The Australian - Wish Magazine - - CONTENTS - STORY JOSEPHINE McKENNA

Bot­tega Veneta’s in­trec­ciato bags are made in an en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able ate­lier that is set­ting the stan­dard for lux­ury brands.

There is some­thing mag­i­cal about the his­toric villa where some of Italy’s top ar­ti­sans con­vert thin strips of soft leather into a fash­ion mas­ter­piece in a for­got­ten cor­ner of the coun­try’s Veneto re­gion. The im­pos­ing 18th-cen­tury villa houses the ate­lier of the renowned lux­ury brand, Bot­tega Veneta, in Montebello Vi­centino, around 20km from the charm­ing city of Vi­cenza. While hordes of tourists are scour­ing cen­turies of civil­i­sa­tion in the nearby cities of Verona and Venice, a team of ar­ti­sans in­side the villa are qui­etly cut­ting, weav­ing and sewing sup­ple leather and other pre­cious skins in an oa­sis of tran­quil­lity. The nearby hills are dot­ted with cas­tles in­clud­ing a cou­ple that be­longed to the war­ring fam­i­lies that pro­duced Shake­speare’s star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Out­side the villa the sun-drenched fields are the colour of straw and a farmer charges down the road on a trac­tor as the car pulls up at the sweep­ing en­trance, lined with clas­si­cal sculp­tures. It seems a world away from the hectic Hol­ly­wood red car­pet and fash­ion run­ways that show­case the com­pany’s qual­ity leather goods and readyto-wear col­lec­tions ev­ery season in Mi­lan.

But that’s what makes this so un­usual for a brand that gen­er­ated nearly €1.2 bil­lion ($1.8bn) in global sales last year and is even about to open its first cus­tomised ate­lier in Aus­tralia, when it launches its Collins Street store in Mel­bourne later this year.

When Bot­tega Veneta’s cre­ative di­rec­tor, To­mas Maier, joined the com­pany in 2001 he dreamed of cre­at­ing an ate­lier or work­shop that would cul­ti­vate the level of cre­ativ­ity and crafts­man­ship syn­ony­mous with the brand’s iden­tity. “You should make the work­ing en­vi­ron­ment as pleas­ant as pos­si­ble,” Maier tells WISH by tele­phone from New York. “It leads to bet­ter re­sults, it leads to hap­pier peo­ple. One of the most sig­nif­i­cant events for me was the first time I met the ar­ti­sans. I was very moved by their in­cred­i­ble pas­sion for their work, even then when the com­pany was strug­gling to sur­vive.”

Maier col­lab­o­rated with his staff on how to re­store and ex­pand the for­mer Villa Schroeder-Da Porto and added a sleek mod­ern wing on a site that stretches over 55,000sqm. The re­sult is an in­no­va­tive com­plex with white­washed walls, re­stored mar­ble floors and trans­par­ent glass of­fices, us­ing so­lar en­ergy, rain­wa­ter and other mea­sures to re­duce en­ergy con­sump­tion. Ev­ery work space is airy and filled with nat­u­ral light. “I thought very hard about cre­at­ing the right en­vi­ron­ment,” says the cre­ative di­rec­tor.

There are 300 staff – in­clud­ing 100 ar­ti­sans – work­ing at the en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able ate­lier, which in­cludes a small mu­seum and a leather school with the grand ti­tle of La Scuola dei Maestri Pel­let­tieri that re­in­forces Bot­tega Veneta’s tra­di­tional roots in the re­gion. “It’s an im­por­tant way to at­tract young peo­ple to the craft,” says Maier. “Many times I see the chil­dren of peo­ple who worked here with me.”

The brand was founded in Vi­cenza in 1966 by en­trepreneurs Michele Tad­dei and Renzo Zen­giaro, who wanted to pro­duce qual­ity ar­ti­sanal leather goods and give them an Ital­ian iden­tity. Bot­tega Veneta, which means “Vene­tian Shop”, quickly built its rep­u­ta­tion on fine leather and its in­stantly recog­nis­able leather weave, known as the in­trec­ciato.

In the early years it was a pop­u­lar choice for jet­set­ting celebri­ties such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onas­sis, artist Andy Warhol and the Ira­nian em­press Farah Pahlavi; its ad­ver­tis­ing tagline “When your own ini­tials are enough” re­in­forced its im­age of el­e­gant dis­cre­tion.

Bot­tega Veneta be­came some­thing of an iconic brand when Lau­ren Hut­ton car­ried a clas­sic in­trec­ciato un­der her arm and donned the la­bel’s trench coat in the 1980 film Amer­i­can Gigolo, and that bur­gundy clutch is once again on the store’s shelves in 2017.

