Tomas Maier: No Logo

Tomas Maier hates labels, but he's still transformed Bottega Veneta into a bestselling brand. Cat Callender meets the master of understated luxury
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The Independent Online

Tomas Maier is a stickler for details. But as he is Bottega Veneta's creative director, you could say he is paid to obsess. "I cut the labels out of my clothes for two reasons. One, because they itch. And the second reason is that there is always someone who tries to look in your clothes to see what you wear," explains Maier, whose deep voice is a fusion of fashion-world ennui, elongated Teutonic vowels and a clipped German delivery. "This always annoys me terribly. I find it very uncomfortable when your jacket opens to reveal a little label and you don't even realise it. And then it might also come across that you are hanging your jacket over a chair to show that it's a Gucci jacket - like, 'See, I have the money to buy a Gucci coat.' So I hate labels."

Finicky perhaps. But Maier's meticulous eye for details has paid off. Dubbed "the thinking man's Tom Ford", in the five years since the Gucci Group bought Bottega Veneta and hired Maier to head up the brand, he has transformed it from a tiny luxury handbag and luggage company with a chequered past into number two in Gucci's stable - overtaking YSL.

Founded in Vicenza in 1966, by the 1970s, Bottega Veneta had become the accessories label to flaunt. Not only was it the choice of the Studio 54 crowd [Andy Warhol bought his Christmas presents at the New York store] but Lauren Hutton's rich housewife in the film American Gigolo loved Bottega, too. But by the 1990s, the low-key brand had fallen into semi-obscurity thanks to that decade's focus on brash, flashy brands such as, ironically, Gucci.

In a bid to move back into the limelight in the early Noughties, Bottega harnessed creatives from the then underground London fashion scene (Katie Grand, Giles Deacon, Stuart Vevers) to inject the brand with some of their street cred. It was the height of logomania. The result was luxury ear muffs, chequerboard mink trench coats and leather swimsuits - great for Hoxtonites but not for Bottega's sophisticated customer base. Not long after, Gucci stepped in, bought two-thirds of the business for $60m and installed Maier to get the brand back on track.

Largely considered responsible for having redefined notions of luxury and ushering in a new wave of stealth-wealth chic, Maier's philosophy is one of "discreet individualism". "It's not obvious that our products are expensive and that is a good thing. I hate anything that looks like it cost a lot of money; it's distasteful. What you pay for are the materials and a unique make," says Maier, who previously spent eight years at Hermès and who - alongside his commitments at Bottega - designs his acclaimed eponymous collection which launched in 1998. "The appeal is that it's not in your face."

This ethos is mirrored by Bottega's slogan: "When your own initials are enough", and backed up by the brand's products. Exquisitely crafted, unassumingly luxurious, each garment and every accessory is designed in such a way so as never to usurp the identity of its owner. After all, Bottega people never brand themselves Bottega people - that would be far too vulgar.

"When I came here I took the logos off everything because there were logos on everything; e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. There were logos on every buckle, every clothing system, all the linings, everywhere," sneers Maier. He chose to focus on marrying anonymity with exclusivity. "If this was going to be a company that defines itself by the make, you should be able to recognise the product by the way it is made."

Take Bottega's fine jewellery that launched this winter: 18-carat, woven-yellow-gold chain necklaces and bracelets that are set with diamonds - a technique that hasn't been used in goldsmithing for some 10 years. Each takes a week to make in Maier's hometown, Pforzheim. They are then put through a tumbler for two days in order for the "nouveau riche gold lustre to disappear". Or the brand's signature Intrecciato woven-leather bag, the Cabat (translation: "work sack"), which takes two days for two artisans to make from about 70 leather strips. Or even the clothes that have entered an entirely new stratosphere in terms of expense: cashmere stretch dresses (£1,270), hand-painted cashmere cardigans (£755), tailored, embroidered, silk-crepe evening dresses (£3,235). While these garments might cost the earth, they are never showy.

As much as Maier hates logos, he would seem to abhor the banality of must-have, seasonal bags even more. For this reason, many of Bottega's staples remain, season in, season out. Even though the Cabat is its bestseller, just 200 are made each year. And that's a lot compared with the 50 Bandolero bags that are hand-stitched with pheasant feathers and created only annually.

In keeping with the brand's understated level of chic, Maier designs pieces that revolve around the notion of private pleasures. "Everything needs to be as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside," he says citing one flannel evening gown in the autumn/winter 2006 collection that is internally pleated and constructed with a bustier that provides structure but isn't visible from the outside.

This discreet obsession with life's little details is one that Maier would appear to share with his customers. You could say Bottega's loyal client following is fast becoming a kind of modern connoisseurship. A recent survey by the New York-based Luxury Institute revealed that Bottega outranked Hermès and Armani as the most prestigious fashion brand. Maier has also transformed the brand into a company whose revenue grew 66 per cent last year to $190m (£100m), whose profits tripled to $17m and whose sales are estimated to chalk up $238m this year alone.

As well as handbags, men's and women's ready-to-wear, the Bottega universe now also embraces homeware, a pets' collection, sunglasses, children's shoes and a Cruise collection, which is currently in stores. Thanks to the under-the-radar nature of Cruise, the line is very Bottega in spirit - not to mention a growing concept. "Cruise is a very interesting collection because it is turning into a season in its own right," explains Maier. "It's the longest of any season on the floor because it doesn't need ever to go on sale until early July."

Traditionally, Cruise was designed to outfit the jetset on their winter holidays in chic hotspots. However, these days, it acts as a mid-season stock drop to refresh stores with desirable pre-spring clothes in November, thus sating consumers' increasing thirst for the new. Although Cruise previously erred on the more classic side of style, today it's very much seen as a harbinger of what's to come. It has grown beyond its original remit (beachwear, chic cover-ups and cocktail dresses) to encompass everything from city suits to sundresses.

And there's always more to be pondered, evaluated and obsessed about, such as the intrinsic modernity of building pockets into eveningwear dresses. But surely this pursuit of perfection must take its toll? "If you let the little things go, there are so many little things that, at the end of the day, it becomes a big thing. So you have to be a perfectionist in every little detail. If you own a garment or a bag and there is one thing that is not right, it's not right."

But then, by the time Maier has finished with it, it's only ever spot on.

Bottega Veneta, 15 Old Bond Street, London W1 (enquiries: 020-7628 5598)

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