The Italian Job

One of the things you notice about Tomas Maier, the creative director of Bottega Veneta, is that whether he’s at coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel, at a late dinner at Mr. Chow’s, or in his showroom on the Viale Piceno in Milan, he’s always wearing the same thing: an understated jacket (perhaps a leather bomber; maybe a wool blazer), a shirt, jeans, and a pair of heavy, well-made boots of unknown provenance, probably of his own design. And Maier isn’t just fastidious about constants in his personal style; he’s brought that vision to the house of Bottega Veneta.

Before Maier, Bottega had enjoyed a few decades of moderate success as a Euroflash luxury-goods house that made a name with its interciatto process, in which strips of leather were hand-woven to create bags that women d’un certain age toted like trophies. And while it had a reputation for quality, it was certainly never regarded as hip. Eyeing the brand behemoths (Gucci, Prada) that emerged in the early nineties, its owners, the Moltedo family, tried positioning it as a cutting-edge label with punky, street-inspired collections. But the Gucci Group, which snapped up Bottega in February 2001, had other ideas, and key to them was Maier, whose résumé includes nine years at Hermès.

Since he arrived, Bottega Veneta has forged a modern take on luxury that doesn’t trade on obvious statements of status, while simultaneously bringing back the emphasis on a hand-crafted product. Here, Maier explains the principles that turned Bottega Veneta around:

1. The F-Word Is Never Uttered.
We don’t do fashion at all. I don’t even really want to do collections as such. I believe that if you have a single great piece, that makes the look. So we offer one trench coat, one leather jacket, one style of pant or sweater. I like the idea that you see something special and singular and you’re like, “I got lucky.”

2. The Classics Must Be Fresh.
This house must be steady but always a little bit surprising. I like something that can cross boundaries, whether it’s used by a man or a woman, by people young or old, during the day or at night. An example is the cabat bag, a woven, four-layer tote bag, a simple design. But it can work as a pillow or a cushion by scrunching it up. It’s totally low-key, but it’s also deeply luxurious, as beautiful inside as it is outside. Men love this bag as much as women.

3. It Has To Have Function.
A bag that doesn’t work doesn’t make any sense. It will make a woman very unhappy. She might get a thrill from buying it, but then she tries using it once, it doesn’t do anything for her, and that makes her give up on it. And she’ll never come back to you to buy something, either. I don’t like things that have no reason to be: If I put a buckled strap on a bag that doesn’t tighten, why is it there? I like a thing that can be transformed and manipulated by the person using it.

4. Quality Costs.
We can’t make something cheap with the materials we use. At this price level, it has to last. Attitude works at some houses, but it doesn’t make sense here. This fall’s collection had a medieval feel. I took a lot of inspiration from armor: The designs were articulated, with the seams left rough and exposed. I like the idea that you can see the labor. What you have to understand is that it is less expensive to cover up the work than expose it. If you were to cut open the lining of most jackets, they would be a mess inside. I did a bag with exposed seams that looks really simple, but it was incredibly difficult to make. Consequently, it’s pretty expensive. 5. Icons Are Not Instant.
I’ve never set out to create an icon bag for this house. For Bottega Veneta, time is really important. The real icon is made over time, by the culture. It’s not the designer, it’s not the marketing, it’s not about placing it strategically in every single advertising campaign. Those “It” bags barely last one season.

6. Logos Are No-Nos.
Your own initials should be enough for you. Some people need a logo for branding, for social status; they want to belong to a clan—a clan that can afford a $4,000 bag. That is not our customer. They buy something for themselves; it’s not for anyone else. That’s why I believe strongly in the idea of the emotional purchase—that you attract someone to a bag by getting them to touch it, hold it, open it, so they can see how well the zipper works and how it’s finished inside. That what we’re doing is a product that is 100 percent honest. It might take our customer a little while to be seduced by something. Investing in something shouldn’t be instant.

7. Less Is More.
Luxury is to have very little and for all of it to work for you. We all have things in our closets that never feel right, or it never seems like the right time to wear them. This has everything to do with knowing yourself. If you know what is right for you, then you won’t keep making expensive mistakes. We all take the subway to an appointment because it’s faster than to take a taxi. When you go into the subway, you don’t want to be that conspicuous. Once you know what works for you, you stick to it. You keep returning to that great pair of boots, or that bag, because you’ve fallen in love with them, and you can allow them to get beaten up because they’re built to last. And that’s very much what Bottega Veneta stands for. The people whose style that we all tend to like and admire, they all have that quality.

8. Don’t Try To Look Like A Million Bucks.
Something that shouts doesn’t work for me at all. Things have to work for you on all sorts of different occasions, and they have to make you feel good. When you go into the subway, you don’t want to be conspicuous. Or if you go to meet someone for lunch, you want to be able to just throw your jacket over the chair and not give it a second thought. I love it when a guy wears one of our overcoats with a T-shirt, jeans, and an old pair of sneakers.

9. The Little Things Matter.
I’ve just shown the men’s spring 2004 collection in Milan, and what I realized is that men like to wear their shoes without socks. So I decided to line some of the sportier designs in terry toweling, so the shoes will be comfortable even when it’s really hot. Anyway, what’s the alternative? Those horrible little sock things that women wear?

Fine Feathers
This bag, the Trés, is Maier’s update on Bottega Veneta’s trademark interciatto leather. “The whole theme of the fall 2003 collection was based on armor and the medieval era,” says Maier. “I felt the pheasant feathers evoked that, and I wanted to have them woven together. I thought that would be a challenge for us. Everyone at the studio had their doubts it would work, but it did in the end. It all has to be done by hand, and a single bag takes two to three days to make. You need at least 100 feathers for each bag. But sometimes it can be three times that number because we don’t dye them to get a match—we look to find feathers whose natural shades are comparable.” Not surprisingly, it’s a limited-edition bag, with only 100 produced worldwide. $2,690 at Bottega Veneta.

Better Bikers
Maier’s take on the biker boot loses the East 4th Street/Hell’s Angels associations. The Bottega Veneta version—dubbed the Cross Boot—offers ergonomic contour lines, and is crafted from soft, slightly wrinkled leather. In total, it takes more than 100 steps to make a pair from start to finish. “What’s beautiful about this design is that it’s articulated; it really does move with you. The part above the heel is unlined, unlike the rest of the boot, and when you push down hard with your foot on your bike, the boot won’t rub your ankle. There’s also some padding to add comfort and support, and a rubber insert in the heel to make it feel light. This biker boot is really designed to work, rather than just styled to look like one.” $620 at Bottega Veneta.

The Italian Job