Tomas Maier, the creative director and head designer of the Italian fashion label Bottega Veneta, is one of those people who want to erase every fault in their range of sight. He describes himself as someone who “can’t get happy.” In his thirties, he corrected the asymmetry of his first and last names by editing the “h” out of Thomas. A few months ago, before I stepped into his office at Bottega Veneta’s new headquarters, in Milan (a minimalist environment of slate-colored carpet and bare walls of sanded glass), one of his public-relations minions inspected me as if before a military parade, then plucked a microscopic piece of lint from my lapel. “Oh, God,” she said. “If that’s there, he won’t be able to think of anything else.”
Maier is fifty-three, and has the aspect of a hipster monk: hair shaved to dots on his scalp; grooved, hollow cheeks; watchful blue eyes; a thin-lipped mouth set in a down-curving line. Speaking with a heavy German accent—Maier grew up in the Black Forest—he invited me to make myself comfortable at the room’s only seating space: a strict-looking metal table in the center of the room, where a tray held a single bottle of chilled mineral water and two glasses. He was wearing black jeans, a black polo shirt, and a suit jacket of his own design: a black piece with a rolled Neapolitan shoulder, narrow armholes, and a nipped-in waist that seemed to yank its wearer into a soldierly posture. Marc Jacobs, the creative director at Louis Vuitton, says that he wears one of Maier’s jackets whenever he is obliged to dress up. “I was immediately attracted to it when I saw a photo,” Jacobs told me. “When I wear it, people, even in fashion, always say, ‘Where’s that jacket from?’ ”
At Bottega Veneta, Maier designs men’s and women’s ready-to-wear clothing, along with housewares, furniture, watches, porcelain, and jewelry. But it is his leather accessories—bags, shoes, wallets—that are the label’s signature, and its best-selling items. In everything he designs, Maier shows an acute sensitivity to those infinitesimal irritants which most people can overlook. For instance, the coffee saucer at the Bulgari Hotel, in Milan, where he used to stay. “It drove me crazy,” he told me. “Every morning. You lifted up the cup and by the time you put it down—because the saucer was too curved up—the spoon had always slid down.” With a certain fierce pleasure, he pantomimed the entire act. “Now, in this hand you hold the newspaper, and with this hand you lift the coffee up and have a sip, and you want to put it down and you put it crooked on the saucer because this spoon is underneath. You drip half the coffee over, so that means you have to put the paper down, you have to take the glasses off, pick up the spoon—” He threw up his hands. “I mean, hello! Whoever designed that should have designed it right.”
At such moments, Maier recalls characters in the novels of Kingsley Amis, those finely tuned instruments of outrage who find catharsis in cataloguing all the human failures around them. (A character in “One Fat Englishman” grows so enraged at a towel that insists on slipping from the towel bar that he knots it in place and then “consolidates” the knots with water.) In airports, where Maier spends a great deal of time waiting for flights between his home in Florida and his office in Milan, he will watch people, enumerating the design horrors on display. “I just sit there and look at people and I see what’s the malfunction and how can we help that man,” he said. “I pity him! That he makes his life so miserable—himself!—by carrying some ill-functioning bag that rips his jacket half off”—Maier threw himself sideways in his chair—“and gives him a bad shoulder ache at the end of the day. And it makes him look an idiot on top of everything.”
Maier’s goal as a designer is to strip away all unnecessary parts until a dress or a shirt or a bag or a watch has been reduced to its functional essence—until it achieves what he calls “a certain nothingness.”
“You look at a piece of abstract art and it’s a white canvas,” he said. “And it’s just, like, a line, and somebody standing next to you says, ‘I really could do that.’ ” He rolled his eyes. “Actually, no.”
When Maier took over Bottega Veneta, in June, 2001, the fashion world was ruled by bling-laden excess, symbolized by the phenomenon of the It Bag. The status handbag had existed since at least the nineteen-fifties, when Grace Kelly carried a boxy Hermès purse to hide her pregnant belly from paparazzi. But the era of the modern It Bag dates to the late nineties, when Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in “Sex and the City” wielded a bread-loaf-shaped clutch, made by Fendi, whose “F” clasp announced both the bag’s origins and its steep price. The bag, which is known as the Baguette, sparked a worldwide demand, and soon every major label was competing to create the new purse of the season.