In the late 1980s and 90s the la­bel’s pop­u­lar­ity fal­tered amid mar­ket­ing mis­steps and fierce com­pe­ti­tion

from its ri­vals, and in Fe­bru­ary 2001 the near-bank­rupt com­pany was ac­quired by the Gucci Group, which also owns Yves Saint Lau­rent, Stella McCart­ney and Alexan­der Mc­Queen. Gucci’s then cre­ative di­rec­tor, Tom Ford, ap­pointed Maier as cre­ative di­rec­tor of Bot­tega Veneta in a bid to re­ju­ve­nate the brand. The Gucci Group and its par­ent com­pany, Pin­aultPrin­temps-Red­oute, was re­named Ker­ing in 2013.

De­spite the com­pany’s evo­lu­tion, Maier says Bot­tega Veneta will never lose its her­itage or com­mit­ment to out­stand­ing crafts­man­ship. “We will al­ways stay true to the ar­ti­sanal roots of the house, a cul­tural her­itage which fuses tech­nique and cre­ativ­ity with knowhow and ges­tures that have been passed down over time,” he says.

With his cre­ative drive and de­ter­mi­na­tion, Maier has clev­erly trans­formed Bot­tega Veneta. In the first three years after his ap­point­ment, the com­pany opened flag­ship stores in Lon­don, Paris, Mi­lan, and New York, and in­tro­duced women’s and men’s ready-to-wear to the col­lec­tions. To­day it is a global em­pire in­cor­po­rat­ing leathergoods, cloth­ing, eye­wear, ac­ces­sories, fra­grances, jew­ellery and home­wares. There are more than 250 Bot­tega Veneta stores stretch­ing from Bev­erly Hills to Bei­jing, and Bot­tega suites are found in ho­tels in­clud­ing the St. Regis in Florence and Rome and the Park Hy­att in Chicago. “It has evolved into a way of liv­ing,” says Maier. “There are the home­wares, as well as what you wear and what you carry. It’s like a way of be­ing in life.”

It’s cer­tainly been em­braced by some of the world’s big­gest celebri­ties. Os­car win­ners Char­l­ize Theron and Nicole Kid­man are among the la­bel’s big­gest fans and TV re­al­ity star and so­cial me­dia sen­sa­tion Kim Kar­dashian is often spot­ted with a Bot­tega Veneta on her arm. Hot mod­els Kendall Jen­ner and Gigi Ha­did rocked the run­way with the now 73-year-old Hut­ton in the brand’s 50th-an­niver­sary show last Septem­ber, while Amer­ica’s First Lady, Me­la­nia Trump, re­cently made head­lines when she re­turned to the US from Europe wear­ing a stun­ning red coat from the la­bel’s col­lec­tion.

“This is a brand that can speak to the whole world,” says Maier, who di­vides his time be­tween the US and Europe. “It is an Ital­ian prod­uct, it is made in Italy. It comes from a spe­cific place but with an idea of the world. We have de­sign stu­dios in New York and Florida. It is very im­por­tant to be open, look­ing out in the world.”

Born in Pforzheim in Ger­many, 60-year-old Maier stud­ied at the Cham­bre Syn­di­cale de la Haute Cou­ture in Paris and clocked up im­pres­sive stints with Revil­lon furs, Guy Laroche and So­nia Rykiel be­fore spend­ing nine years as women’s ready-to-wear de­signer at Her­mes. As well as the crit­i­cal role he plays at Bot­tega Veneta, which in­cludes work­ing with pho­tog­ra­phers on ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns, Maier some­how finds time to de­sign for his own la­bel, To­mas Maier. He is a cre­ative jug­ger­naut and says he’s “in­spired by ev­ery­thing”, in­clud­ing art, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy and ar­chi­tec­ture.

“I have a spe­cial love of ar­chi­tec­ture be­cause my dad was an ar­chi­tect. Other kids went to the play­ground, we went out to look at ar­chi­tec­tural struc­tures,” he says.

One of Maier’s great suc­cesses at Bot­tega Veneta has been the Ca­bat bag, the first bag he de­signed when he joined the com­pany. The tote bag comes in two sizes and is made of the soft­est nappa leather from France, Italy, Greece or Spain or croc­o­dile skin im­ported from Africa. It is com­pletely made by hand and the nappa ver­sion takes two days of weav­ing to com­plete.

“It is so labour-in­ten­sive, it de­mands such ar­ti­sanal skills,” says Maier. “It is not vis­i­ble to the un­trained eye. It looks very sim­ple but it is very com­plex in re­al­ity.”

