In fashion’s current climate of frenzied noise, Tomas Maier presents as a discreet renegade. The creative director of Bottega Veneta, Maier arrived at the house just after its 2001 acquisition by then-Gucci Group, now Kering. Nearly bankrupt and with little spreadsheet appeal, Bottega’s less-quantifiable assets included a tony aura, a distinctive signature product and a stable of talented craftspeople highly skilled in delivering that product. The brand also had a tag line that resonated with Maier more deeply than as mere snappy slogan: “When your own initials are enough.”
This story first appeared in the September 21, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
At the time, fashion was still mired in, yet somewhat over, the logo mania of the late Nineties, a phenomenon into which Maier never bought. He’d always preferred class to flash, not as a signal of the wearer’s diffidence, but rather, of her or his confidence. Today, he casts his shows with that in mind, his models representative of the women and men who wear his clothes. “It’s important to express a certain individualism,” Maier says. “They need to own the clothes.”
When Maier accepted the Bottega challenge, he immersed himself in the brand’s luxury roots, setting out to create a design ethos and structure that would best utilize its primary strength — its artisans. It worked. Today, Bottega is Kering’s second-largest brand after Gucci, with global sales of $1.4 billion. Maier achieved the growth his way — via adherence to exacting standards and refusal to leap into the vortex of hype.
As Bottega marks its 50th anniversary and Maier’s 15th at its creative helm (not natural observances for him — ask his mother), the designer talked to WWD about his approach to design, the brand’s place in fashion and why some fashion is worth waiting for.
This is Bottega Veneta’s 50th anniversary, and your 15th as its creative director. Congratulations. When you came in, did you have a clear vision for brand development and expansion?
Sure. I had a very precise vision of what this was going to look like. But I always had the feeling that the expansion needed to be done in an organic way, when it was the right time. It was not like a marketing plan: year one, this; year three, eyeglasses. Never. It was always the idea of the overall, worked in a very organic way.
What was the overall idea?
To create a lifestyle. The idea of the overall for me was always, I know where we come from, I know who we are, I know what we were known for. But what we’re known for shouldn’t be the only product because I think you can kill a product, the product can become overexposed. And you want to keep that product alive forever because it’s the core of the brand. It should never be the whore of the house.
I always thought that if you could talk to somebody on the level of sensibility for [Bottega’s four cornerstones] — make, design, material, craft — you could talk to that same audience in other categories. I think that’s what we did. That was always the idea. And still is, going forward.
Describe your Bottega Veneta.
My Bottega Veneta, since I’m here, it’s about the four cornerstones that everything else is built on. And then it is about where we are from. We are very anchored into a region [the Veneto region of Italy]. It says something about us that is very informing.
How does that inform?
Because of the tradition, what was made in that region and the type of people who come from that region, the history and cultural background of the region itself, the geography — everything is interesting. And then, it is always about going forward. If I look at bags that we made 15 years ago, they look different from bags that we make today. They’re still handmade, but they’re made in a different way. It’s just the process of improving.
It’s interesting that you talk about improving the handcraft.
That’s the interesting thing, to combine the craft with the technology. People say, “Do you need the craft?” Yes, absolutely. It’s what makes it unique; it’s what sets the product apart. But you don’t want to get stuck. You have to improve it all the time. That makes it interesting. It makes a relevant product and it makes it interesting also to the people who work on the product.
The human component.
That is very important. You want to keep all of those people interested, challenged and happy. That makes for a good product at the end.
Does the customer care about heritage?
Yes, I think the customer cares about it very much because it sets us apart. I think you have a reason for being if you’re different. If you’re like everybody else, then the customer can go everywhere else.
Bottega is renowned for its hand work. What percentage of the bags is made by hand?
The weaving and the finishing of all the bags. Some bags are made entirely by hand. There is always one person who makes a bag, because nobody weaves the same. That is always a rule: If a bag gets woven, all parts get woven by the same person.
Is fashion better or worse off today than when you started at Bottega?
Different. It’s very different, even going further back, a little further back. I’ve been in business for quite a long time now. My fashion was very, very creative when I started. I started in the late Seventies. It was very creative. The Nineties was probably the most frivolous.
For you, personally?
In general, I would say. And I think where we are now is very business-oriented, extremely business.
An unfortunate turn?
