Backstage at Bottega Veneta RTW Fall 2018

MILAN Tomas Maier is leaving Bottega Veneta, a brand that he has helped shape and elevate for 17 years, and market sources point to Craig Green and Phoebe Philo among the contenders to succeed him.

Parent company Kering did not name a successor on Wednesday, but sources reason that the brand would benefit from a high-profile designer, as the company plots a turnaround after losing steam in recent years.

Green, who will stage his first show as guest men’s wear designer at Pitti Uomo on Thursday night, is a top candidate for the job, according to industry sources. A London’s men’s wear star with a business brain, the award-winning Green has collaborated in past seasons with Moncler and is taking part in the Moncler Genius project.

Last year, pieces from his fall 2015 collection appeared in Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant.” Actors wore Green’s hand-twisted jersey, long johns, skintight clothing and quilted vests in the movie.

The designer has been on Kering’s radar for a while: A year ago he was a candidate for the creative director’s role at Brioni, which Nina-Maria Nitsche eventually filled.

Philo, meanwhile, left Céline in December after a 10-year stint during which she launched a string of must-have bags and made the brand a watchword for modernist clothing that empowered women. But the British designer could be hampered by a non-compete clause, standard for high-level talents.

One source pointed to a strong internal team at Bottega led by Walter Chiapponi, design director, who has worked at Gucci, Miu Miu, Valentino and Givenchy and who could take over the mantle or support a new creative talent. 

Kering declined to comment on its succession plan.

“It’s largely due to Tomas’ high-level creative demands that Bottega Veneta became the house it is today,” François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of Kering, said in a brief press release issued late Wednesday revealing the end of their collaboration. “He put it back on the luxury scene and made it an undisputed reference. With his creative vision, he magnificently showcased the expertise of the house’s artisans. I am deeply grateful to him and I personally thank him for the work he accomplished, and for the exceptional success he helped to achieve.”

Maier had been one of the longest-serving creative directors at a European brand after Karl Lagerfeld, who has logged more than three decades at Chanel and more than five at Fendi. Tenures have become shorter in recent years, with Kering installing new design heads at Gucci, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and Brioni, for example.

Rumblings of a possible designer change at Bottega grew louder in recent months as its momentum withered.

Daniele Alibrandi at Intermonte said since he arrived at the brand, Maier “successfully navigated” Bottega Veneta from around 50 million euros in early 2000 to nearly 1.2 billion euros in 2017. “However, in the last five years, Bottega Veneta has struggled,” reported Alibrandi, noting that organic growth fell from a 14 percent peak in full-year 2015 to a decrease of 9 percent in 2016 and a gain of 2 percent in 2017, “hit in our view by a lack of creative verve and some merchandising mistakes (too much reliance on APAC markets and no focus on Millennials).”

The arrival in October 2016 of new ceo Claus-Dietrich Lahrs, previously at Hugo Boss, who succeeded Carlo Alberto Beretta, showed only marginal improvement last year, said Alibrandi. “As a change in the creative leader of a fashion house is often a necessary step in order to transform stagnant brands and boost business results, we see Kering’s move as a necessary rather than bold one.”

Intermonte noted Bottega Veneta is Kering’s third-largest brand following Gucci’s and Saint Laurent and said it expects “a longer than previously forecast turnaround. We remain in wait-and-see mode on the brand, noting that change, while opening a question mark on the future creative and stylistic direction of the brand, could accelerate the process of change in the maison and inject the organization with fresh strengths.”

Born in 1957 in Pforzheim, Germany, Maier was raised in a family of architects and attended a Waldorf school as a child. From there he headed to Paris, where he trained at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris. Before joining Bottega in June 2001, he worked for Guy Laroche; Sonia Rykiel, where he designed men’s wear for eight years, and Revillon, where he spent four years as creative director. For nine years, he was a women’s ready-to-wear designer at Hermès, where he also created some leather goods and accessories.