For fashion companies, the It Bag is an important source of revenue. It’s a multigenerational purchase (daughter, mother, and grandmother), and often a prop for an entire label. Not everyone can wear the trousers, the mantra goes, but everyone can carry the bag. Thus, cheap coated-canvas bags were converted into objects of consumer fetish with eye-grabbing adornments: denim and diamonds, graffiti, crystal beads, and, almost always, a prominent logo. “There was a stage when, however unappealing something was, if it had enough logos written all over it, somebody seemed to buy it,” Suzy Menkes, the fashion critic of the International Herald Tribune, says. Menkes calls the period “a worldwide aberration,” as if she were talking about the concomitant era of credit-default swaps and subprime-mortgage lending.
“The It Bag is a totally marketed bullshit crap,” Maier told me. “You make a bag, you put all the components in it that you think could work, you send it out to a couple of celebrities, you get the paparazzi to shoot just when they walk out of their house. You sell that to the cheap tabloids, and you say in a magazine that there’s a waiting list. And you run an ad campaign at the same time. I don’t believe that’s how you make something that’s lasting—that becomes iconic as a design.”
Maier’s first act upon taking over at Bottega Veneta was to design a bag that looked, in the context of the times, like a rebuke: a woven leather sack with two handles. With no logos, no hardware, no adornments, not even a closure, the bag, which Maier called the Cabat, looked like a beach tote––albeit a beach tote with a six-thousand-dollar price tag. Furthermore, Maier announced that, rather than scrapping the bag in six months, as most fashion companies would, he planned to put it down the runway every year. The usual It Bag was defined by its “girliness”; his was a unisex sack. Maier also notified his bosses at Gucci Group, which owns Bottega Veneta, that for his first year at the label he would give no interviews and run no advertising. Lisa Pomerantz, who started as the communications director of Bottega Veneta just as Maier took over, told me, “I thought he was either crazy or brilliant.”
Maier’s Cabat was unveiled one week after September 11, 2001. Pomerantz (who recently left to start her own company) remembers feeling foolish asking fashion editors to fly to Europe and look at the line, but when they touched the bag, she said, “they had this look in their eye.” The Cabat, free of any visible frivolity, was a purse—for those inclined to be thinking about purses—in keeping with the suddenly sober mood of the time. Martha Stewart noticed when a few of her friends began to carry “these beautiful, soft, malleable woven bags,” she told me. “I studied one of them, and it was simple but so complicated.” She bought two—one brown, one black.
The Cabat has since become one of the label’s top-selling items, but the company makes only about five hundred each season, and they invariably sell out (thereby creating waiting lists not unlike those for It Bags). Maier has increased Bottega Veneta’s sales eight hundred per cent in the past nine years, bringing the company out of near-bankruptcy. He has continued to send the Cabat down the runway every season, unchanged except for differences in the color and the treatment of the leather. Despite the pleadings of Bergdorf Goodman and other retailers, he refuses to sell the bag anywhere but at Bottega Veneta stores.
Of course, Maier’s strenuous refusal to overmarket the bag is itself a kind of marketing—the type that appeals to a customer who disdains the easy status recognition that comes from a conspicuous logo. Labels on clothing date to the mid-nineteenth century, when Charles Frederick Worth, a British couturier, first sewed into his gowns a label with his name. “The idea was like the signature of the artist on a painting, a kind of guarantee that what you have is the real deal,” Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says. “Those labels and logos migrated from the inside to the outside of the clothing—mostly in the nineteen-seventies and later—as a more obvious kind of semaphoring.” More recently, designers have distinguished themselves by rejecting logos. In the eighties, Martin Margiela, the Belgian designer, eschewed all identifying signs on his clothes; instead, he attached an inner label with a gnomic series of numbers that told the initiated which collection the piece was from. Its only external sign was four white pick stitches that held it in place. “Ironically, his no-label label is immediately visible from the outside and has become quite iconic,” Steele says.
