'Simple design is always complicated': How Tomas Maier made Bottega Veneta a luxury-goods powerhouse
Italian label Bottega Veneta has something of a split personality. In its home city of Milan, there are two major outposts – one in the shopping mecca and luxury goods Valhalla of Montenapoleone, alongside the likes of Armani and Louis Vuitton, and one on the Piazza del Duomo, home to the vast and bombastic, neo-gothic monolith for which the city is famed.
These are the label's public face, where elite squads of upmarket shoppers convene to partake of creative director Tomas Maier's vision. His work has long been critically acclaimed but somehow, in the past four seasons or so, the 57-year-old German designer has ramped up his output by a notch, and given it real edge, marking Bottega Veneta out as one of the luxury-goods brands (in which handbags cost upwards of a thousand pounds and even jeans come with a four-figure price tag) to sail through the stormy seasonal projections.
The company headquarters are located on a private road on the southern outskirts of the city. This is where press and the industry come to watch Maier unveil his collections twice a year, and to understand his message for his followers, fans and those with the wherewithal to be part of his world. On the wall directly as you enter, the label's motto is emblazoned: 'When your own initials are enough'.
Last year, Maier launched a monogramming service on luggage to make good on that sentiment; in 2011, the label introduced its first fragrance. This year has seen the publication of a weighty photography book by style imprint Rizzoli, edited and with a foreword by Maier himself as well as contributions on the many facets of the company, alongside fashion industry bigwigs Sarah Mower, Tim Blanks and Joan Juliet Buck. And next month, the third in a series of interiors collaborations with artist Nancy Lorenz will be unveiled at Milan's Salon del Mobile furniture fair.
Bottega Veneta is not a luxury label like any other. In accordance with the manifesto on its wall, all that is expensive, luxe and even remotely status-worthy about its products is understated. Impeccable but impassive, and conspicuous only to the cognoscenti.
"For me, it was interesting to prove that a brand could be successful by the way it's made, the way it's conceived," Maier explains when I meet him in Claridge's. He is in London to promote the new book, which attempts to capture the litotic magic of his version of luxury, its cover an enlarged vision of the supple 'intrecciato' woven leather that has become a trademark of the label's bags and purses.
"It's an aesthetic that is not that easy to understand in one collection," he continues. "It's easier to capture now, after 11 years. There were quite a few hurdles in the beginning – it's not so easy to convince people. But here we are."
Bottega's roots lie, as with so many Milanese megabrands, in traditional craftsmanship, and artisanal workshops. A leather goods firm established in nearby Vicenza in 1966, it became known for the high quality of its luggage and accessories, at first discreetly displayed, but as tastes changed and the zeitgeist was duly acknowledged, then more brashly and assertively. It was Maier who, upon joining the company in 2001 (he took over from a briefly tenured Giles Deacon), returned Bottega Veneta to its origins, restoring the Seventies sensibilities and retiring the logo, reviving the notion of stealth wealth long before that concept would grip the fashion sector more broadly.
"We did it by insisting," he says. "By staying on course, by having a clear vision and moving ahead. A luxury product is signified by the material that's used, its design, the know-how of its artisans. And obviously, I have an obsession with functionality – a bit of my German background."
Tomas Maier was born in Pforzheim, a well-heeled town on the edge of the Black Forest, into a family of architects, and was brought up and educated according to the progressive Steiner philosophy. That exactitude and schooling in natural materials is evident in collections that make use of fine cotton and linens, raffia and, of course, the finest tooled leather. When he left school, Maier began his fashion training at Paris's prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, where his passion for precision, perfection and intricacy was first kindled.
"It was great training," he nods, "like becoming a cook. You spend time cleaning the pots before you even start chopping an onion. We would hand-embroider buttonholes for weeks, until they were perfect. And then as an assistant at a couture house, it was my job to present the fabric rolls, to pass the pins. Everything was so slow, made on the bias."
After cutting his teeth at Guy Laroche, Maier moved into the ready-to-wear market at some of Europe's most respected labels – Sonia Rykiel, where he designed the French brand's menswear, and Revillon, for eight years as creative director, before creating clothing, leather goods and accessories for one of France's most high-ranking luxury houses, Hermès, and eventually arriving at Bottega Veneta in 2001. He also maintains a label in his own name, which launched in 1997, soon becoming synonymous with innovative swimwear, and stores in well-to-do resort towns in Florida and the Hamptons.
