Hubert Burda Media

Tomas Maier celebrates 15 years

The creative director shares his thoughts on the past, present and future in this exclusive interview. 

Tomas Maier

Craftsmanship has always been the beating heart of Bottega Veneta. From a humble artisanal goods workshop in Vicenza founded by Michele Taddei and Renzo Zengiaro in 1966 (the name “Bottega Veneta” literally means “Venetian workshop” in Italian), it has now come of age as a luxury powerhouse offering a comprehensive range spanning leather goods, ready-to-wear and accessories to watches and home furnishings.

“Heritage and tradition are inherent values of Bottega Veneta,” Tomas Maier points out. “We will always stay true to the artisanal roots of the house, a cultural heritage which fuses technique and creativity with know-how and gestures that have been passed down over time and grant our brand’s identity.”

The 59-year-old German remembers fondly the first time he met the artisans: “It was shortly after I joined. I was very moved by their incredible passion for their work, even when the company was struggling to survive.”

Things revved up after its acquisition by Kering (formerly known as Gucci Group) in February 2001. The quiet, elegant Bottega Veneta was meant to be the counterpoint to the sexy, glamourous Gucci. Tom Ford, who served as creative director of Gucci Group then, knew the power of match-making. He wasted no time approaching Maier, who had honed his craft in stealth luxe designing for some of the most illustrious names in fashion: Guy Laroche, Sonia Rykiel and Hermès. In June, Maier was appointed creative director of the brand and by September, produced a collection of bags and shoes to show for Spring/Summer 2002.

“The Cabat was the very first bag I created. It was presented with Spring/Summer 2002 in two sizes: Medium and large. I wanted to design a bag that would be unlined, and as beautiful on the inside as the outside, and that would have embodied the understated, timeless luxury that defines Bottega Veneta, as well as represented the virtuosic craftsmanship of the house in the woven strips of double-face leather by hand,” he explains.

The iconic Cabat

At the height of It Bag and logomania, he went against the grain and introduced the complete opposite — the Cabat bore no bling nor brand; instead it resembled a French shopping basket. His anti-trend statement led to Ford’s now-famous remark: “By not doing the It Bag, you do the It Bag.” True enough, it would go on to be one of fashion’s most enduring icons.

“When I joined the company in 2001, the house was losing its identity and roots. We didn’t have any archives at all,” he recalls. “I immediately started to reconstruct them. It was fundamental to set some guidelines, which are our four cornerstones: Outstanding craftsmanship, innovative design, contemporary functionality, and the highest quality materials. Once these principles were defined, I wanted to develop Bottega Veneta into a full-range luxury lifestyle brand whose identity and aesthetic are interlaced through each category. This philosophy continues to drive everything we create and produce today.”

“Today, we have archives which comprises almost everything that was ever created since 1966, including sketches, bags and prototypes. It’s very important for our future generations too, for people who work in the company to be able to consult the archives. It is by protecting and honouring our past that we keep on growing.”

Bottega Veneta Autumn/Winter 2016 finale walk

The archives, as well as a museum, are housed in Bottega Veneta’s LEED-certified atelier in Montebello Vicentino, established in a restored 18th century villa in 2013 after seven years of planning and construction. Alongside masters at work are next-gen leather goods artisans from the Scuola dei Maestri Pellettieri di Bottega Veneta, a school Maier established in 2006 to stem the scarcity of expert artisans, while keeping centuries of traditional arts, technical know-how and cultural heritage alive. It evokes the 15th century definition of a bottega, where the workshop was both a place of production and training.

“I think the key to our success has been a style which is individual, timeless and resolute in respecting our founding values with no compromises,” Maier muses. Known as a man of few words, he mirrors the discreet luxury Bottega Veneta represents. Widely credited for pulling off one of greatest turnarounds in fashion, he successfully restored the confidence expressed in the brand’s anti-logo motto established back in 1970s: When your own initials are enough.

“I believe that people have developed a keen sense for real quality and this always pushes our work and research further,” he adds. “Bottega Veneta does not follow trends. Here, we create a lifestyle and value the importance of craftsmanship and research for new techniques and materials, and their time requirements have to be respected, and not rushed. We will never compromise on these values; each object resonates within a very precise aesthetic and is conceived to remain an object of beauty for years to come.”