The appeal of Maier’s designs is similarly aided by clubbiness and artificial scarcity. With the Cabat, small production runs insure that it is not seen everywhere and thus retains what Steele calls its “stealth luxury” appeal. “One of the most interesting aspects of fashion in the past ten years has been how much of it has been like a secret Masonic handshake,” she told me. “Only people in the know will recognize what you have, and it’s really just not relevant to other people.”
Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci Group, who hired Maier to run Bottega Veneta, described Maier’s strategy: “By not doing the It Bag, you do the It Bag.” The Cabat’s weaving pattern is now used—discreetly—on virtually every Bottega Veneta product, from the etched pattern on the bottom of glasses to napkin rings, chair bolsters, jewelry, and cutlery.
Maier grew up in the small city of Pforzheim, near Germany’s border with France. His father was an architect, his mother a homemaker. Maier, the youngest of three children and the only boy, spent many hours in his father’s design studio, and accompanied him to building sites, where, he says, he learned how a design project goes from idea to completion. When Maier was six, his parents sent him to the local Waldorf school; the schools, founded by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and educator, stressed creativity and independence. “You go and pluck potatoes,” Maier says, “so then when you eat potatoes it’s very different, because you know where they came from and what it means to have them from the ground on your plate.” Both boys and girls were taught to knit, sew, embroider, and work with wood.
Karl Lagerfeld, the Chanel creative director, had a similarly provincial childhood in Germany. And, like Lagerfeld, Maier cultivates interests outside fashion. He is a book collector, a student of photography and architecture, and an aficionado of old movies; he explores art museums in every city he visits. But Maier objects to the comparison. He hates the cult of personality around designers like Lagerfeld (“Who cares how thin he is? Hasn’t he reached a point in life where he can relax?”), and feels no affinity with Lagerfeld’s acquisitive habits. “I’m not somebody who likes to possess,” Maier said. “I’m not the person who has six hundred suits. I want to have two suits. Actually, I want to have one suit, and I replace it.”
After high school, Maier contemplated a career in architecture but resisted, because he would have been expected to take over his father’s business. “I did not want to stay in that town,” he says. “I was not a small-town guy at all.” Instead, he applied to study fashion at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, in Paris, where Yves Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld had studied. During his first year at the school, he went with his class to a Saint Laurent couture show. Maier had heard about Saint Laurent’s exquisite tailoring, but he found himself attracted to a flowing dress. “It was just a piece of fabric,” he recently told Interview, “but, as the model was walking, you didn’t know how she got into it, how it closed, where the seams were, and that, for me, was perfection. It stayed with me as a lifelong vision.”
By his early thirties, he was freelancing for Sonia Rykiel, Revillon, Hermès, and other well-regarded labels. At Hermès, he worked for the woman he calls his mentor, Claude Brouet, who was the creative director of women’s ready-to-wear. Brouet’s mother worked at Schiaparelli, and Brouet herself had worked for thirty-three years at the French editions of Elle and Marie Claire. Maier says that she could pick out the slightest imperfection in fit or proportion. “She would say, ‘A hair makes a difference,’ ” he recalls. “The precision of her eye! And I would learn. Why did she like a certain length in a skirt? Eccchhh, it was awful. But then I would really look, and she would be right.”
Perhaps the most salient lesson he took from Brouet was her impulse toward private enjoyment. “Luxury is something you love to feel, to touch, to admire,” Brouet says. “Luxury to me is not something you can see from a mile away; it doesn’t show.” At Bottega Veneta, Maier has raised this ethos to a level that can be almost unseemly. He uses decadently soft and expensive suède for clutches and attaché cases, but conceals it within unremarkable-looking exteriors, as a lining that offers its owner a moment of stealthy self-pleasuring every time he or she reaches inside.