He mapped out the core values of Bottega: fine-quality materials, extraordinary craftsmanship, contemporary functionality and timeless design. Maier also affirmed that Bottega would return to its logo-less heritage, conveyed in the famous slogan, “When your own initials are enough.” In 2017, Maier decided to hold two fashion shows a year, combining its women’s and men’s collections in February and September during Milan Fashion Week. Before that, the Italian luxury company held a coed show in September 2016, to mark the brand’s 50th anniversary and to celebrate Maier’s 15th anniversary as creative director.

In February, reporting year-end results for Kering, Bottega registered a 4.7 percent sales uptick in organic terms in the fourth quarter, which Pinault saw as “encouraging” for 2018. The brand recently opened a flagship on Madison Avenue in New York, in tandem with a big fashion show, and will unveil another in Tokyo’s Ginza district at the end of the year in a bid to raise its visibility.

The company is also set to renovate 30 stores out of its network of 270 and enrich its offer of small leather goods to entice Millennial consumers, Pinault said at the time. “We are quite confident that Bottega Veneta will return to a normal growth rhythm this year,” he added.

Commenting on Kering’s first-quarter results in April, Thomas Chauvet, managing director of Citi Research, said Bottega Veneta was still in a “transition phase but fixable in our view” under the leadership of Lahrs. In the period, the brand was “disappointing at plus-1 percent [it was up 5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017], with continued outperformance of retail (plus-2 percent) but against a tough comp in Europe, where the brand suffered from weaker tourist activity.”

Sources said the brand had seen a slowdown in sales of its core handbags business, hinging on the storied luxury Intrecciato weave.

Milan-based marketing and strategic consultant Armando Mammina said if Philo were confirmed, “it would be the right choice as her designs fit with the chic and minimalist image of Bottega Veneta and would help build a superior and relevant women’s collection. She would bring new lifeblood to the brand.”

“What we need to remember with a brand like Bottega Veneta is that the company is hinged on its incredible accessories and timeless ready-to-wear pieces,” said Rachel Saywell-Burr, founder of recruitment agency Talent Atelier. “The successor to Tomas will be working within a house that commands respect — it’s not a failing brand that needs a clean sweep and someone trying to break the mold but gentle change and alignment to give it some modernity. The rumors about Phoebe are being generated as she’s taking a well-deserved break from the industry and everyone is keen to see what her next step will be. But we should be looking in the wider circle of the fashion industry. Dare I say Christopher Bailey would be an interesting choice?”

The French conglomerate took an undisclosed stake in Maier’s signature brand in 2013, forming a partnership with plans to expand the line — founded in 1997 as a leisure-oriented range of swimwear, knitwear and jersey — into a full lifestyle collection. At the time of the investment, Tomas Maier operated two freestanding stores — one in Palm Beach, Fla., and another in East Hampton, N.Y. — and wholesaled the collection to about 100 doors with revenues estimated at less than $10 million.

Kering declined to comment on the future of its stake.

Describing the signature brand he founded in Florida with business partner Andrew Preston in a 1998 interview with WWD, Maier said: “There will be bottoms, tops and dresses so women can create their own looks. They’ll go in a nightclub, or be comfortable enough to sleep in on a plane. You just won’t have to think about it. The whole idea is that they be light and easy to travel with so they can get you from here to there.”

By 2014, Tomas Maier had opened an office and showroom in the Fuller Building on 57th Street and Madison Avenue, nine floors below the Bottega Veneta offices, which have since relocated. The collection expanded to include shoes, jewelry, handbags and small leather goods and eyewear, with much of the product stamped with a palm-tree logo. Last year the brand did a collaboration with Puma and there’s a Tomas Maier collaboration with Uniqlo in stores. There are two flagships in New York, on Madison Avenue and a men’s store on Bleecker Street, and in April, the company opened a 3,300-square-foot pop-up store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

Last summer, Laurent Claquin, head of Kering Americas, was also named ceo of Maier brand, and last month Gautam Rajani joined as global director of sales and business development. Maier in May presented his latest resort collection, a lineup heavy on Eighties, Los Angeles, logo and athletic ideas.

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