In­side the Veneto ate­lier it is mes­meris­ing to watch a young fe­male ar­ti­san take dozens of thin, 1.5m-long strips of leather known as fet­tucce, that look like rib­bons of fet­tuc­cine pasta, and weave them into tiny tri­an­gles. She works on her feet and as­sem­bles the tri­an­gles on a spe­cially de­signed stand. Up to 100 dou­ble-faced strips are wo­ven to­gether seam­lessly to pro­duce 11 tri­an­gles that cre­ate the “in­trec­ciato”, which must be iden­ti­cal in­side and out­side the bag. Once the body of the bag is

com­pleted, about 80 hand-made seam points will be fixed to the bot­tom and the han­dles. The small model of the tote bag is on sale in the com­pany’s Rome store for €6500 ($9700), the larger ver­sion for €7500. A croc­o­dile skin Ca­bat will set you back €55,000.

Back in the ate­lier, a young man is as­sem­bling another of the com­pany’s beloved de­signs, the Knot. Pop­u­lar with the Hol­ly­wood A-list, this com­pact clutch bag in­cludes 15 com­po­nents such as Ay­ers leather from In­done­sia, silk satin and metal fin­ishes. The little gem has had many colour­ful in­car­na­tions and the BV mu­seum presents dif­fer­ent ver­sions em­bossed in leather but­ter­flies, porce­lain cameos and leather origami knots. There are plenty of colours and com­bi­na­tions, but this is also about cre­at­ing a prod­uct that will en­dure. As Maier says: “We want to give our cus­tomers a guar­an­tee of some­thing that will be around for a very long time.”

Bot­tega Veneta sources its ma­te­ri­als from more than 200 sup­pli­ers around the world, but all its man­u­fac­tur­ing is done in Italy. Rows of colour­ful os­trich, croc­o­dile and snake­skin hang from a rack in­side the ate­lier; ar­ti­sans dressed in crisp white coats lay out pre­cise pat­terns and slice sev­eral croc­o­dile skins on a large cut­ting ta­ble be­fore join­ing them to­gether in a zigzag con­fig­u­ra­tion with not a stitch in sight.

One of the ate­lier’s hid­den se­crets is a lab­o­ra­tory that ran­domly tests the skins for their fragility and re­silience. In­side the lab­o­ra­tory one ma­chine checks ran­dom sam­ples of leather for colour-fast­ness, sun ex­po­sure and the re­sis­tance of the fi­bres. There’s even a “cli­mate cham­ber” that ex­poses the leather to ex­treme tem­per­a­tures rang­ing from -40C to 180C. “Throw­away is not in our DNA,” says Maier. “If I buy some­thing and I like it, it’s some­thing I want to keep for a long time.”

Bot­tega Veneta es­tab­lished a strong foothold in the Aus­tralian mar­ket when it opened its first store at Syd­ney’s West­field shop­ping cen­tre in 2011 and a sec­ond store fol­lowed at the Star casino. Now the brand is about to launch its most com­pre­hen­sive Aus­tralian store on Collins, Mel­bourne’s premier shop­ping street. It will be the first to of­fer leathergoods, men and women’s readyto-wear and an ate­lier where clients will be able to cus­tomise their own de­signs, colours and skins. “To bring that ser­vice to Aus­tralia is im­por­tant,” says Maier. “This is a mar­ket that is fast ap­pre­ci­at­ing, the so-called lux­ury busi­ness. It will not just be about leather goods but of­fer­ing va­ri­ety and a spe­cial ser­vice.”

A be­spoke ser­vice gives clients an ex­tra rea­son to visit the store, rather than a web­site. But there are plenty of chal­lenges in the highly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket, where ri­val Ker­ing brands like Yves Saint Lau­rent and the re­ju­ve­nated Gucci are set­ting the pace. Last year Bot­tega Veneta recorded an in­crease in sales in China and South Korea but rev­enue de­clined by 8.7 per cent as the la­bel’s world­wide sales suf­fered from a fall in tourism, par­tic­u­larly in west­ern Europe.

This year has seen a re­cov­ery, and Maier is look­ing to at­tract a new gen­er­a­tion of con­sumers. “It’s nice to have tra­di­tion an­chored in the past but it’s re­ally im­por­tant to look at the world and how to evolve,” he says. “We’ll keep on con­stantly chal­leng­ing our­selves to bring our brand one step fur­ther, avoid­ing trends and stay­ing true to the ar­ti­sanal roots of the house, which al­low Bot­tega Veneta to be both rel­e­vant and de­sir­able.”

“Throw­away is not in our DNA. If I buy some­thing and I like it, it’s some­thing I want to keep for a long time.”

Cre­ative di­rec­tor To­mas Maier and the 18th-cen­tury villa near Vi­cenzo that houses the ul­tra­mod­ern Bot­tega Veneta ate­lier

A Ca­bat in­trec­ciato tote bag in croc­o­dile skin is drawn, wo­ven and fin­ished.

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