Maier’s pursuit for perfection is well known. For Bottega Veneta’s first unisex timepiece BVX launched in 2010, he insisted on working with a watchmaker that makes its own movements. He found the perfect partner in 225-year-old watch manufacture Girard-Perregaux, which shares the House’s dedication to handcraftmanship. (Maier’s rigorous discipline in precision even led him to drop the “h” in his birth name — Thomas — in his quest for symmetry.)

Amid the wave of designer departures and appointments, Maier stands out for being a stalwart at his post for 15 years. This milestone is especially momentous, as Bottega Veneta celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. While three events do reference the golden jubilee, all have by and large been without pomp and circumstance — as expected of a brand prized for its subtle sophistication.

The famous intrecciato weave made by hand

Kicking things off was the opening of its Maison in Beverly Hills in May — only its second, after Milan. These one-of-a-kind stores translate the complete identity of the brand, while honouring the beauty of the architecture and cultural heritage of each place.

The next Maison will open in New York in 2017 but in the meantime, those in Singapore can look forward to the upcoming reopening of the ION Orchard boutique. “Considering the appreciation we’ve had so far in Singapore, we wanted to offer our clients the opportunity to experience the Bottega Veneta lifestyle as a whole — the new store will be bigger, offering a more complete selection of products for women and men. You can also expect to see a selection of furniture pieces as part of the new boutique that will fully encapsulate Bottega Veneta as a premium luxury lifestyle brand. Additionally, we will be introducing our Customisation Atelier, where you can personalise your favourite leather item in precious skins, which ultimately creates a unique expression of an individual desire,” he says.

The second event to commemorate the anniversary was its Art of Collaboration exhibition at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing in June, which showcased the esteemed photographers and visual artists who have have been a part of each season’s campaign. Ongoing since 2002 (when Maier debuted the brand’s ready-to-wear collection), collaborators have included the likes of Dutch lenswoman Viviane Sassen and David Armstrong, whom Maier singles out for his memorable Cruise 2013 imagery. “They are the perfect examples of how spontaneity and chance can enter the collaborations. We had planned to shoot in sunlight in New York, but that day was grey and bleak. The rain kept falling and the sun never came out. David shot all day, quietly and without fuss. The images he created turned out to be perfect. It shouldn’t have been right but it was.”

The last and most recent event was the unprecedented show merging men’s and women’s Spring/Summer 2017 collections. Staged at the historical Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, it also marked the first time Maier showed Bottega Veneta outside its own venues.

“Our universe is built on both genders — showing both collections together is an organic move that follows the evolution of my creative vision. I believe this approach may be continued, moving forward into 2017 as a natural evolution, if Bottega Veneta remains committed to a timing of presentation and launch that gives production the time necessary to create a sophisticated handcrafted collection that conveys a dream,” he explains

The show’s highlight was the surprise appearance of legendary 1970s model Lauren Hutton, sporting a new edition of the intrecciato woven clutch she carried in the 1980 movie American Gigolo. A new iteration of the Cabat was also included in the commemorative collection of 15 re-issued bags.

A total of 76 looks were shown on a multi-generation cast of models spanning seasoned pros, current faves, to fresh faces. If anything, the selection conveys the message that Bottega Veneta transcends gender, age and nationality.

Gigi Hadid and Lauren Hutton in the Spring/Summer 2017 finale walk

Perhaps Gigi Hadid and Lauren Hutton made the strongest statement when they walked out together arm in arm, eloquently and elegantly expressing how the past and the present shapes Bottega Veneta’s future.

But the rousing cheers and applause were reserved for Maier, who was seen urging his team to join him on the finale walk. “After 15 years, I like looking back to what we’ve been able to build, and I can’t be more proud of what we’ve been able to achieve with the collaboration of all the people who constantly work for this company with incredible dedication and commitment. For this reason, I look at our future, imagining what we’ll be able to create moving from here. I am honoured of having led our story, and have the opportunity to continue leading it.”