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Bottega Veneta’s Main Man

Tomas Maier, creative director of Bottega Veneta, is responsible for turning the brand into the luxury fashion powerhouse it is today.

By Bee Shapiro, Portait by Collier Schorr

Spend decades in fashion, an industry bent on the cult of personality, and chances are you’ll lose some of your mystery. That’s because a designer today is under special scrutiny. Not only are his talents parsed, dissected and re-parsed, so are his habits, hobbies and even pets (see: Choupette Lagerfeld). Despite this milieu and spending 13-plus years as creative director of Bottega Veneta (and many more behind the scenes in the ateliers of Hermès, Sonia Rykiel and Revillon), Tomas Maier remains something of an enigma.

Here’s Maier in brief: in June 2001, Tom Ford, who was the creative director of the Gucci Group at the time, convinced him to take on the conglomerate’s troubled Bottega Veneta label. Maier, known for his smart German-type precision (“working toward perfection, for me at least, is never-ending,” he says), gave the storied but mired brand a literal jolt. Going against the current of logo-emblazoned fashion, Maier scrapped obvious labels in favor of quiet luxury. He refused interviews during his first year, wishing the work to speak for itself. Instead, he focused on establishing Bottega’s signature intrecciato, a technique of hand-weaving leather that’s done by artisans in Italy.

A look from the brand’s Fall 2014 collection.

The week after 9/11, the sumptuous weave made a splash with the Cabat; the nondescript woven-leather tote seemed to match the more austere attitude of the moment. By comparison, It Bags, a product of the Carrie Bradshaw era, seemed flagrantly gauche. With Maier, the notion of luxury is discreet—as if there’s an intimate handshake to enter an exclusive Bottega club. This non-marketing proved to be a sales genius. Despite price tags in the $5,500 range, the Cabat became a celebrity favorite and spawned waiting lists. It’s been one accessory hit after the other ever since. Most recently, the brand launched the Olimpia, a shoulder bag inspired by the Teatro Olimpico in northern Italy.

Maier has made his stamp in clothing, too. For example, rather than some alien fembot muse, Maier sought freedom of movement and confidence for his Fall 2014 collection. His method puts his clients first. “We are always thinking about what clothes should do for a woman and her personal experience of them,” he says. The result? The label has grown by more than 1,400 percent. Not exactly the discount racks.

A look from the brand’s Fall 2014 collection.

But what about the man behind the label? He may not be throwing yacht parties on the Mediterranean, but he’s perhaps even more fascinating. The New Yorker described him as a “hipster monk” while Harper’s Bazaar revealed he’s an outdoor enthusiast (who embarks on adventures with close pal and fellow perfectionist Martha Stewart, no less). The truth is, Maier is tough to pigeonhole and you get the sense he likes it like that way. He prefers his interests myriad and changing. “I'm inspired by so many things, from art to nature to music,” he says. “But it's rarely a direct inspiration that can be clearly demonstrated from point A to point B.”

His upbringing may have something to do with it. Born and raised on the edge of the Black Forest in Pforzheim, Germany, Maier attended a Waldorf school, which taught crafts along with academics. “We learned to weave, sew, farm and work with wood,” he remembers. His father was an architect, a profession he considered at one time. Now he sees a synergy between fashion and architecture. “Both explore the possibilities of material, construction and proportion, and combine elements of creativity with practical problem-solving,” he says.

Bottega Veneta’s atelier in bucolic Montebello Vicentino.

After studying at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris and working in major fashion capitals, Maier was ready for the beach. Today, he occasionally drops in on his New York studio, but he has long called Delray Beach— more the epicenter of sunbathing than catwalking—home. “Having some distance from the world of fashion helps clear my mind and recharge,” he explains, adding that it’s the Floridian “light, water and wide-open space” that he loves.

Likely, having that remove has also given him perspective. Despite our current mode of “more is more,” Maier’s type of minimalism, which he describes as a tendency toward simplicity rather than a die-hard approach, extends to consumption. He’s convinced “it is better to consume less if it means buying higher quality objects.” The idea, he says, “isn’t that a client should buy one bag in every color. We offer choices so each client can choose what appeals to them.”

The making of the brand’s iconic Knot bag, here and below.

That customer is willing to shell out more than a few shekels. For Maier, Bottega’s eye-popping prices are a product of the craftsmanship required. “Fashion— even luxury fashion—does not have to be particularly well-crafted to gain attention and sell,” he notes. (He points out that for young designers today, “it can be difficult to get attention without making a big, splashy statement.”) “But those who seek our items care deeply about how an object is made and appreciate what we offer.” In Maier’s case, that might mean the lining of a dress is just as indulgent as the exterior. Also, fashion and function must work together, and, of course, it all has to meet a certain Maier standard. “Though we can get close, nothing is totally perfect,” he concedes. “And this is probably a good thing, because there is undeniable beauty in the inexactness of the handmade.”

Handmade, in this case, is not of the Etsy sort. Instead, Bottega Veneta relies on its Italy-based artisans, who still work the signature intrecciato by hand. Maier is fiercely proud of them; they’re often even more perfectionistic than he is, he says—a very high compliment indeed. “Upholding these standards is not very difficult when you hire the right people and create a good work environment,” he adds. In fact, one of the high points of his tenure at the luxury label was when a new atelier was constructed in Montebello Vicentino. “Creating an atelier worthy of our artisans is something I dreamed about for years,” he says.

Italian artisans may seem quaint in today’s Mach-speed fashion world, but Maier is no relic. “I'm a believer in online shopping,” he says. “Though it will never replace the experience of going to a boutique and discovering the pieces in person; it's one more way to provide excellent service to the customer, wherever they may be.” Even if Maier approves of instant web gratification, he is still charting the waters at the speed he intends. “I feel we are on the right course,” he says. “I would be happy with slow but steady continued growth.” The pace is one where he can still take time to enjoy himself. But it’s not the jet-set designer life he’s after. Rather, he says: “I'd love to be swimming in the ocean or gardening.”

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