Built on the founding principles of impeccable craftsmanship, exquisite materials, perennial beauty and a healthy respect for tradition, Bottega Veneta is the quintessential poster brand for luxury that lasts a lifetime. We meet Tomas Maier, the engine-mater aesthete in charge of this well-oiled machine…
BEFORE WE INTERVIEWED Tomas Maier, the infamously meticulous Creative Director who has helmed Bottega Veneta for 15 years, we were well aware that this reputation preceded him. A designer whose razor-sharp eye, impeccable taste and hyper-detailed approach is nigh-on unparalleled, whose personal style is so refined it’s intimidating, and who you feel would look your ensemble up and down with the same kind of military precision as Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock. He is, after all, the man who allegedly claims to have removed the ‘h’ from ‘Thomas’ in order to erase all signs of asymmetry in his name. If that’s not commitment to a cause, then we don’t know what is.
It seems only right, then, to gently probe him on it, asking if what we once read years ago in The New Yorker was in fact true: that he describes himself as someone who simply “can’t get happy.”
“I have a tendency towards perfectionism,” he says, a hint of irony emanating from the sheer obviousness of it. “I’ve always been the type of person who is never totally satisfied. Working towards perfection, as impossible as it may be, is one of the things that drives me.”
It shouldn’t come as a tremendous surprise, then, to hear that Tomas was headhunted by that other great bastion of sartorial excellence, Tom Ford, who appointed him in 2001 when Bottega Veneta was acquired by Kering and integrated into the Gucci Group. It also shouldn’t be too much of a shock that Maier is of German stock – land of the thorough and home of the exacting – born in 1957 in Pforzheim, a small town on the edge of the Black Forest, to a family of architects. What he learned of fastidiousness there, he then layered with a more romantic approach by moving to Paris and studying at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, before cutting his teeth at Guy Laroche, Sonia Rykiel and Hermès.
“It’s the people that I’ve worked for or with who have influenced me the most on a professional level,” he tells us of life lessons picked up along the way. “From Sonia Rykiel, I learned how crucial it was to believe in your own vision. From Hermès, I saw the importance of tradition and quality, and learned that luxury products are not only shaped by passion but also by patience. For a young designer, it was an invaluable education.”
The concept of patience in today’s fashion landscape has something of a quaint ring to it; harking back to the way things were done in the halcyon days that predated social media. Now, it’s the faster the better, speed over substance, arguably diluting what true luxury was always meant to be. Exclusive. Considered. And made with such care that the idea that it comes shooting out of an atelier at warp speed is alarmingly at odds with its fundamental, and original, ideals.
The overall manifestation of this, of course, is the runaway success of see-now-buy-now; something that both Tomas and Bottega Veneta exist to oppose – albeit politely. “Bottega Veneta does not follow fashion trends,” he tells us, deftly skimming over the question of whether he thinks buying straight from the runway is a fad or here to stay. “We create a lifestyle and value the importance of craftsmanship and research for new techniques and materials, which have very specific timings to be respected that can’t be betrayed.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, the press release for SS17 read: “Bottega Veneta remains committed to a timing of presentation and launch that gives the production the time necessary to create a sophisticated, handcrafted collection that conveys a dream even before it hits the boutiques.” Translation: in the BV world, ‘fast’ will never equate to ‘good’, and that, evidently, there are two things you can’t hurry: love, and an intrecciato handbag.
It’s this philosophy that has sat at the forefront of the brand since its 1966 inception in Vicenza, Veneto, a region in north-eastern Italy. Founded by Michele Taddei and Renzo Zengiaro, a dynamic duo who began by handcrafting and selling leather bags out of a tiny studio, Bottega Veneta has always championed values shared by the most prestigious of Italian heritage houses; criteria that Maier has defined as its four cornerstones; fine-quality materials, extraordinary craftsmanship, contemporary functionality and timeless design. The 59-year-old designer was drafted in at a time when the house was somewhat adrift, estranged from its core foundations and sending out neon, logo-covered knitwear under the brief tenure of Giles Deacon. Quite the departure from the company’s 1970s motto of: “When your own initials are enough.”
