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04.13.09

How Bottega Veneta Is Keeping Luxury Relevant

Tomas Maier muses on building an empire and understated elegance.

When Tomas Maier assumed the role of creative director at Bottega Veneta in 2001, the luxury Italian accessory house was at a turning point. Following its inception in 1966, the family-run, Vicenza-based brand quickly became synonymous with elegance thanks to its inimitable leather-working. From the beginning, Bottega Veneta forewent bold logos, priding itself instead on symbolizing subtle luxury; or, as the slogan went: “When your own initials are enough.” In the place of in-your-face acronyms, Bottega Veneta introduced an iconic leather-weaving technique called Intrecciato, which continues to mark Bottega Veneta’s coveted leather goods (namely the collectible Cabat, Knot and Veneta bags) today.

[#AD-BV10#]But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the luxury market went through a drastic evolution. "Bling" culture was born, and seemingly overnight the industry became oversaturated with enormous insignias, which in turn helped feed consumers’ appetites for logos. With Bottega Veneta on the brink of bankruptcy, then-Gucci head Tom Ford persuaded the brand’s parent company, Gucci Group, to hire a German designer with a penchant for understated elegance. Enter Tomas Maier.

In his subsequent eight years at the luxury brand, Maier has turned Bottega Veneta into an exceedingly profitable empire. The brand has undergone successful expansions into men’s and women’s wear, as well as home décor and furniture, among other endeavors. Not to mention, Maier is notorious for taking an interest in every last detail of Bottega Veneta’s widespread operations (down to the window trimmings on the brand’s many international boutiques). The Daily Beast Promotions spoke with Maier, who splits his time between Florida and the world’s preeminent fashion capitals, about the greatest challenge he’s faced and the secret to weathering the worst.

First and foremost, what sets Bottega Veneta apart from other luxury brands?

I can only say what Bottega Veneta is and is not. We are a luxury brand defined by four principles that we call our “cornerstones”: fine quality materials, extraordinary craftsmanship, contemporary functionality, and unique, timeless design. We are not a luxury brand with visible logos, secondary lines, or celebrity spokespeople.

You took the reins at Bottega Veneta in 2001. What vision did you have for the brand at that time?

I wanted to return the brand to its heritage, to the idea expressed in the original tagline, “When your own initials are enough.” Bottega Veneta has its roots in the leatherworking traditions of Italy’s Veneto region. I knew there were extraordinary craftspeople in the company workshop—people with rare skills that had been passed down through generations—and I believed there was a market for a particular kind of understated luxury based on fine craftsmanship and innovative design.

How has that vision evolved over the last eight years?

Philosophically, we’ve remained very close to where we started. The company has expanded but we haven’t changed our way of working or our aesthetic approach.

What role does the Italian artisan play at Bottega Veneta?

The Italian artisan was literally the starting point of Bottega Veneta. Today, the collaboration between designer and artisan is at the heart of everything we do.

The 9/11 attacks, which occurred within months of your arrival at Bottega Veneta, drastically changed the luxury market. What obstacles did you have to work to overcome at that time?

It was a very uncertain time, certainly not ideal for re-launching a luxury brand. In fashion, it was an era of big logos and “It bags” and provocative advertising. Our vision for Bottega Veneta was completely different. People thought we were crazy.

How does that experience parallel challenges arising as a result of the economic downturn?

Having started in challenging times, we’ve learned the value of staying focused on the product.

What do you make of Bottega Veneta consistently being characterized as "quietly sophisticated"?

I’m perfectly happy with the description, though not everything we do is quiet.

Why has it been so integral to Bottega Veneta’s image to not embellish products with a big, bold logo?

Logos are simply not a part of Bottega Veneta’s sensibility. Our customers have their own sense of style. They don’t want to wear someone else’s name.

What is the secret to maintaining the brand’s timeless appeal?

Functionality is part of it. We think long and hard about what will best serve our customers, what works with their lifestyle, feels good, is unique and lasting. There is the fact of the craftsmanship, too—an object that is beautifully handcrafted doesn’t feel disposable.

What has been your greatest challenge in getting Bottega Veneta where it is today?

To grow without losing the intensity, the quality, and the sensibility that distinguishes Bottega Veneta.

Part one of an exclusive three-part series. Next: The world of Bottega Veneta, as showcased through the art of collaboration.