Since 2001 it has been impossible to separate the traditional Italian company Bottega Veneta from a German name: Tomas Maier fell in love with its handicraft, the key business of which remains the production of leatherware. He added a prêt-à-porter and a lifestyle line and transformed the label into a global player.
“When your own initials are enough…” has been the motto of the company since it was founded in 1966. Look for logos and appliqués that identify the label on these handmade products, and you’re looking in vain. At the end of the ’90s, when the whole world seemed to be using company logos as embellishments, it felt as though Bottega Veneta’s level of understatement would no longer be enough. They were about to fold. In 2001 it was Tom Ford who found the right man for the company. Maier, who had already worked for Hermès and Sonia Rykiel and was focusing on his own label in Miami, actually wanted to turn down the offer of the creative director position. But when he arrived in Vicenza, the city of art where the company has its HQ, he said yes without missing a beat. That was the beginning of one of the most successful relationships in the history of the fashion industry.
Born in Pforzheim, Germany, Maier saw the ateliers and their dormant potential. With him the intrecciato technique – the weaving style that was the company’s trademark – found its way into the new millennium and has since shown Bottega Veneta its thanks in the form of sometimes double-digit growth rates. And there are long waiting lists for the Cabat bags, too, only about 300 of which can be made every year for capacity reasons.
The worked strips of leather are put to the acid test: they have to undergo tests in the lab to prove their wear and carrying capacity. Although the creative director’s designs are translated into production formulae on a computer, the company’s experienced craftspeople need nothing but the naked eye to make them a skilful reality: an employee weaves eleven equally sized triangles out of dark brown leather strips. Without a guide or a template. Just a couple of clasps hold the first row of weaving together, and a piece of raffia points the way. The Cabat shopper is as light as a feather, stands by itself and is woven by the same hand – inside and out – to ensure that all the straps are evenly taut. Even the most experienced craftsperson needs several hours to complete one. There are no seams, except on the carrying straps – that, too, is a speciality of the atelier.
The region around Vicenza has been the centre of skilled leatherworking for centuries. This traditional handicraft is a valuable commodity. The heart of Bottega Veneta now beats in a picturesque 19th-century villa in Montebello. It, too, was converted by Maier (he’s the son of an architect) with meticulous perfection over the years. It unites not only the workshops (bottega actually means workshop), but also a museum and a dedicated school under one roof. Handicraft and theory united in one room bathed in light. But it’s not only the company’s own next generation who are being taught here: students from the Università della Moda in Venice come here to learn the fundamentals of leatherworking, too. The complete degree course takes three years. Parts of it – such as weaving, cutting, sewing – can be learnt in just three months. Though you’ll need a few years’ more experience before you can make an entire Cabat.