In a fashion climate marred by noise, brand pollution, fickle consumers and retailers struggling to adapt, Bottega Veneta remains the second-largest luxury brand in Kering’s portfolio after Gucci. Helming the creative direction is Tomas Maier, who in 2001 — during the flashy logo-mania of the early Aughts — resuscitated the brand from near-bankruptcy by cementing its identity with a quieter approach to design: one that prioritizes quality, tradition and heritage over ostentation.
This year marks Bottega Veneta’s 50th anniversary as well as Maier’s 15th year at the helm. To mark the milestones, Maier showed his men’s and women’s collections together for the first time during his spring runway show at the Accademia di Brera, a spacious venue chosen to accommodate the 250 artisans who work for the company. In September, the brand also appointed a new chief executive officer, Claus-Dietrich Lahrs. (Lahrs succeeded Carlo Alberto Beretta, who left the position to take on the newly created role of chief client and marketing officer at Kering.)
In a conversation with WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley at the WWD CEO Summit, Maier discussed the four cornerstones of Bottega Veneta’s business, the importance of heritage and craftsmanship and how he creates desire for the consumer.
On whom the Bottega Veneta client is:
Tomas Maier: I think my client has a certain sense of individualism; a kind of self-assurance. My client likes to invest in something that is particularly special, but something that remains, something that you keep for a longer time. It’s a purchase that you think about. It’s not impulsive.
On the four cornerstones of the Bottega Veneta business:
T.M.: The highest-quality materials; timeless, lasting design; contemporary functionality and the uniqueness of the make. What’s most important and most interesting about the company is the know-how [of the artisans] and the workshops. That’s where we started, and from there, everything came.
On eschewing seasonal muses and inspirations:
T.M.: People always ask me, “Do you have a muse? Who do you create for?”…I never work like that. I’ve always thought about a large variety of women. I grew up in a house with a lot of different women with different needs. I’m always thinking in a broader way about what somebody would like and what somebody may need. I’m never thinking about an age group, either. [It’s about] bringing a product [to the market] that can last….Something to invest in, to keep for a very long time, that can be passed down to another generation.
On keeping a sense of continuity between seasons:
T.M.: I’m inspired by lots of different things; by nature, by color, by things I see…I absorb it all. It’s all in there and it comes out at the right time. I don’t like the little inspirations. A season is always built on a previous season. It’s very important to take your client from one to the other. It’s never from one to the opposite.
On striking the right balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar to evoke desire:
T.M.: A good part steady, and a good part surprise. It’s very important to have a good part of ongoing familiarity and comfort…and always the surprise and the unexpected. That is what makes you come to a store.
On his design process and the importance of color:
T.M.: I start with color. I go from color to material, and we make most of our materials…and then material dictates shape. That’s how a collection is created at Bottega…They always start with color. And color has to live together in the store. All this product we create, it all comes together in the store at the end. I think a store needs to be beautiful, attractive and needs to send the right message. The message needs to be coherent. If you move from one room to the next, there’s a harmony of colors that work together.
On Bottega Veneta’s decision to sit out of the buy-now-wear-now craze:
T.M.: We make a product that is very particular and difficult to make. It’s a product that is a pleasure to wait for. It takes time to be made. It’s a pleasure to order, it’s a pleasure to wait for it. But that said, I think it’s very important to be close to the customer. The customer doesn’t like the feeling of frustration. To show things on the runway that are not available afterwards in the store…it needs to be there in the store. A way to get around that is to have trunk shows.
Trunk shows are very important. The clients enjoy coming to see the product right after the show. We do them around the world, in the U.S., Europe, Asia…I like to do them right after the show. It’s marvelous. It’s a great motivator for sales and buying, and for all the in-house teams to see the reaction of the clients. [To see] real clients, how they react to the product right there — it’s fantastic.
On what he was most proud of when he first joined the company in 2001:
T.M.: Of preserving every job. [We] never let anybody go. That was the key — to keep everybody, to keep the know-how that is unique to this brand.
On how he balances designing his own namesake label, Tomas Maier, in addition to Bottega Veneta:
T.M.: How I dissect it is that one is the necessary, the other is the exceptional. Bottega is more…it’s an investment. I’m very aware of how much the product costs. I’m very aware of what it would take to convince somebody to invest into a product, but it’s something that you keep for a very long time and it should be built for that. On the other side, [Tomas Maier] is more about casual. But it goes to the same client in the end, because we cater to that same client but in a more time-off way.
On what he looks for in his creative collaborators:
T.M.: Dedication to the brand. And I leave a lot of freedom. When you trust people, you get the most [from them]. I don’t like to be that kind of boss that’s on somebody’s back all the time. I don’t like that at all…it’s good that people have [a sense of] responsibility. Responsibility and freedom.
On how he manages to design the collection without living in Italy, where the company is based [Maier lives between New York and Florida]:
T.M.: It works quite well, because I can’t be in the same place all the time. I can’t be in the same office all the time. I’m a very intense worker. I have to remove myself from time to time, because otherwise people who work with me get crazy. So I remove myself. I used to be in Italy a lot more the first eight years; every other week. Now we have studios in Italy, New York and Florida, so we work all over the world. I find that very healthy for our company. [As a] company that caters to people all over the world, sells all over the world…our design team has to travel, has to be exposed to different environments, cultures.