“We will never compromise on our values,” Tomas says with all the conviction you can expect from a man who has transformed the brand into nothing short of a global powerhouse. He was the one that introduced ready-to-wear in 2002, then tableware, sunglasses, fine jewellery, porcelain, opticals, fragrance, furniture… even hotel suites in Rome, Florence and Chicago. Indeed, last year saw the company turn over Dhs4.5 billion, with CEO Carlo Beretta coining “2BV” – standing for “Two billion Bottega Veneta” – the target in Euros he’s got in his sights. Despite everything – a financial climate in flux, an unstable sociopolitical backdrop, and a fluctuating fashion environment where he who shouts the loudest is often crowned – the quiet luxury of Bottega Veneta has ascended not only to be crowned, but be one of the largest jewels in the entire thing. A dignified integrity, it seems, goes a long way. Something Tomas knows only too well, never deviating from the DNA he respects so much.
“Each piece resonates within a very precise aesthetic and is conceived to remain an object of beauty for years to come,” he explains. “We don’t follow trends, we set them. We produce timeless items where every detail is thoroughly considered with the individuality and lifestyle of those who appreciate lasting value.”
And the styles certainly do last. All in the house’s signature intrecciato weave, the Cabat, the Veneta and the Knot are just three handbags that have stood the test of time, becoming emblematic of the kind of inconspicuous, logo-free luxury Bottega Veneta stands for. These icons have helped it become the thinking woman’s It-brand, favoured far more by the cognoscenti than the masses. “These pieces are bought to be kept forever,” Tomas insists. Although therein lies a commercial paradox. Crafting perennial pieces is all well and good – but in doing that, how do you keep your customer coming back for more?
“With everything we have created, we are in a completely different place,” he explains, referring to the now-holistic nature of the brand as so much more than just its leatherware roots. “We like bringing in a certain level of the unexpected. Even when somebody says, ‘It’s never been done,’ there’s always a solution,” he says, conviction rearing its head once again. A fitting example is Maier’s 15th anniversary show for Spring/ Summer 2017, also marking the brand’s 50th birthday. Looking back through the archives, he revived 15 vintage bags – including the iconic red clutch worn by Lauren Hutton in the 1980 film American Gigolo, carried by Hutton herself down the catwalk – but also sent out 15 brand new styles as well; the perfect marriage of heritage and modernity.
“I really wanted to organise a special show to celebrate the two milestones that are particularly meaningful to me,” he says of the collection that saw the Hadid sisters, Karen Elson, Joan Smalls and Eva Herzigova walk alongside Hutton at Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, one of the most prestigious art schools in the world. It was the first time the four halls of the Accademia had ever been used for a fashion show – the perfect choice for a brand so famously dedicated to the art of craftsmanship. So committed, in fact, that the house provided scholarships for Accademia di Brera students, to encourage the creativity of future generations. This, alongside the already-existing La Scuola dei Maestri Pellettieri di Bottega Veneta; a workshop within the company’s atelier where students can learn from technicians who grew up in the company.
“There’s a commitment to our legacy that keeps us concentrated on what we do. La Scuola, for example, grants continuity to our incredible tradition,” he says of the rationale behind investing so much in education. “It’s this and heritage that are our inherent values. I strongly believe in the importance of protecting culture as a substantial part of our history. By respecting it we have an opportunity of growth and evolution, bringing our stories to the next step.”
A thousand guests were present at the SS17 show – among them, the artisans from the Bottega Veneta Atelier in Montebello Vicentino, a beautiful, restored 18th century villa that took seven years of planning and construction to finish. A bricks-and-mortar reminder that nothing at Bottega Veneta is neither rushed, nor done by halves.
Inviting the artisans was Maier’s way of recognising the position of the atelier at the heart of the brand, as well as central to its success. “The true celebration of these anniversaries is the Bottega Veneta Atelier. All the bags in this collection showcase the extraordinary skills of our artisans and are a tribute to the craftspeople that make them,” he explains. “The first time I met the artisans when was very significant for me. I was very moved by their incredible passion for their work, even when the brand was struggling to survive.”
For someone so formidable, and so prolific – he also has his own eponymous label worn by fellow designer Marc Jacobs who said he always opts for one of Maier’s jackets whenever he is obliged to dress up – Tomas always points the finger back to his team when it comes to taking the credit. “I like looking back to what we’ve been able to build and I can’t be more proud of what we’ve achieved with the collaboration of all the people who constantly work for this company with incredible determination and commitment.”
Like so many things, it all boils down to hard work and tenacity. Which is why after this interview, when we learned that Maier enjoys the occasional rock-climbing jaunt – with good friend Martha Stewart, no less – we were amused but not all that surprised. After all, we can’t imagine there’s much Tomas enjoys that comes particularly easily. “I like a bit of not-too-obvious eccentricity,” he told us of his designs. His life clearly imitates his art.