Fashion is about business. If we didn’t sell, what would we do? I like business and I like to see the numbers and I like to see the results.
What lures the customer today?
I think people today need a little encouragement. Because at the end of the day, nobody needs much. They already have a lot of these things. The world has changed a lot. Our dressing requirements have changed a lot. Our mothers had clothes for [specific occasions]. You couldn’t go to the theater at night without a dress or suit. People don’t do that anymore.
How do you specifically deal with the reality that we live in an increasingly casual society?
For us, that works out in the way that what we do is so not much about fashion trends. It’s more about special, something you invest in, not just for the season. It’s something that you have for quite a while.
Let’s go back. You mentioned the creativity of the Seventies and Eighties.
The Seventies and the Eighties were very creative. Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler. There was this endless flow of new designers. It was crazy to go to the shows. It was so exciting at that time. In the Nineties, it became more frivolous in a way, more fashion — and the logos. Then, after the whole logo mania, people were a little stuck. I liked the world that I put myself into at that time. I didn’t like much logo mania. I had such an overdose.
Is that what attracted you to Bottega — “When your own initials are enough”?
What attracted me to it was the proposition. I would have never thought about it.
Did Tom [Ford] approach you? (Ford was then-creative director of Gucci Group.)
He called me out of the blue one day. He said, “We’re buying this little company. Do you remember, from the Seventies?” He said, “I think it would be right for you. I can’t think of anybody else.” He said, “Let’s make a meeting in London with Domenico [De Sole, then-chief executive officer of Gucci Group].”
What was your initial impression of Bottega?
I said, “Don’t lay off the people. The people are the value of the company, the know-how is the value of the company. Build on that and build a product that lives up to the slogan. I always loved that, I always thought it was a great slogan. And you know, start from there. Get rid of everything else, all the bad stuff that has been done over the last 10 years, and make a product that is very different from what is in the market.” Because at that time, everything had a crest of metal on it with a logo or whatever.
How did you handle the transition when Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole left? It was such a volatile and seminal moment.
It was not that difficult because I had so much independence before, and I didn’t see Domenico and Tom that often. Patrizio [di Marco] was the ceo [of Bottega] at that time, so he had a lot of meetings with them but I didn’t. So that transition did not affect me that much, besides the emotional part of it. I had a very, very nice relationship with both of them.
How did the change in leadership change the working dynamic within Bottega?
It was fine. It was not that different from before. I was pretty much left alone, given the fact that our results were always on the up. Then, when François-Henri Pinault came in, that made things very nice, very cordial.
The two anniversaries — the house 50th and your own 15th. Do you pay attention to anniversaries?
I don’t. The last time I partied [for] my [birthday] was when I was 35. So that’s a long time ago. And I never send birthday wishes to friends. It’s not nice; I always forget about people’s birthdays. I try to remember my mother’s.
That’s a good one to remember.
Christmas, other celebrations…
No celebrations at all?
No. Special moments. Like if there is something nice — a beautiful day, a walk in the park, a lunch with friends. When it happens, I enjoy them. Profoundly.
Bottega is marking the two milestones.
I think it’s more about the company itself. I’m changing the location of the show to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera because I really want to invite the company people, the artisans. This is their 50th birthday, and they’re the people who make the shows, some with the company for years and years and years. We will have something like 1,000 seats. We will have the men’s and women’s together, because I have people who work only on men’s products and it [would be] frustrating to be invited and not see anything but women’s. So they’ll all have an emotional moment, which is important to me. We have to make it really exceptional for them.
Did you approach the design process any differently to work in the bigger venue?
No, I don’t do that. I still stick to what I like to show. I’m showing in a narrow long space. It’s like 500 front-row seats. It’s just one or two rows. As it’s in an area that turns and turns and turns, you’ll never see 1,000 people. You’ll only be able to see 250 people…
So, still a feeling of intimacy.
There will still be a feeling of intimacy. I picked [the venue] because of that. It’s very humble and poor, but the architecture has a certain grandness to it because of the height.
Tell me about the collection.
This is very much about essential dressing, a way of dressing with great simplicity and sophistication. So, pairing a shirt and pant, pairing a sweater and skirt, the simplicity of a shirtdress. The ease of the coat. It’s slightly workwear-inspired, roomy, airy, not athletic at all. Quite sophisticated due to the make, due to the materials, due to the use of the colors. Technology also — how fabrics are bonded together, how pieces are sewn together, how things are knitted, and so on.