Maier spent nine years at Hermès, while continuing to freelance all over Europe. “I would work somewhere in Italy for Monday and Tuesday and then come back on Tuesday night and work somewhere else in Paris on Wednesday, then work at another company on Friday, then off to Germany on Monday morning,” he says. By 1999, after twenty years of this, he was “sick of the craziness.” He quit all his contracts, and moved to Miami, along with his companion, Andrew Preston, an American whom he had met in the late eighties in Paris, where Preston was working as a communications officer for the State Department. In Miami, they went into business together, launching Maier’s own, eponymous label. They started with a line of bikinis and a few pieces of casual clothing. Maier relished the design limitations of swimwear—just four triangles on strings, with no padding or underwires. “The right cut on a leg can make the legs appear longer,” he says. “The whole optical aspect is very important.” And he loved the technical challenges presented by the fabrics, which had to be able to stand up to the water and not become droopy, not fall off, not turn unexpectedly transparent. Sally Singer, the editor of T Magazine, says that Maier’s bikinis were unlike other designers’. “He had a fantastic sense of color,” she told me. “He had picked the right fabric.” With bikinis, she says, “every stitch shows, and the way you finish every cord, every string—everything is visible. And you’re also selling fabrics with sheen, which are very unforgiving. So the proportions mattered. How they sit on the hip. How much of the buttocks show. There’s such a fine line between sleazy and right.”
Maier’s designs were sold on a tiny rack at Bergdorf’s, in New York, and at other department stores around the world, for around four hundred dollars apiece. Within two years, Maier had made the business profitable, and he and Preston were planning to open a “tomas maier” store in Miami. Then, in early 2001, he got an unexpected phone call from Tom Ford, with an offer to run Bottega Veneta.
The company originated in 1966, as a small leather-goods company distinguished by a technique of weaving, called intrecciato, specific to the Veneto region of northern Italy. Its products—bags and accessories—were understated, and the label advertised itself with the slogan “When Your Own Initials Are Enough.” Bottega Veneta’s quiet style became popular in the late seventies, when Jackie Onassis shopped in the New York boutique, on Madison Avenue, and Andy Warhol made a short promotional film for the company. But, as fashion moved away from understatement, sales declined. In the late nineties, two young British designers, Katie Grand and Giles Deacon, took over, and they attempted to make the label trendy by creating oddities like lizard-skin headphones and miniskirts appliquéd with porn images, and by putting Bottega Veneta logos on everything from pants to bags and tights. It did little to increase revenues. In early 2001, when Gucci Group bought the label, at the sharply discounted price of a hundred and fifty-six million dollars, Bottega Veneta was, Maier told me, “weeks from bankruptcy.” Tom Ford, sensing a retreat from the excesses that he had helped to usher in at Gucci in the nineties, believed that the company could be revived if it went back to its no-logo values. He turned to Maier, who, at forty-three, had a reputation among designers but was nearly unknown outside the industry.
Ford and Maier first met in the mid-nineteen-eighties, through the fashion journalist Richard Buckley, Ford’s longtime companion. Ford and Buckley often visited Maier’s Palais Royal apartment in Paris. “Every time we would go to Tomas’s house for dinner,” Ford told me, “he would have some amazing chair that I was envious of, or some incredible painting from an artist I’d never heard of, or the perfect pair of shoes. And his way of putting things together and his taste level always impressed me.” Ford says that Maier was his only choice to run Bottega. Maier, however, first wanted to inspect the label’s leather workshop, in Italy. “I wanted to get the reassurance that the integrity was there, intact,” he said.
The Bottega Veneta workshop is situated in an anonymous-looking two-story industrial concrete bunker of early-sixties vintage in the town of Vicenza, an hour west of Venice. When I visited, a few months ago, Stefano Brazzali, the workshop’s technical director, who has worked there for thirty-five years, gave me a tour. We watched as a man, a twenty-year veteran of the factory, cut pieces of wickedly expensive crocodile skin for a purse that Maier introduced to the collection three years ago. Because crocodiles are, uncoöperatively, narrower than what Maier saw as the ideal width for a purse, he asked his artisans to devise a way to attach matching skins to each side in order to conceal the join. Placing a rounded wooden form against the skin, the cutter used a quick flicking motion to cut the basic shape. (“This is harder than it looks,” Brazzali told me; a slip of the blade could destroy a skin.) Then he cut a series of parallel diagonal notches along the edge of the skin. These he interwove into notches cut in a smaller piece. The join disappeared.
