Luxe, Calme et Volupte

Subtle Sophistication: Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier

A new book celebrates Tomas Maier’s gorgeous clothes and his patient revival of the storied fashion brand.

10.23.12 8:45 AM ET

It is almost a rite of passage that major design houses create extravagant coffee table books in which the details of extraordinarily expensive garments are fetishized in lush photography. So the recent arrival of a Bottega Veneta tome from the art publishing house Rizzoli, was presumed to be just another show pony of a book.

Indeed, its looks are impressive—as is its $100 price. The sheer weight of the thing is enough to strain a wrist. Its size can be measured in feet and it is packaged inside a sturdy box that bears a close-up view of the brand’s iconic intrecciato—or leather-weaving—technique. The volume would look quite fine positioned atop a sleek table in a self-consciously decorated home.

But as it turns out, the Bottega Veneta book is different because the brand’s creative director, Tomas Maier,  is unlike most designers. In an era of designers-as-celebrities, there is no lovingly lit portrait of Maier. The words, by Ingrid Sischy, Jay Fielden and others, deliver charming musings on their relationship to handbags and shoes. And in the few images that brag about the hands behind the work, they are the hands of the artisans with whom Maier collaborates.

“The book is a kind of declaration about the tight relationship between designers and artisans,” Maier says. “We don’t work that well without each other.”

Since arriving at the brand in June 2001, Maier has made a case for continuity and patience—ideals that have quite literally fallen out of fashion. Instead of focusing on trends and unnerving advertising campaigns, Maier has managed to create a successful company that focuses on the longevity of its wares. While other design houses might shock the system with avant-garde silhouettes or hyper-sexual runway shows, Maier provokes because he simply refuses to play by the most basic rule of fashion: obsolescence. Each season, even though he is charged with creating something new, he strives to do so without obliterating the past.

“A woman doesn’t buy a new winter coat every winter,” Maier says. “It’s not about trends and it’s not about disposal. You shouldn’t be betrayed by the product. You should have a pair of shoes for a long time…The rundown bag from six years ago is better than the bag from this season because it has a patina.”

In the universe of fashion, this is akin to a heresy. Fashion operates on the premise that each new season requires a new wardrobe. And even if a designer traffics in the highest quality of materials, it is not unusual for him to be a minimalist one season and a devotee of rococo the next.

“I think every collection is an evolution of the previous one,” Maier says. “If you’re lucky enough to have a client, that client has an affinity for you. It’s a relationship. We go step by step to the next thing. The next collection is a proposal. It’s never the contrary of what I did before.”

In his women’s collections, particularly his most recent for spring 2013, Maier maintains a constant, high-class state of adult sophistication and beauty. His clothes are a medley of complicated textures, startling but enrapturing color palettes and unabashed luxury. He has long favored dresses with a slightly raw or imperfect allure. His materials might be precious, but his designs never are. His clothes are not hip; they are more confident than that.

Maier arrived at Bottega Veneta at the most challenging moment for a high-end brand. It was just before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and soon after, the luxury economy was spiraling downward from fear, SARS, the war in Iraq and a declining U.S. dollar. While other brands were paddling madly to stay afloat, Bottega Veneta was considered dead in the water.

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Founded in 1966, the brand rose to fame through the 1970s and peaked in 1982 with about $350 million in revenue. An earlier attempt to revive the company —with shoddy woven bags splashed with graffiti—had failed. Maier performed an aesthetic exorcism. The ready-to-wear was shuttered. And the accessories were relaunched with a single, elegant tote called the Cabat.  It was hand-woven—structured but without a frame. It was unisex and multi-functional. It had no logos. And it cost a fortune.

Maier, a tall and slender man with an angular face, was born in Germany in 1957 and studied fashion in Paris. His father was an architect and as a boy he spent a great deal of time in his father’s office watching the slow, step-by-step work of constructing a building. “I was always aware of the process: visiting the site, excavating the land, putting in the foundation, raising the roof beams,” he says.

Maier applied a similarly methodical philosophy to the reconstruction of Bottega Veneta. “The reinvention started slowly—voluntarily,” he says. After the introduction of the Cabat, for example, it was six more years before the leather goods firm began making belts.

“People kept saying, ‘You should be making belts. You should be making handbags and belts.’ Once we made trousers, then we made belts—to hold the trouser up,” Maier explains. “With fashion, it’s always the same formula: You make shoes and belts and leather jackets. You go in the store and what is this? A slaughterhouse?  It doesn’t make any sense.”

Today, the brand brings in nearly $900 million in revenue (PDF)— the vast majority of it from leather goods. And the Cabat remains in the lineup.

In these impatient times, allowing such a slow simmer is almost unheard of within the fashion business. Designers like Raf Simons at Christian Dior and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent are expected to produce white hot collections immediately.  And young designers have barely graduated from college before they start talking about launching their own brand.

In contrast, Maier spent 20 years working as a freelance designer at companies such as Sonia Rykiel and Hermès before he was hired by Bottega Veneta. “I worked on so many different products for men and women, high end and low end. Friends in Paris said, ‘You need to focus.’ But I liked the experience.” Maier says.

“I worked for a large industrial company with sizes going very high, from a French 36 to 52. I found it challenging to do something for a woman who is heavier, to make a garment that works for her, that fits her arms and doesn’t make them like a sausage,” he says. “It’s good training. It’s good schooling.”

Such a peripatetic existence prepared Maier for his current role in which he oversees menswear and womenswear, leather goods and products for the home. And two decades of shifting aesthetics have given him a fierce loyalty to his singular vision and precisely how it must be executed.

Believing that men and women should buy less, but buy better, Maier obsesses over authenticity—from products to advertising—and believes that function should never give way to form.

When he decided to introduce cameos into the jewelry line, he wanted to have them carved out of lava rock rather than the more common shell. So he turned to craftsmen living at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius who had pioneered a technique for working with lava stone. “I work with the real people who did these things from the beginning” instead of relying on some facsimile he says, with no small amount of pride.

When he admired the twisting and gyrating men in Robert Longo’s artwork, he went directly to the artist to propose a collaboration. “If we want to do something in the spirit of Robert Longo, I call Robert Longo. He said, ‘I’m used to people just knocking stuff off and doing it in a horrible way.’” The artist signed on for the marketing project.

And when Maier is working on luggage or other travel accessories, he takes note of every annoyance and indignity as he travels between his outposts in Milan, New York and Miami. “I want to go through security in Milan and JFK. I want to know what fits in the overhead bin,” he says. And for those who travel by private jet, he is just as eager to create custom luggage for their peculiar storage problems.

But ultimately, Maier says, all his clients are the same, no matter how they travel or where they live. The media has educated them about fashion. Maier doesn’t tweet and he doesn’t have a Facebook page. But he sees how social media delivers a frenzy of information. His aim is to be the voice of calm and poised sanity.

It is early evening in New York, where Maier particularly loves spending time in the fall.  In a few hours, he will welcome friends and clients to a book signing. Well-groomed waiters are already hauling in cases of wine.

Maier is dressed for the occasion in various hues of gray, from his tailored blazer and narrow tie, to his perfectly buzzed hair. The book signing is another rite of passage. But it is not so much a celebration of a personality, as a validation of an enduring philosophy.