TOTES WITH THE MOST
BOTTEGA VENETA’S ARTISANS USE TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES IN THE MOST MODERN OF ENVIRONMENTS TO PRODUCE THEIR EXQUISITE LEATHERGOODS.
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.