Did the prospect of showing women’s and men’s together alter the design process?
No, because the collections start at the same point. Usually, we start on men’s a little earlier, the base colors, the cuts, the first choice of materials — all of these go into both collections, and men’s twists off into a more masculine world. Some materials are not good for women because they’re too sturdy, too stiff, something that could be too heavy. Then obviously, it goes off into the woman’s side; you have a much larger array of possibilities, but the departure is the same.
Did the coed show impact your approach to casting?
The casting is the same as for me, always. It’s important to express a certain individualism. I like somebody that is not the common, usual beauty, a little bit special already, and specific. I like somebody that has a lot of confidence. I like when a girl comes and she puts the coat on and it becomes her coat. A guy puts a blazer on and it looks like he always had that piece on. It comes over well in the show. They need to own the clothes.
What do you think of buy-now-wear-now?
I think that might work for some people and certain product, but it doesn’t work for us. We make a product that is very labor-intensive and takes a long time to make. I think it’s also that part of the process of owning is enjoying the wait.
Is fashion losing the thrill of anticipation?
This is part of the process. It’s really nice to discover something, and eventually even see it for real. You know, “Call me when it comes in.” The customer sees it for real. This is not something that is disposable. The price point is not disposable, either. It’s like when you order a nice couch for your home. You don’t order a nice couch every week; it happens like every 15 years, no? You wait for the six to eight months. It doesn’t matter because it’s something that you will keep for a very long time.
Is that approach to fashion becoming obsolete?
I think it’s going to correspond to a certain expense, a certain standing, a certain type of product. It probably doesn’t work for everything. For something that is more accessible — “I want it right now.” I always enjoy the process of waiting. It’s part of it. It’s part of the pleasure.
Talk about the fashion-art connection. You’ve said it’s gone overboard.
I like art. I love to go see a great show and all of that. I find art very inspirational, absolutely. I don’t like the middle. I don’t go to a museum, see a show and make a collection about that show. That is not my cup of tea. I’ll go to the museum; I’ll take away from the museum in my brain what spoke to me. It will reside there and at some point, it will probably come back out, perhaps in colors. Art is a great inspiration, as is nature.
Where does your love of color come from?
[Lidewij] Edelkoort lived in the same neighborhood in Montparnasse a very, very long time ago, in the Seventies. We became friends. She wanted to do her own forecasting company, and asked friends if we wanted to help. So we all did. It was called Trend Union. She ran it, it was her company, but we were all partners in it. I would work on color and color forecasting for years and years and years. We would dye colors, and I would keep color swatches. My interest in color started then. Now, I always start with the color card.
In 15 years at Bottega, of what are you most proud?
The growth of the company. The growth of the company and along with that, the flourishing of the atelier. Remember how it was in the early Aughts? People would go into these companies that were run down, investment people. They would go in, clean it out and sell it at a profit. This is the kind of thing that would have happened to Bottega, most certainly at that time, if somebody with a vision and an emotion for the product like Tom and Domenico wouldn’t have come on and said, “Hey, there’s potential, this is unique, they have something that nobody has. It’s different. It sets it apart.”
I think that what I’m proud of is that, then, when we started to work, zero people were laid off. Nobody. Even if times were tough and the company was terribly struggling. You know, when we came in, there was enough money to pay two rounds of salaries.
That was it?
Yes. It was on the verge of bankruptcy. So, I think, to have had the vision to maintain the people and to understand that when you go there, you go into that workshop and you see all these people and you see how they work and that they know what to do, you know exactly that is it. That is what you paid for when you bought this. You paid for that know-how of the people, you paid for the name of the trademark and all, but you paid for the know-how. The know-how sets it all apart. This is the turning point and the vision.
Do you know how lovely it is to hear someone say that: You’re proud that zero people were laid off? It must have instilled such goodwill and loyalty.
But kind of in a nice way, because people who are from the Veneto region, they have a special way; they’re not overly warming up to you. And I like that. I like that I have to make an effort.
I have to make a huge effort to seduce you and to win you over, and we can do this and we can go a ways. Now it’s time to pay back. Now it’s time to make that show, and celebrate that together — all the way we could go together in those 15 years.