Hubert Burda Media

The Luxe Whisperer

Behind Bottega Veneta, the fashion house that prefers not to scream luxury, is the seemingly inscrutable Tomas Maier.

The Luxe Whisperer

Smartphone-wielding editors and bloggers gracing front rows at fashion week love the so-called “finale”. In fashion parlance, this refers to the models' fast-paced parade down the runway before the designer takes the final bow.
This used to be a time to digest the collection and give a second look before rushing to the next show, but now that Instagram has become the filter through which fashion is instantly disseminated around the world, that moment is captured in a sea of tiny screens. Once the spectacle is over, these seconds of style porn will be transmitted to millions of followers.
Imagine, then, the disappointment of those who on a Sunday morning last September witnessed the unveiling of Bottega Veneta's Spring/Summer 2014 collection in Milan. As soon as the last model disappeared, instead of the pumping music and the rewind of the show everyone expected, a fleeting two seconds of darkness obscured the venue, then Tomas Maier, the creative director of the house, took his typical blink-and-you'll-miss-it bow before retreating backstage. It's hard to know whether he purposefully decided to displease his image-hungry guests or whether his decision to forego that cliché of every runway show is just a personal whim. But it's another proof that Maier does things his own way and that Bottega Veneta, the Italian leather goods house that he has turned into a cash cow for its owner (the fashion conglomerate Kering), is not your everyday luxury brand.
Founded in 1966 in the countryside outside Vicenza, in the Veneto region of Italy, the house has always adhered to its much-bandied-about tenet of “when your initials are enough”. In spite of some ups and downs, especially during the 1990s, since the Kering acquisition and Maier's arrival in 2001, Bottega Veneta has become the epitome of utmost luxury, the label often referred to as the Italian Hermès.
Prizing quality over logos, muted and low-key shows — which always start at 9:30am and often fall on weekends — over extravaganzas and gradual expansion over the relentless scramble for the top espoused by some luxury brands, Bottega Veneta has become the golden child of its parent company. The house anticipated almost a decade ago the move towards a more discreet approach to luxury, unlike the “masstige” behemoths catering to the appetite of luxury lovers from China to Russia, buying logoed key chains and bags by the dozen often on shopping sprees to Europe. Bottega Veneta never fell prey to that trend, operating instead almost as its own entity both within the luxury group of which it's part of and the fashion system at large. It's been an incredible journey for Maier and the label, which has been on a roll since he took the helm.
Rigorous, exacting, precise — these are some of the terms most often used to describe Maier, who, on a warm afternoon last September, greets me in his spare and spacious office in Milan a day after the Spring/Summer 2014 show. With his closely shaved hair, preternatural air of calm and constant expression of serenity — a slight grin seems to be stamped on his face — Maier exudes the aura of a Buddhist monk, so soft-spoken and low-key that it's hard to believe that the man holds the reins of one of the top labels in the world.
Hearing him describe his first visit to the Veneto workshop, you understand what a phenomenal task he was faced with when given the top job at the then-struggling house and how determined he was to build a new identity for it. “I went to the workshop and I started to work on a collection that was very different and more based on the know-how of the artisans, rather than the idea of a fashion of the moment — less disposable, more about something that was an idea of investment, something that would last. The artisans there were passionate about what they did. You talk to people and you look into their eyes and you know,” Maier says about his first days at work.
Although “minimalist” is another adjective often thrown in to define Maier, when you actually look at Bottega Veneta clothes and accessories, it's evident that words such as “controlled” and “consistent” are better terms to describe his creations. Whether it's a black dress with ruffles cascading down the back, a suit in a nude hue cut just close enough to a man's body, or a bag adorned with leather appliqués, the effect is never overbearing, never too much. It's not really about “less is more”, the German architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe's diktat that has come to define an era of modernist design, but rather an approach that can be summed up as simply “just right”.
As Maier explains of his creative process, “Function is very important for me. If it doesn't work, it's kind of a nightmare. At the same time, there's an idea of embellishment, but it depends on how you do it. You can load it up or you can do it in a way that's not ostentatious. There's an identity to this brand and to the clothes and a type of woman who likes these clothes. She's my client and she likes to come back. And I want to keep her and I want to get her friend too.”
It's this consistency, this idea that you don't need to create something new every season just to please the press that makes Bottega Veneta not a mere fashion label but a true luxury purveyor. Maier likes to emphasise that every look walking down the runway is not there just to be featured in glossies but to be sold in shops around the world (you'd be surprised to discover that most of the outfits at fashion shows are often never produced for retail and instead destined for photo shoots or ad campaigns).
“There's an integrity to a business like that,” he says. “Every single thing is supposed to make sense together. How many times do we go places and it's like: ‘What has this to do with that?' This is a product to make money; this is a product to make image but what do they have to do with each other?”
“The idea at Bottega Veneta is that everything works together and is understandable to the customer. It could be a customer who buys something that costs $50,000 and it could be a customer who buys something for $500. The product is treated the same way and the service is the same.
“It's not that there's an expensive product to create an image and an inexpensive one to make money. It's the same approach. That's why I'm not seeking celebrities — it's not that I don't like celebrities and it's not that we don't dress them and that we don't have them as clients but we don't make publicity with them. We don't talk about them — that's why they like to come to us to shop. We don't take their picture as they go out of the store.
“A client doesn't buy a dress or a bag because she has seen it on an actress. It's about the product and you being somebody. You're somebody yourself. You're not like an aspirational wannabe — ‘I want to look like this person and I want to dress like this person' — that's not the point. You dress like yourself because you're somebody yourself.”
And you definitely need to be somebody to dress in Bottega Veneta, carry its perfectly executed bags and jewellery or adorn your home with its beautifully made furniture line. As Maier says, a Bottega Veneta is “a product that is beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside”. It's that feeling of luxury as an intimate pleasure, the discovery that your roomy Cabat carryall is lined in buttery-soft intrecciato leather (the signature interwoven pattern of the house), a thrilling indulgence that is not meant to be shared or shown off but quietly cherished.
For Maier, who helped set up an artisans' school in the Veneto region, amid fears that one day there won't be enough craftspeople to make the beautiful objects he conjures up, what really matters is the product. It's no surprise that unlike some of his colleagues who, after heading a house for only a few seasons, ask for their name to be added to the label, he has always refused to be recognised too prominently. “The full brand name would be too long,” he quips, adding. “I just like the product so I like to do it for the product and I like to be known for it and I don't like to be known for myself.”
And whereas other illustrious houses love to show off their insignia that have in turn become global signifiers of luxury, even the moniker Bottega Veneta, which translated from Italian means “workshop from the Veneto region”, couldn't be humbler, a reference to its role as first and foremost a maker of beautiful things. That's just the way Maier wants it and given that now the luxury world is doing all it can to follow in the footsteps of the house he helms, it's clear that his infallible instincts are certainly on the money.