I hate that feeling of ‘Ugh, another store,’ ” says Tomas Maier, leaning on a glass case of leather wallets inside Bottega Veneta’s new and (relatively) small boutique on Madison Avenue. Maier is the creative director of the extremely luxurious Italian company, best known for its woven leather bags, and is in town to put the finishing touches on the intricately designed shop. Maier is German, but divides his time between Milan, South Florida, and New York, where he stays on what he calls the “Lower Upper East Side,” by which he means the East Sixties.
“I never want to do the obvious thing,” Maier says, speaking in nearly unaccented English. He is wearing a gray cashmere sweater, khaki pants, a white shirt. Each is a perfect, and perfectly fitting, version of the thing. “Like, just because we are a leather company, we should do belts? No. I always said we would do belts when we had something for them to hold up.” Hanging beside said belts, sure enough, a rack of smooth gabardine pants.
The store is unlike any the company has opened before, which is exactly the point: It’s Maier’s personal edit of his favorite Bottega things, and it’s Bottega’s bet that this idiosyncratic approach to store design may just be the future of luxury retailing. Usually, a Bottega store is a Bottega store is a Bottega store, whether you’re in the Houston Galleria or on the Rue Saint-Honoré. But this one is purposefully unique to its environment: a spot on what is arguably the most prime bit of the Upper East Side. It’s mega–fashion brand as intimate neighborhood retailer—not mom and pop exactly, but maybe something like your cool cousin might open.
“I thought it would be a nice gesture to come to our customers,” Maier says. Fifth Avenue, where the company has a large flagship, is the domain of the out-of-towner. “Here, we can have Manhattanites. It’s all much more personal in that it’s more edited. It’s very sophisticated. It’s very thought through. Obviously, it’s all more work.” Which Maier does not mind. In fact, he says he enjoyed selecting the soft suede coat with the round neckline, the black ankle boots with the devastatingly sharp stiletto heel. “What I know is that our clients are all individualists,” he says, then adds, “obviously.”
Outside the autumn sun has lit the Upper East Side an especially mellow shade of gold. In walk two women with straight blonde hair wearing Ugg boots and peacoats: They’ve pushed the door open and moved directly to a shoulder bag made of alternating strips of snakeskin and velvet. They reach for it silently. But in spite of the soft lighting and the low vases of fresh white flowers scattered about, the store is still a day away from open. “Not yet!” says a shop clerk in a beautiful Italian suit, and the women are ushered back out the door. “We’ll be back,” they promise.
“This velvet was made on a 35-centimeter loom,” Maier explains. He’s placed the bag close to the door because it is one of his favorites. “It was acid-treated. The snakeskin is hand colored, then cut into strips and laid out very carefully, so that the pattern of the skin all lines up.” Maier smiles, running his hand down the fabric. “The discovery of things is important. I like the idea of not knowing or understanding what you are seeing at first.”
Maier is not one for obvious flash, but he is certainly a savant for details. The walls of this shop, for example, are a slightly lighter shade of cream than the walls of all other Bottega Veneta stores around the world, and each display case is lined with a different fabric in that same shade. One case holds an array of hanging belts against a piece of thick satin. Each reflects the light a bit differently. The effect is that the room feels soft, muted, cushioned from the world.
“I never like to see a store of just one thing,” Maier continues, “like if you are a fur store, you walk in and see only fur?” Maier does an elaborate grimace. “For all materials there is a point of overload.”