"A full-time job is not for me – it gets too repetitive, too boring," he says of all these projects. "I'm very active. I don't have much time to take care of my own line – I do it on the side and I feel a bit guilty about that. I like variety and my jobs have to have focus – I won't make something if it has no focus. Products must have a story to tell, a sensibility in material and colour."
Maier is nothing if not an absolutist. His mode of expression is pure quality, be it in knitwear, denim, an evening gown or even homeware. It's a singular vision which has led to immense growth for the label he heads up – which when he began was still solely a purveyor of bags.
"There was never a marketing plan or anything like that," he insists. "We grew very organically and when new categories were added on, it was mostly out of demand. When they had the bag, women wanted to have the wallet. With the 'Cabat' [the label's signature leather tote bag] there was a need for a cosmetics pouch, and so on."
When Maier began his tenure at Bottega Veneta, his designs were shown to the fashion press at small presentations in which models in simple black trousers and knits would carry, and pose with, the accessories and footwear. Soon enough, press and buyers were asking how to get hold of those blank-canvas blacks, cut according to Maier's exacting methods. With the trousers came a range of belts – Maier is insistent that what he makes should work as a whole collection.
"What I dislike so much is when a company is at its origin a leather goods company and everything is obvious. 'Let's do everything in leather – bags, belts, a leather jacket.' And then you go into the store and it looks like a boot shop, very unattractive. So belts only came in when there were pants, and there was a sense of why."
And the label has continued to expand in similarly concentric ripples, from women's bags to men's, women's ready-to-wear to men's – in bigger and more adventurously assertive collections with every season – to store fittings that became part of the label's homeware range (and, incredibly, a simple bench that forms part of the window display in the label's 180 global stores that has become one of the most sought-after pieces the company makes).
"When we did the window at the beginning, I didn't want anything traditional," Maier explains. "What I've always liked is this idea of a gesture, when you come home in your foyer or your entry hall, you take your coat off, you throw it on the bench, you drop your bag, you kick your shoes off – the phone's ringing at just the wrong time. So that was the idea with the bench, I like that nonchalance." He pauses. "And then the clients said, 'I want to buy the bench from the window, I want to take it home'. And that's how the furniture collection started."
It stands to reason that Maier's – and Bottega's – customer would have a foyer or an entrance hall, or some sort of vestibule worthy of a designer bench; they are among some of the most wealthy people in the world. Not, of course, that you'd know it from anything other than the sheer quality of their belongings.
Celebrities such as Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger and Reese Witherspoon have been spotted with the Cabat over one arm, while the label is name-checked by almost every rapper obsessed with the upper-end of the upmarket – which is most of them. That's saying something in a culture that normally worships rather more obvious opulence.
"Something simple is always more complicated," insists Maier. "Obviously what you buy from Bottega Veneta is not a disposable product. It's an object you keep and it's an investment. It's a bag you carry for a year, and if you don't carry it any more, it goes into the closet and two or three years later, you see someone else with it and think, 'Ah, I have that bag'. And it comes out again."
In an industry that has been latterly rebuilt on the indestructibility of the 'investment buy', every high-end brand is looking to justify their price-points with this sort of definition – yet this is a philosophy at the heart of Bottega Veneta. But when quality is assured, how do you ensure repeat visits?
"The diversity of products is very important," he continues. "You could buy the boots one year – you love them, you have them for a long time, I don't need to sell you any more boots. But I could probably make you happy with something else that has an aesthetic that we share."
This is something Maier has become the master of, producing collection after collection of covetable classics, as well as seasonal 'must-haves'. The current collection, spring 2013, was a tour de force of classic floral sprig print tea dresses in silk and chiffon, made modern with panels of leather and stud detailing. You can buy a tea dress from almost anywhere, but if you bought one of these tea dresses, you'd never need – or even look at – another one again.
"I don't like it when there's a product that has to make the money and the rest is all for show," Maier adds, referring to the countless luxury labels which actually sell few of their catwalk looks. "If we do a show, you have to be able to buy everything that's in it."
Maier would never be so déclassé as to mention a price, but he is conscious of keeping his customers satisfied.
"That's why we work," he smiles. "It's the most important thing, the reason I design. Having a client, that's somebody you have to work for. If we create products and nobody wants them, then it's better to stay at home."
Call it a hangover from his background in bespoke, but Maier's combination of the commercial and the couture-like design – in that even those pieces which are mass-produced relate specifically to a client whose tastes and needs he knows inside out – seems to be what has kept his label at the forefront of luxury. Tomas Maier's Bottega Veneta doesn't pander to trends, yet it always feels current.
It's that spilt personality again – and it owes its overall coherence to the singular vision of one man.
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