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Wishcraft

In conversation with the man behind Bottega Veneta's beguiling clothes and accessories

Published October 22, 2012
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One of the first things Tomas Maier did when he arrived at Bottega Veneta in 2001 was reinstitute the brand's slogan from the 1970s, "When Your Own Initials Are Enough." In the 11 years since, he's turned around a company that was very near bankruptcy. Today, his runway shows are one of the highlights of the Milan season, filled with clothes that make women dream despite being quite grounded in reality and accessories that are nothing short of works of art. In town to promote a new book that celebrates the artisanal craftsmanship and timeless design that are the cornerstones of the brand under his leadership, Maier sat down with Style.com for an opinionated discussion about his Spring inspirations, the movies, his favorite scent, and more.

Congratulations on the new book. What was the impetus behind it?

It's a statement about how we work [at Bottega Veneta], the idea of collaboration, and the idea of designers and artisans working together, because I think we are not that great without each other. Somebody can have the know-how and incredible skill, but if you don't get challenged, you can't evolve. As a designer, you can have all these ideas, but if you're not able to talk to the person who has the know-how, then you can't move ahead. What's interesting about making clothes is to try to make them better. OK, have we done every shape on earth? Yes, we've seen everything already twice. What's changed in the last 25 years is how a garment is made.

How does that apply to your Spring collection of dresses? A dress is a dress is a dress, but not in your hands.

I'm thinking about the client, or about you sitting there. I don't want you to be able to see at first sight what it is. I think it's interesting, when you have a little bit of, how is this made, what is this fabric, how does this work? I like that idea, that something is not that easy to capture, even if it's simple in shape. You need to have a bit of sophistication about the garment or you need to have the curiosity to come back and to look at it close up and say, "Oh, now I get it, they cut this apart and re-puzzled it together."

The moment before the clothes go out on the runway, are you nervous or do you know that a collection is going to connect with the audience?

I spend a lot of time finding the right girl for the clothes. I like when someone owns the clothes, when the girl looks like it's hers. You can't just hang clothes on people. It doesn't work. It's like those people you see in real life and they look like they have the wrong clothes, they have no style. They have that latest thing, but they have no style. Karl [Templer, the stylist] comes and works with me. I can't talk to my people, because obviously we all worked on this stuff and so everyone is enamored. That's why I need that outside person, so I can have that ruthless conversation.

Photos: Courtesy of Bottega Veneta

Do you pay much attention to other designers and other fashion labels?

No, not at all. I think there's a time for everything in life. I always say that to the kids who work with me in design. I went through that period when I would die to go a fashion show. Dressing up like a cleaning woman to get into the Thierry Mugler show—you did anything you could to sneak in and be part of it. It's great, it's an experience. I just don't like it anymore. There comes a time when seeing other people's work is throwing me off. I'm inspired by other things. Not runway shows. For me it's a turnoff.

What do you like to look at, then? Where do ideas come from?

Anything. I'm very curious. I like to look at art, the auction house, online auctions. I like to look at architecture all the time. Basically, I'm super-curious, and I like to do research. That's what I use the computer for.

Was there anything you were looking at specifically for Spring?

There was an idea of a pretty girl with a slight undertone. Things are at the border of going wrong. It's very pretty, but it could just flip over in a second. That's where the idea of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver talking about that girl walking down the street with all that dirt and filth around her came from. The idea of having the holes in the back of the clothes, that was important to me. I just thought that it throws it a little bit off.

What about movies? Have you seen anything lately that you liked?

I'm only looking at documentaries. I think the movies suck, personally. I read in the paper that Hollywood is in the gutter and everybody asks themselves, "Is it the media? Is it the availability on Netflix that ruins the movie industry?" I don't think so at all. I think what sucks about Hollywood is the movies themselves. I think every movie is a shit movie, is a remake of something else. It's the same people. It's a big bunch of bad actors. There's great actors as well, but they don't work that much most of the time. And all we're left with is the documentary. I think the documentary is the most interesting thing, and some European moviemakers who are a little bit more daring. I think Netflix, HBO, whatever, I don't think that's bad at all. Personally, I would really like to be able to buy the ticket online and watch it at home. I would be willing to pay the same price. I don't want to go to the movie theater.

You don't have any desire to see it on the big screen, or in the dark?

I used to. Not anymore. I don't like the behavior in the movie theater—the noise, the food, people talking, people texting, the phone ringing behind me. I find it a throw-off. If it would be the dead ambience that we used to have, when the lights went off and it was deadly silent…Maybe movies were better, or maybe we were less demanding, too. When you've seen a lot, you're not that easily satisfied. But then again, when you see old movies, like the other night I saw The Third Man, and that hasn't taken a wrinkle. It's fabulous. It's still fabulous today and it's from, like, 1951.

What's your biggest achievement, having been at Bottega Veneta for 11 years now?

