Tomas Maier, the creative director of Bottega Veneta, is in his office in Milan, where he spends relatively little time. He is German born, but lives and designs in Florida during the winter and New York in the summer. “Everybody travels,” he says, “which is very important when you’re in the creative world.”
This very 21st-century sensibility is crucial to understanding the story of Bottega Veneta, and of Maier’s importance as a designer. He is at the helm of a relatively young luxury brand, only founded in 1966, whose name literally translates as “Venetian Shop” and which had brief international success with its goods in Intrecciato woven leather (a technique Maier uses to this day, as seen in his Monaco bag, £4,265, second picture) before losing relevance.
When Bottega Veneta was bought by Gucci Group (part of PPR, as Kering was then known) in 2001, Gucci creative director Tom Ford immediately installed Maier as creative director for both its women’s and men’s lines, and he’s been there ever since.
Throughout, Maier has had his own-name label, which he set up with his business and personal partner Andrew Preston in 1997 and which Kering entered as a joint venture in 2013. It now has a design studio a few floors below that of Bottega Veneta in New York, as well as its own studio in Delray Beach, Florida. The labels run in happy tandem, with the Tomas Maier brand offering his take on everyday essentials at a slightly lower price point.
From the beginning of his time at Bottega Veneta, Maier has had complete creative control, and an eye on the long-term goal of sustainable, deep-rooted success beyond the vagaries of fashion. That means everything from clothing and accessories to advertising and the stores themselves, of which there are now 240 worldwide. The morning of our meeting, Maier is focusing on shop fixtures. “I like the business side,” he says. “I know what works in the stores and it’s interesting to be on top of all these topics and make everything work together.”
We are sitting across from each other at two grey metal tables formed into a square. To his right is an iPad. Behind him, a vase of black dahlias, their stems cut short. In his office in New York, the metal tables are white. His speech is particular and reserved, ready to move on when he has said what he needs to. There’s no indulgence in his manner or surroundings, but this should not be mistaken for coldness. He is a man of warmth and humour.
Maier has always focused on clothing and accessories that work in the real world. For men, softness is everything in his leather goods. Signature Intrecciato briefcases have as little structure as possible, while he talks of cross-body bags soft enough to take on the shape of the body. “It becomes more appealing when it’s not a product hanging off you, but has the curve of wherever you wear it. Then I like the idea of clothing that is broken in. There’s something unappealing about clothes that look new. A bag, a coat, a pair of shoes – something with a little patina is always more attractive, more real and feels better.”
Maier is in a neat cotton jacket, its pre-ageing treatments visible around the pockets and seams. In recent seasons, he has been a proponent of what luxury calls the “pull-on pant”, trousers with an elasticated waistline. This is intuitive rather than showy clothing, which is exactly why he has so many discerning long-term customers. “I don’t like things to be ostentatious,” he says. “The sort of luxury that says ‘Look at me, I’m rich’ isn’t a good look. I don’t think that’s the audience I want to talk to and it’s not the audience that we have. Bottega Veneta is not so shiny, not so ironed.”
We’ve met the day after his most recent menswear show for spring/summer 2016. “If you had come to see us the day before the show,” he says, “the clothes would have been all tied up. Clothes on hangers have the sleeves tied up with shoe laces to give them wrinkles, just like when a man has worn his jacket.”
It is the opposite of the Photoshopped world favoured by other fashion brands, and yet it works. Bottega Veneta (which now encompasses womenswear, leather goods, furniture, home accessories and fragrance – all under Maier) has shown continued and sustained growth, and was at one point the fastest-growing brand in Kering’s luxury stable. In 2001, its revenues were €36m. By 2014, they were over €1bn, making it Kering’s second-largest luxury brand (after Gucci and ahead of Saint Laurent). The growth has come more from building a strong customer base than rapid expansion, with leather goods at the core. Maier started his time at Bottega Veneta by setting the soft, artisanal language of its Intrecciato accessories, and has built the business on them ever since.
In the volatile modern luxury industry, 14 years is a long time. Gucci has been through five designers in the same period, including a brief time when there were separate creatives helming men’s, women’s and accessories. Throughout, Maier has been consistent and patient in his vision of what Bottega Veneta should be. “Sometimes, when there’s too much too quickly, it’s not good,” he says. “My approach is to take it step by step. When it’s necessary, you take the next step, but you can wait until that’s the right thing to do.”
