orient myself in different processes simultaneously, and to think and live in different directions. To know the concept of construction, to develop a structural thought and the understanding of complex systems through the comprehension of musical hierarchy and structure and developing my communication skills through the study of great composers reincarnating in their personality being able to transmit it to the public. I addressed this theme in my Spring/Summer 2020 collection trying to highlight common denominators between music and sport.
It seems like these new creations find a balance between traditional and contemporary elements. How do you find a midpoint between the two?
When I create my collections, I often have in mind the new generations. Especially in the Stripes and Sport Suit collections, I am aware that I can reach a young audience to whom I would like to communicate that clothing and fashion are not made simply of a sweatshirt or a printed t-shirt but of history, dedication, a lot of study and discipline.
I always try to be contemporary in aesthetics and forms while communicating the values ​​that come from the past through the way the garments are designed and produced. To create a t-shirt, I select high-quality jerseys made in Italy and Japan, and the various applications are hand-sewn in a traditional way. For the tracking suit, I often start from the two-piece men’s classic suit by creating hybrid constructions with a sporty aesthetic that allows the final consumer to interact with the elements deriving from tailoring.
I use the same philosophy when it comes to fabrics: decontextualizing some classic materials, finishing all the tracksuits with linings, using viscose instead of nylon, the fresco wool instead of polyester jersey, the viscose linings instead of shirt fabric, drawstrings made of jersey or dobby fabric instead of polyester cords.
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This season’s newest addition is Homme, the part of the collection that you dedicate to tailoring. Do you think that this is your most innovative proposal so far? What was the motivation or the fundamental purpose behind these designs?
It is something that I’ve had in mind and have been working on for some time. It is a proper section dedicated to tailoring, and it represents a more experimental part of my work. Stripes and Sport Suit are already two mature and consolidated projects on the market and I felt the need to create a completely different container in which to feel freer to experiment without having to face an ongoing theme and express a different point of view.
While the work on sport represented a challenge and a conceptual exercise for me, the possibility of experimenting with colours and shapes and working on tailoring brought me back to a more familiar dimension, a place I know well and that represents a return to the past, to my studies and to a more intimate part of me.
Your creations combine sportswear and casual wear. Athleisure has been popular for some time now, what do you think are the reasons why this trend has continued? Personally, what draws your attention to it?
Personally, I do not pay attention to trends, it is difficult for me to identify and be aware of them. Trends are related to something that is already outdated and does not go hand in hand with creativity and imagination. I do start working on a project or a collection always asking myself questions. In 2015, I asked myself ‘what could I work on’, and dealing with the theme of sportswear in a sophisticated key made sense to me at the time.
I have never dressed in a sporty way and I was aware that, like me, there were other people with the curiosity to explore sporty outfits and feel elegant at the same time. So, I asked myself what a tracksuit had to be like to be able to wear it, and so I immediately got to work.
Although you have your own vision, to what extent you are inspired by trends and what you see on the runway? What are your references and main inspirations when making the collections?
I dedicate a part of my time to observe what some of my colleagues work on for my personal information. There are some designers that I respect and follow with particular admiration. However, I don't believe in fashion that feeds exclusively on fashion itself, I continually need to explore and observe other fields, sometimes even far from creativity and art. Everything that fascinates me is absorbed and reworked within me, but I believe that the true creative stimuli come from an even deeper dimension.
“We can’t express who we are and what we feel only through functionality, and sometimes, I like to think that conceptuality comes from a more spiritual than rational dimension.”
Regarding the values of your clothes, what do you prioritize, aesthetics or functionality? Or are they on the same level?
As a student, I had a very rigid training that has always given great importance to functionality. Every choice in the projects had to have a sense and a justification. I think this is important, but that’s not all. It is very important to explore and know yourself and understand what is diverged in each of us to communicate. We can’t express who we are and what we feel only through functionality, and sometimes, I like to think that conceptuality comes from a more spiritual than rational dimension.
As a menswear designer, what is your opinion about it right now? It’s growing unstoppably, gaining more and more importance, and several menswear brands are now more willing to take risks. Do you think there’s enough innovation?
I wouldn’t define myself exclusively as a male designer, I’m just a creative person. I decided to focus my attention on men's clothing because I don't have a female beauty imagery in mind right now. The Stripes and Sport Suit collections, however, present several unisex options which are loved by women. Especially in the Sports part, I often draw shapes dedicated to the Japanese market by working on an idea of ​​the Eastern male body, which has different proportions from the Western ones. Surprisingly, these silhouettes seem to suit particularly well to Western women clientele.
As for today's men's clothing scene, I think that sometimes it feeds too much on women's clothing of the past. Innovation is something very important to me and it requires dedication to research and experimentation. Today we live in the age of quantity and not of quality, the age of the tendency to amaze through bizarre creations with little content. I believe the creatives that will do really shine in the near future will be those who will seriously return to study. This is a consideration and a call that I make first of all to myself as a designer.
What differential element do you think your designs bring to the male fashion industry?
This is a question that I would like to forward to the various buyers and operators in the sector who have trusted me in recent years and which I thank one by one. I think I have committed myself with dedication to my profession and I trust that I can contribute to innovation in an even more significant way in this decade.
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And to know more about the names that you look up to, could you tell us what artists, other fashion designers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. you follow?
I listen to a lot of classical music. I particularly love the stormy and introverted Sergej Rachmaninoff and the wise and philosophical Bach. In this period, I am listening to the solo works of Thom Yorke which I consider one of the best contemporary musicians. I like libraries specializing in art, and in this period, I am studying some Russian painters such as B. Kustodiev, A. Levitin, I. Brodskij. The film I have watched most recently is Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas.
Sustainability is the hot topic in the industry right now. You’ve also decided to make your brand more environmentally friendly. How has the process been like?
Sustainability is very important today and must be approached with the utmost seriousness. I am very disappointed with the recent textile fair I visited in Paris. It seems that the word ‘sustainability’ is such a current trend that I am afraid it might soon go out of style. The companies offer sustainable fabrics that in reality can’t be defined as such delivering the selected samples accompanied by printed folders and cumbersome unnecessary packaging. This makes me think about how superficially the concept of sustainability is addressed.
For me, as a designer, ‘sustainable’ means managing to create something that does not easily transform into garbage, something that can be easily transformed at the end of its life cycle or that has a long life, which implies a quality in terms of materials and design. On the other hand, I expect from my suppliers that they invest more in research in order to be able to supply fabrics and accessories obtained through production processes that respect the environment in the coming years and I hope that the big brands will find a more equitable and environmentally-friendly solution for all unsold clothes, launching productions with sales forecasts more appropriate to the real demand.
We are all responsible for what is happening to the planet and it takes a collective effort to tackle this problem. My recent collections are created from about 80% of fabrics coming from deadstock, and in the near future, I intend to devote more time to study new sustainable proposals.
After this journey full of creations and achievements, what is the future of Dima Leu? What are you currently up to?
At this moment, I am in my studio in Italy, where I will spend at least one month in isolation given the dramatic moment we are experiencing. I’m trying to be very active even though I can’t leave my studio and I’m working on some patterns of the new Spring/Summer 2021 collection and on customized projects for some singers. I hope that we will overcome this moment soon and that it will serve us as an experience of growth towards a restart with more responsibility and awareness.
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