Dai Rees was born in Bridgend, Wales. He is a milliner, fashion designer, artist, and educator. After gaining a degree in ceramics and glass at Central Saint Martins, he studied at the London College of Fashion.
Rees’s career has spanned different fields. His work explores the concept of craft and often defies the restraints of wearability, contributing to (or reflecting) the experimental impulse of British avant-garde fashion during the 1990s. Rees first came to the fore in 1997, when he created headpieces for Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer collection, “La Poupée.” Playing with the idea of the mask and the possibilities of concealment, the pieces were made of painted porcupine quills, leather, feathers, and natural fibers. Shortly thereafter he collaborated with Stella McCartney, Lulu Guinness, Moschino, and fellow Welsh designer Julien MacDonald, for whom he produced headpieces for the fall/winter 1997 “Mermaids” collection and the spring/summer 1998 “Modernist” show. In 1998 curator Judith Clark commissioned Rees to create couture millinery pieces for the inauguration of the Judith Clark Gallery in London. The dramatic and sculptural pieces in the “Pampilion” series, whose title refers to a specific type of fur in vogue in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, represent the beginning of an ongoing love affair between Rees and the museum world.
After the launch of his own label in 1997, Rees also ventured into women’s wear. Until 2002, he created designs with a conceptual approach to the body and movement and a specific attention to craft and experimentation with natural fibers and leather. His aesthetic mixed minimalism and excellent tailoring with a pungent playfulness, which emerged especially in his last collections in the early 2000s. The 2001 spring/summer show “No More Useless Beauty” combined irreverence and exquisite craftsmanship, while also showing the potential of the runway as a political stage. The colorful garments were embellished with embroidered or digitally printed slogans such as “Made in Wales, Not in Taipan” or “Woven in Scotland” to highlight the use of local crafts and textiles. By including handmade details and enlarged badges that would be impossible to produce with a machine, Dai Rees criticized an industry too often preoccupied with profit rather than quality and artistry. In order to force the audience to consider the message, he also denied his designs to international buyers, de facto showing garments that were not for sale.
In the same year, Rees was commissioned to create a series of hats by the Royal Mail for postage stamps to celebrate contemporary British millinery. The pieces continued the exploration started with the 1998 “Pampilion” series, allowing the designer to experiment with feathers and extraordinary shapes. The creations were modeled by Erin O’Connor and photographed by Nick Knight. The “Fabulous Hats” series circulated on a national scale through magazines, newspapers, and the Royal Mail Year Book.
Since 2002 Rees has been focusing again on museum pieces. The exhibition “42 Days,” which toured between 2002 and 2004, included two projects that articulated political messages through craft and technology. The first piece consisted of a matrix of forty-two A4 leather tablets personally dyed and decorated by Rees. The tablets were inscribed with news texts about the Iraq War as sent by the Orange cell phone company, as well as images of events broadcast by BBC News 24. The individual leather pieces composed an unusual war journal that highlighted the necessity for craftsmanship to engage with politics in critical times. The second piece was a bowl covered with a single cow skin stretched to cover its whole surface, which was subsequently burned in different areas to reveal the ephemerality of the material. The damaged leather was a metaphor for the vulnerability of human skin and bodies during the war. By bringing together these two pieces, “42 Days” represented both the reality of the conflict in Iraq and the mediated perception of the events in the West.
Rees continued to explore the possibilities of leather with the 2006 Carapace project, an installation reminiscent of a butcher’s store, which included several leather casings hanging from the ceiling. Each one was dyed by hand and featured surgical hand-stitching and marquetry inlays. The contrast between the brutality of the scar-like stitches and the refinement of the inlaid natural motifs reflects the tension between cruelty and the disturbing beauty evoked by the pieces. The hides become prosthetic carapaces, essentially unwearable, a symbol of the ephemerality of both the animal and the human body. An updated version of the installation, entitled Carapace: Triptych, the Butcher’s Window, was featured in the “Aware: Art Fashion Identity” show at the Royal Academy in 2010. In the early twenty-first century, Dai Rees directs the design and technology program of the graduate school at the London College of Fashion and also the MA Fashion Artifact course.