If Tomas Maier’s 17-year tenure at Bottega Veneta is to be remembered for anything, it will most likely be for its discreet approach to luxury. When he was hired by Tom Ford in 2001 to take on the role of creative director at the Italian brand, it had just been acquired by PPR (now Kering); Maier was tasked with turning around what was then a label on the verge of bankruptcy. He rooted his vision in the label’s reputation for time-tested craftsmanship (the company was founded in 1966 as a leather goods specialist in Italy’s Veneto region), paired with his own fascination with functionality. He quickly found success, surpassing $1 billion in sales by 2012—which, at the time, made Bottega Veneta Kering’s fastest-growing label.
“It’s largely due to Tomas’s high-level creative demands that Bottega Veneta became the house it is today,” François-Henri Pinault, chief executive and chairman of Kering, said in a statement confirming the designer’s departure yesterday. “He put it back on the luxury scene and made it an undisputed reference.”
It was 21 years ago that Maier founded his own eponymous label, which focuses on “the sensation of time off”—holidaywear is his speciality. It was fitting then that his first major success for Bottega Veneta, months after he took up his role, was the Cabat—a relaxed, woven tote bag that reminded him of the intrecciato bags carried by his mother. It became the starting point for the signature aesthetic he developed at the house over the next decade and a half, characterised by easy-breezy sophistication, highly luxurious materials and sun-drenched colour palettes. It was logo-free, precise and restrained above all.
That signature extended beyond the clothing, accessories and even fragrances to which Maier turned his hand, artfully translating into a maison retail concept which saw stores pop up in New York, Milan and Beverly Hills. Mixing pragmatism and opulence, the architectural one-offs each paid tribute to their location while fusing with the restraint and elegance of the luxury brand, a trope much replicated across the fashion world, though not always as effortlessly pulled off.
Throughout, Maier maintained a shrewd, selective approach to his work. It wasn’t until this year that he agreed to his first-ever high-street collaboration: a bright, resortwear line for Uniqlo. It was an uncharacteristic move, but then he was already a fan of the brand’s black sweatshirts (Maier’s personal style is largely monochrome). “It was a very nice challenge, not because of the price points but because you are making clothing for so many shapes and ages and different kinds of people,” he explained at the time. “So you have to always be thinking: ‘Will this look good on everyone?’”
As for other collaborations, he’s been more interested in working with artists than retailers. During his time at Bottega Veneta he sought out Robert Longo, Nan Goldin, Mona Kuhn and Larry Sultan to shoot his campaigns, rather than relying on the industry’s shortlist of coveted fashion photographers. These carefully designed visuals helped to contribute to an impression of Bottega Veneta as the thinking consumer’s brand—not flashy but considered.
Celebrity, on the other hand, seemed less appealing. While many designers today are happy to have their names tied to the brands they work with, broadcast the inner workings of their lives through social media and hit the red carpet with brand ambassadors, Maier was resolute in avoiding it all. “I don’t like when actors borrow clothes,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2013, explaining that his disdain has nothing to do with fame or the famous, but because borrowing reveals an unstylish lack of conviction. “It’s very different to buy your clothes versus borrow them. When you buy clothes, it’s a decision. You’re saying, ‘This looks like me.’ It’s a different story.”
Nevertheless, his eveningwear—draped dresses and minimal styles that embody the “stealth wealth” style Maier has become synonymous with—lured in some high-profile fans. Anne Hathaway, Liu Wen and Donald Glover have all recently stepped out in his designs. He also demonstrated an instinct for matching his clothes to the right models—most notably Lauren Hutton, who two years ago, at the age of 72, walked Bottega Veneta’s 50th anniversary show alongside Karen Elson (37), Eva Herzigova (43) and Gigi Hadid (21). It was a savvy and headline-grabbing tribute to his wealthy older customers.
Should he have paid more attention to the millennial market? Business analysts argue that perhaps he should. Sales started to slow down in 2015, dropping 9 per cent in 2016 to $1.4 billion and remaining essentially flat in 2017. We are now in a time in which designers make stars of themselves on Instagram, court young talent and prioritise celebrity dressing; Kering’s hottest brand today is Gucci, with its superstar designer Alessandro Michele. In some respects then, Maier represents an old-fashioned school of thought.
Nevertheless, his work at Bottega Veneta put the house firmly on the luxury map and he leaves an intimidating legacy. Céline veteran Phoebe Philo and 32-year-old British designer Craig Green are among those tipped to replace him. The former would bring with her a deep understanding of the market and a very loyal industry following, but the latter could bring a much more youthful approach. Following 17 years under Maier’s distinctive steer, Bottega Veneta may be in for a dramatic change of direction.
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