We almost lost Tomas Maier to architecture. This is the man who created the elegant Cabat bag, who shrewdly eschewed logos at a time when flashing labels was de rigueur, who expanded the Bottega Veneta brand to include ready-to-wear, jewellery and furniture collections. It was a lucky day for the luxury world when, at the age of 15, Maier decided to pursue a different route from his family of architects and instead make his own way in the dizzying, unpredictable and often volatile world of fashion.
While Maier's upbringing did hold its sway - he admits that "if I had not become a designer, I would probably be an architect" - he used his exposure to architecture to guide his path in fashion design.
"I learned to value architecture in my youth, becoming fascinated with interesting buildings and space," he says, adding that his background instilled in him a love of nature and craft. "These passions - along with many others - serve as sources of inspiration for me when designing." Maier was born in Pforzheim, Germany, but left for Paris immediately after finishing high school to study at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. He ended up staying in the French capital for the next 20 years, where he worked for a fleet of fashion houses. Prior to his move to Bottega Veneta, Maier had assembled an impressive portfolio containing some of the biggest names in luxury, including Guy Laroche, Sonia Rykiel, Revillon and finally Hermès, where he spent nine years designing the brand's leather goods and ready-to-wear collections.
It was an exciting time to be in fashion. By the time Tom Ford asked Maier to be Bottega Veneta's creative director in June 2001, the brand had been acquired by Kering, which had also bought Balenciaga and taken on partnerships with Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen in the same year. The luxury scene was abuzz at that time, and fashionistas were flashing logo-laden arm candy - it was all about excess, ostentatious labels and bragging rights. So, Maier made the crucial - and likely controversial - decision to revert to Bottega Veneta's heritage and strip its products of logos, accompanied by the now-famous tagline: "When your own initials are enough".
The fashion community, reeling from this turn towards a more dignified and subtle form of luxury, got another surprise when Maier launched the Cabat in his accessories-only collection in September 2001. While the rest of the world was still consumed with structured designs, iconic embellishments and logos - discreet or otherwise - the Cabat was a remarkably simple affair. It was created with the brand's signature weave, but otherwise was a high-end version of a basic tote.
Clearly, Maier was miles ahead of the style crowd, as the Cabat quickly became a must-have accessory and has kept its appeal over the years to be one of the brand's best-selling products today. Despite the frenzy over the Cabat, you won't catch Maier calling his creation an "it" bag.
"What [consumers] do not need are niched seasonality and 'it' bags or shoes," he says. "I cannot speak to other brands and their consumers, but what the Bottega Veneta client appreciates - and regularly seeks - are outstanding craftsmanship, innovative design, contemporary functionality and the highest-quality materials possible."
In fact, these values form the four cornerstones that Maier instilled for the company when he first joined all those years ago, and to this day they remain the pillars on which the brand continues to grow and expand.
And expand it has. Originally a leather-goods brand, Bottega Veneta has, under Maier's directorship, extended its reach to include clothing, furniture, fragrances, eyewear and jewellery. By 2002, just a year after Maier joined the company, Bottega Veneta launched its first ready-to-wear pieces for men and women. By 2005, the company's clothing collections hit the runway, and the year after that, it launched its first fine-jewellery collection and furniture collection.
"When I first joined the company, I wanted to see more than just accessories in the Bottega Veneta repertoire, and I envisioned an organic evolution towards a complete luxury lifestyle brand," Maier says.
He emphasises the "organic" nature of the expansions, explaining that each introduction was to be carefully considered, not rushed or launched in response to market trends. The challenge, he says, is a continuous one, as he and his team persist in developing more innovative techniques, avoiding trends and staying true to Bottega Veneta's artisanal roots.
It's no easy feat balancing a brand's decades-old heritage with consumers' ever-evolving needs, but Maier has proved time and again that he has a firm handle on when to move and what to do. "I am always looking to expand the [company] portfolio in line with the needs and wants of our customers," he says. "A focus at the moment is our approach to luxury shopping, in which we provide an increased level of personalisation to the client." This plan could include opening more exclusively men's boutiques, and a few more maisons - but, he stresses, only where the opportunity is right.
But even with his keen sense of judgment and wealth of experience, it's not a sure-fire recipe for success, and therein lies the challenge and joy of Maier's job.
"Artisanship and high-quality materials constitute 'luxury', but it's impossible to definitely clarify the term," he says. "Its characteristics are subject to the individual, and it's an understanding based on what that individual values. Luxury is highly personal."
Tomas Maier joins Bottega Veneta as creative director
The brand launches its first ready-to-wear pieces for men and women
Bottega Veneta holds its first women's runway show for fall/winter 2005/06
The brand launches its first fine-jewellery collection with Victor Mayer, and also shows its first furniture collection at Milan's Salone del Mobile fair.
Maier receives a number of awards and accolades for his work, including the DNR Designer of the Year award in New York
Bottega Veneta is elected Best Olfactory Brand and Best Italian Brand by the Accademia del Profumo
The brand opens its first maison, its largest boutique worldwide, on Via Sant'Andrea in Milan