In a room next door, a middle-aged woman named Anna Rosa, a specialist at intrecciato, was working on a Cabat bag. Previous Bottega Veneta bags were created by weaving strips of leather through a base panel of leather, in which tiny slits had been punched with a machine. A cotton backing was then glued to the reverse side. The result was too crude for Maier, who has said, “I find it vulgar when you can distinguish how something is made.” For the Cabat, he wanted to do away with the base panel and the cotton backing. The solution was for the artisans to make double-sided leather strips by gluing together two plies, then braid them, so that the finished leather formed both the inside and the outside of the bag.
|Tom Ford, Dan Peres and Tomas Maier|
On a rectangular wooden box form, Rosa used bulldog clips to attach eleven triangular sections of leather, each one trailing eight centimetre-wide strips of double-faced leather—a messy-looking tangle. She used her fingertips to braid the leather, from the top of the box form to the bottom, in a motion too fast for the eye to follow, creating a double layer of rustic-looking basket weave. Working at a rate of an inch or so per minute, she would need two days to braid the sides and the bottom of the bag. Brazzali explained that only one person can work on a single Cabat, since no two people pull the leather to the same tension. On a nearby table was a Cabat in crocodile that a customer had special-ordered. It cost seventy-eight thousand dollars.
Two hundred and thirty artisans are employed in the Vicenza workshop. When Maier first inspected the workshop, in 2001, there were fewer than fifty, and Bottega Veneta’s imminent bankruptcy threatened the centuries-old craft of intrecciato. The mood at the workshop was sombre. Nevertheless, Maier says, he was inspired by the visit. “You see in their eyes what they are capable of. Even working on horrible products, which they worked on at that time, you saw the passion that was there.”
Maier agreed to take the job, but with conditions. He would not stop making his own line. (He has since opened stores in Miami, Palm Beach, and the Hamptons.) He demanded total control—“everything from product to image, advertising, architecture, anything that involves creative,” he says. And he did not want his name used. “At that time in the nineties, lots of companies were called Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Dior by John Galliano—you know, everything had an endless name.”
Ford and Gucci Group agreed to Maier’s conditions. “You choose your horse and you have to let him run,” Ford told me. “You can’t say, ‘Ooh, I don’t really like the color of that.’ And a lot of times fashion executives do that. They drag in blouses that their wives like. And a lot of these brands that never quite take off, it’s because in a sense the designers aren’t given that kind of autonomy.” By the time Ford left Gucci Group, in 2004, Bottega Veneta was solidly profitable, and the label had established a clientele, Singer told me, of “the people who are beyond the kind of fast-twitch moments in fashion”—whom she described as “the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Madison Avenue shopper. Those people are usually recession-proof—unless they invested with Madoff.”
Maier refuses to live in Milan, a city whose many design flaws he finds too frustrating to bear. In 2008, he moved his studio to Delray Beach, Florida, near the house that he and Preston share. Though the local strip malls, freeways, and swamps might not seem an obvious aesthetic improvement over the center of the Italian fashion industry, Florida offered Maier the light and open spaces he craved. The studio is in a one-story building, a former industrial bakery, shielded from the street by a low stone fence and a security door. The interior is yet another minimalist sanctum, with bare white walls, except for a Julian Opie print of a woman stripping down to a bikini. On the otherwise clean cement floor was an area with messy, splashed pentimenti of white and black paint, left by the previous owner, the artist Enrique Martínez Celaya. When I pointed out to Maier that he hadn’t bothered to remove the paint, he shot me a look: What fool would do that?
A low shelf, easily overlooked, lay just inside the entrance. It was divided into twelve sections, each of which held a plastic container filled with fabric swatches, which Maier has been collecting for a quarter century; they were meticulously folded and then arranged by color across the spectrum—reds, greens, blues, yellows, browns, beiges, and grays. Maier’s shapes and silhouettes and hemlines change only subtly each season, if at all; color is the great variable in his work, and he begins a new season by rising early each morning to leaf through the swatches, looking for inspiration. When he finds what he is looking for, he will clip a sample from the swatch, staple it to a card, and send it to the Bottega artisans to match. Maier and his design team attend all the important fabric fairs, largely, he says, to see what not to use. He has increasingly been inspired by Japanese synthetics—“They are ahead in technology,” he says. Last year, he made layered dresses from a Japanese viscose so fine that it could be cut only by lasers.