I think the biggest achievement is that we have a client. For me, that is the key, the most important thing. There's no need for me to come to work, no need for the artisans and the design team to collaborate and to work on all of this if there wouldn't be a response to it. Another thing is that we never let anybody go. At the beginning, it was very tough. When I came on board, the company was in very bad shape. There was very little money for salaries left. But everybody was smart enough to realize that the people were the number one asset.

Doesn't Bottega Veneta have a school?

It came together in 2006. There were not that many young people coming, so we had to do something about it. To create an interest, that's how the school came together, to give young people a chance to see what is done, how we work. It's been successful. Some people have gone elsewhere to other companies, to competitors, whatever. Some people have come to the company. It has opened the doors for many more young people to come on board.

Are you training people strictly on the artisan side? Do you find people for your design team there?

We train people all across the board. I think it's interesting for somebody to see the whole spectrum, because when you're 18 years old, you don't know what you're good for. Was I meant to be in pattern? In design? Am I really good at defending the product and selling it? I like people to be in the store for two weeks and get the experience of what it's like to sell the product to the client. You could be good at anything. One thing doesn't exclude the other. There's not one thing that's better. If you're good at commercial, why not? That's a gift.

Photos: Courtesy of Bottega Veneta

Did you know from a young age you'd be a designer?

Yeah, I wanted to be a designer. My thing was fashion, interiors, architecture. I didn't go into architecture for two reasons. First, my father had a firm, and at that time in the mid-seventies, when your dad had a firm, you were supposed to take it over one day. I didn't want to do that because I didn't want to be in that town; that town wasn't big enough for me, too small. And, secondly, I was not good in math, and that's not good for architecture. So, that's how I went off to fashion.

It's interesting what you said, that you find what you're good at along the way. It takes work.

Sure, I went to the Chambre Syndicale with a lot of people who didn't end up being a designer even though they were the number one star in class and it was all written what their future was.

In the new book, there's an essay by Tim Blanks in which he mentions how Hermès' Jean-Louis Dumas once counseled "passion and patience" when you were working there. Are there other words you live by?

This is an important one. I used to be a more impatient person. I'm an Aries. It was a good lesson. You need to be not only passionate about the product, but you also have to have patience for the product to come to life. Many things take time; it's a little bit what's wrong in today's world, everything fast, fast, fast, disposable. I think when you get into the luxury market and into those price points, it's a little freaky to think, this is for right now and in three months I'm supposed to get rid of this.

What are your goals for yourself and the company over the next ten years?

For the company, I would like to move ahead. I want to see it where I think it should be. It's on a good route to be there. There's so many different categories, projects, furniture, stores, ad campaigns, catalogs, perfumes. This symbol [perfume] is becoming very important for us. I'm working now on projects that are for 2018. The Eau Légère is coming out now. Then there's men, there's the bathroom [products]. It's never-ending. I only like a scent that remains, something that is around forever. I hate that in the world of perfume there is permanently something new coming out—another new bottle or another bright packaging. And I hate when I go to the airport duty-free—now that I'm in that category, I always go through the duty free—I hate the walls, when all of the packaging is different. I can't stand it. There are very few people who have a strong vision and strong lineup. All of that takes a lot of thought and consideration. But it's fascinating, the collaboration…to meet noses and to work with those people. Every time, I always tell our partner Coty Prestige that I have to meet eight to ten noses. It's interesting always. That's a fascinating universe.

Do you wear a scent? Something that you've worked on?

You know, lots of men like our [women's] scent for them. I'm kind of bummed because now Barneys sells the scent of Serge Lutens, the parfums. Before you could only sell the eau de toilette. I distributed it for years in my [Tomas Maier] store, but the parfum you could only buy at the Palais Royal [in Paris]; I liked the idea that you couldn't get it. That it was very hard. And it eliminated that everybody smells the same. He has a couple of great scents; he has one that I'm very fond of called Iris Mist. Smell this. It is magic. I mean, they're all magic. He has such a great, great nose. He's fabulous.

And what about personal goals?

For me, myself, I'm not that [into] planning. I don't want to move away from here because I'm very happy where I am. I'm very happy to work here, I'm happy with the people I'm working with and the people I'm working for. There's no need to move elsewhere. But then, I might do something else, one day. I have changed many times in my life. Radically changed, like move countries, move places, given everything up and started fresh. So I wouldn't exclude anything. I wouldn't have a life that is so laid out; I find that too boring. Like when I moved away from Paris, when I was 43 years or 44. Because I thought, "Hey, if I live here for ten years, I'm actually going to be old here. I'm going to be getting old." I just felt like, it's time to move on. I had been in Paris, at that time, for about 25 years. Twenty-five years is a long time. It was a long time, it was a great time, but I just felt it was enough of that. You've been in cycles and you've been through the mill so many times that you know what it's about. I needed some change. And it might happen again.

Photos: Courtesy of Bottega Veneta
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