There are no logos on his bags, and he likes crumpled clothes: Tomas Maier’s Bottega Veneta has changed the rules of status dressing.
A room full of rich people can at times feel like the paddock on race day: they wear their swanky labels as ostentatiously as the jockey wears his silks, the logos, the only marginally less obvious “codes” of a particular house, there for all to see. But not always. “I have friends in the fashion industry who say you can go to a cocktail party and put a name on every dress,” says Tomas Maier, creative director at the luxury brand Bottega Veneta. “And then there is one dress you can’t put a name on.” He pauses and smiles. “And that is the Bottega dress. That is good. I take that as a compliment.”
Stealth wealth is Maier’s stock in trade. He creates quietly beautiful clothes and bags of superlative quality, clothes and bags that feel incredibly special to wear or carry. Those clothes and bags probably pass unnoticed by all but the best-trained eyes. “Our clients are already somebody,” is the way Maier sees it. “They don’t need anyone else’s name on their back to make them.”
The Poor-Rich Look
That’s not all. Maier favours what Andy Warhol once called “the poor-rich look”. Here is a designer who has been known to rumple his clothes artfully before they appear on the catwalk. Maier’s explanation? “I always like things that appear worn, broken in, that look like they belong to the person. My old cardigan that has holes in the sleeves is much better than the new one I never pull out.” By making new clothes appear old, Bottega can make new money appear old, too: no wonder it is so well loved by the more advanced type of alpha.
Colour — quirky mix-and-matches — is part of Maier’s language at Bottega Veneta, where he has been in charge since 2001, an impressive eternity in fashion. It all started with a phone call from Tom Ford, then at Gucci Group — now Kering — of which Bottega forms a part. After two decades working as a freelancer — “the best imaginable training ground” — Maier had set up his own ban-the-bling label focused on luxe resortwear. Tomas Maier the brand would prove to be “a beautiful calling card”, as Tomas Maier the man puts it, for the Italian brand which had long had the tagline “when your own initials are enough”. The brand was on the verge of bankruptcy by the time Maier was appointed. Your own initials seemed no longer to be enough.
However, Maier, despite widespread scepticism, insisted that they were. “When we started, big department store executives would say: ‘You’ll never sell one of these wallets. You have to have a logo on it to sell. You will never make it in this industry.’ ” He laughs. “And I said: ‘OK. Thank you for letting me know.’ ” The last laugh is indeed his. Bottega is now the second biggest Kering brand after Gucci, with 88 per cent of revenues coming from leather goods.
Wait Before You Wear
For a man charged with designing an incredibly expensive product — the smallest Cabat will set you back £4,850 — Maier displays a surprising parsimony. “My job is to sell clothes at a very high price, so I like to make products that last a really long time. That is the way I justify it in my head, that I am not just selling something expensive.”
Doesn’t this sit at odds with the need of a fashion business to keep on marketing newness, season after season? For me it is about consistency, with one collection leading on to the next. It is important for a customer to be able to come back for something.” It should be clear by now that Maier doesn’t think like many of his peers in the business of selling luxury. (“I don’t see fashion people outside my work,” he tells me.) Not surprisingly his customers don’t think like their peers either. “They don’t want anything that says: ‘I am like this, I can afford that.’ They run from labels.” What’s more, Bottega clients, wealthy as they are, wait before they shop, typically scouting out a store several times before they purchase, then finally buying quickly — “no discussion, no deciding”. Plus they wait before they wear.
The Opposite of Fast Fashion
It’s the opposite of fast fashion, the topic that currently concerns many luxury brands, busy worrying at the troublesome notion of catwalk-to-closet. Maier is typically clear-sighted on the subject. “You need time. If you don’t have time things look shabby, uncooked. And if we make something that is not 100 per cent our clients will pick up on that straightaway.” So he is approaching fast fashion in a slow way. “We have to have the same lead times, so we start things much earlier and overlay the creation process of different seasons to a degree that we didn’t used to.” Vorsprung durch Technik. “I am German-born. For me functionality is important,” he says.
As a child he spent long hours in his architect father’s offices on the edge of the Black Forest: “I always liked the idea of a project, of putting ideas down on paper.” His mother, two sisters and aunts were to prove just as influential. “There were women around me all the time, and everyone had a different body, different needs. ‘I don’t want to show this, or that.’ I heard that endlessly when I was growing up. I learnt that people just need to figure out what is good for them, and then you need to give them that.”
Anna Murphy / The Times / The Interview People