Maier then works with a team of twelve designers to create the garments and accessories. Beauty, he told me, should never come at the expense of function—an idea that he sometimes has to drum into his young designers. “The kids design a dress,” Maier says. “Then we make the dress, we go into the fitting, and I say to the girl, ‘Sit down.’ And she can’t sit down. I say, ‘O.K., something is not really working here.’ Or there are other problems with how the dress is to be put on. ‘You’re supposed to go in by the top?’ That can work—it’s not that comfortable, but some dresses work that way. O.K., now we go to the bathroom. If the dress doesn’t come up from the bottom, what’s she going to do? She’s going to unzip it from the top and put the dress down on the floor? I mean, it’s nonsense!”
In early May, Maier was at Milk Studios, in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, to oversee the making of a promotional DVD for Bottega Veneta’s 2011 “resort” collection—a runway show, without an audience, that would be filmed and disseminated to fashion editors. The shoot was in a barnlike studio where a white runway had been laid on the cement floor. A white backdrop carried the slogan “When Your Own Initials Are Enough.” When I arrived, Maier was in a cafeteria upstairs, looking through proofs of Bottega Veneta’s fall advertising campaign. The photographs had been taken by Robert Longo, whose nineteen-eighties series “Men in the Cities” depicted men and women who appear to be recoiling from the impact of gunshots—a conceit that, Maier pointed out, has been appropriated by dozens of fashion photographers. Maier asked Longo to reproduce the series himself, using models with Bottega Veneta clothing and bags. The proofs had no credit line identifying Longo as the photographer. When I asked Maier about this, he said that anyone who couldn’t distinguish the difference between a real Longo and an imitation was not the customer he was after.
A real Longo, of course, is very expensive, and, as with Maier’s function-first clothes, it is often possible to get something nearly as useful for much less money. As Maier finished lunch—a salad—I asked him about the ethics of creating astronomically costly things when many people are having trouble meeting their food bills. Maier insisted that his prices reflected the cost of materials and labor. “A chain store can sell a pair of khakis for sixteen dollars,” he said. “I can’t even get a bolt of khaki for that much. That means they are being made in some country where a kid is chained sixteen hours a day to a sewing machine. At Bottega, we pay our artisans in Vicenza properly, with benefits, and excellent working conditions. We use the best materials, and we make things in a way that is built to last.” He insisted that Bottega’s goods were not beyond the reach of middle-class people, who have simply been trained to want too much stuff. Anyone, he said, could afford one five-hundred-and-fifty-dollar hand-painted cashmere scarf. “Just have less,” he said.
He went downstairs, and the shoot resumed. Standing among the spotlights by a dolly-mounted 35-mm. camera, Maier looked on as the models paraded down the runway. He had spent five months designing the collection and the previous two days styling the shoot, matching each model with precisely the right clothes and accessories. He seemed, finally, to have got happy. A model appeared wearing a black wool blazer with leather lapels, which had a slight shine. “To reflect some light onto the face,” he said, in an undertone. “Softens the shadows from above.” The next model appeared in a pair of dark pants and a voluminous white blouse cut like a feminized version of a man’s dress shirt. “I love a poplin shirt,” he said. “That little bit of noise it makes as you walk. So much sexier than a negligee—when a woman gets out of bed and puts on a man’s shirt.”
Then a model came down the runway in a short black dress and brown suède boots, carrying a Cabat in her left hand. Maier called out for the shoot to stop. “The bag,” he said. “It looks dead.”
While the staff waited—stylists, computer technicians, makeup people, lighting artists, cameraman—Maier helped to redistribute the wad of paper that had been used to fill out the bag’s dimensions. He returned to his spot beside the camera and watched the model come down the runway again. “That’s better,” he said. ♦