How to look a million dollars. Granny chic and a love of Wedgwood. Ken n Thompson. Hot Buy.
Aroom full of rich people can feel at times 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. (An apparently simple coat may have complex seaming that makes it “a surprise, a personal experience for the wearer”. A leather bag may be lined with baby suede, “so it is gentle when a woman puts her hand in to get her keys”.) However, those clothes and bags probably pass unnoticed by all but the besttrained 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.”
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, who sometimes adds linen, or even metal, to wool “so that it holds the creases”. (That’s right: while the rest of us iron our highstreet garb, Bottega customers are paying through the nose for built-in creases. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “The rich are different from you and me.”)
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.
There are no holes to be seen on Maier today. We are sitting in his preternaturally silent, not to mention tidy, office in New York, the 58-year-old German wearing an ensemble that could be described as a perfect storm of stealth and wealth, if only a storm weren’t so noisy: a Bottega camel suede blouson jacket, a camel cashmere crewneck from his own Tomas Maier label, Levi’s jeans, black Nike trainers. Then there is his jetsetter tan: the relentlessly international Maier’s primary residence is in eversunny Florida. “I love colour,” he tells me, “but I don’t wear it much. This is a colourful day for me!”
In fact, colour — quirky mixand-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 that had long had the tagline “when your own initials are enough”.
Founded in Vicenza in 1966, Bottega was at first ex- clusively a leather goods company, celebrated for its intrecciato or woven leather. At its peak in the 1970s, owning a Bottega bag was the ultimate in sophistication, but 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. What Bottega Veneta can’t do with leather isn’t worth knowing about. At its factory, a minimalist’s dream, leathers are tested with assorted Professor Branestawm contraptions for resistance to abrasion (1500 cycles), load-bearing (up to 3kg — what on earth do his customers carry in those handbags of theirs?) and much else besides. The light-as-afeather Cabat tote is made on a special last and has an intrecciato finish that looks the same on the inside as the outside. A veritable Rubik’s Cube of an accessory, it takes one of the factory’s most skilled craftspeople eight hours to complete. For a man charged with designing an incredibly expensive product — the label’s intrecciato bags begin at around $4000 — Maier displays a surprising
Bottega Veneta creative director Tomas Maier; creations for the springsummer 2016 collection, top, and autumn 2016, right; leather clutch, $6500, below; intrecciato messenger bag, $3790, bottom