Maier’s time at Bottega Veneta has coincided with seismic shifts in the way men work, the clothing they wear for it and the accessories they carry. Back in 2001, there were no smartphones, only pagers. Internet access was often still dial-up. If work needed to be done, it likely happened at a desk, in an office. The male wardrobe remained appropriately formal, some might say stagnant. Connectivity has changed all that. “Now there are a lot of men who don’t need to wear a suit every day,” says Maier. “They wear a sports jacket, or no jacket at all. It’s getting more and more relaxed. Men have fewer hang-ups and like to feel at ease. They are a little easier on themselves. Look at men on the street and that message is clear.”
Before Bottega Veneta, Maier had built a reputation in Paris working for houses such as Sonia Rykiel and Hermès. “I came to Bottega Veneta when I’d been around for a while,” he says. “I’d worked at quite a few places for about 23 years. It was obvious to me from the beginning the identity of the brand and what I could do with it.”
One of Maier’s first acts was to bring back a tagline from Bottega Veneta’s early days: When Your Own Initials Are Enough. It was at the time of a luxury industry logo mania. Maier wanted to take a different path. “I feel uncomfortable when somebody’s trying to read the name on a button or peek inside my jacket to see what the brand is,” he says. “What you want to achieve is a situation where you wouldn’t see clothes at all – you just see the person.”
A confession: I’ve recently become a customer of Bottega Veneta (and without compromise to my writing this piece, as the brand doesn’t offer discounts to anyone – I pay full whack). My first buy was what seemed to be the simplest black sweatshirt, but when I put it on, it gave my upper body a whole new shape. It was due to the roominess across the shoulder and back, and a ribbed panel down the side, which gave it a three-dimensional cut that really flattered my torso and its inevitable thickening-out with age.
Later I bought some pink corduroy pull-on trousers (£340, other colours, third and eighth pictures) that were on the catwalk of the Bottega Veneta autumn/winter 2015 show. What struck me was their easiness, the particular shade of pink, which Maier labels mallow, and their long-term desirability. I know I’m going to wear them for years to come. Furthermore, I like the idea of the future version of myself in them. It’s this same ease that’s found in his womenswear, particularly in the full skirts (from £1,425), which are a catwalk mainstay, or the slouchy trouser suits (jackets from £1,645, trousers from £520) of his autumn/winter 2015 women’s show.
Maier doesn’t design with himself in mind: “I’m in my 50s and there’s a lot of great stuff for a guy in his 20s or 30s that I’m not going to wear.” The menswear show bears repeat study: amid more attention-grabbing pieces like the mallow corduroy jacket (£795), there are plenty that feed into that desired invisibility: a herringbone double-breasted jacket (£1,825, seventh picture), knit hoodie (£525) and pleat trousers (£560, ninth picture).
“Bottega Veneta is consistently one of our best-performing menswear brands across ready-to-wear, shoes and accessories,” says Damien Paul, head of menswear at Matchesfashion.com. The site was the first UK stockist of Bottega Veneta ready-to-wear outside its own-brand stores. “Tomas Maier has managed to find that sweet spot between credible fashion and clothes that men actually want to wear. His last few seasons have been particularly great. There’s a relaxed, undone feeling to his recent collections that feels totally in step with how we want to dress now.”
Maier is as specific about what he doesn’t do as what he does. “Tailoring is a little complicated,” he says. “I like a beautifully tailored jacket, but at a certain level it’s better to go to a tailor.” It’s unusual to hear a creative director talk in this way – most would push their entire collection. Indeed, many menswear designers talk about their tailoring as if their brands were founded on Savile Row. “Tailoring is not our core,” he continues. “It’s not our heritage, which is why my approach is more casual and sporty.”
Despite Maier’s insistence that Bottega Veneta is not about constant change, he has a strong belief in the brand’s potential to improve and grow. “Everything I’ve done since 2001 is not about right now,” he says. “You work on the future. You work on something maybe for six or seven years that will make sense to people down the road. Most of our products have a hefty price tag, so they had better be special, something that our customers have a strong commitment to buy and really like for a long time. All the products here are built to last and are true investments.”