Bottega Veneta: Art of Collaboration reflects the Italian brand’s brilliant but understated aesthetic

Since 2002, Bottega Veneta has invited world-class creatives to work on its advertising campaign for the season. The 1,000-plus images have now been compiled in a new book entitled Art of Collaboration. We talk to Tomas Maier, the creative mastermind behind the brand and the book.

Behind the scenes of Bottega Veneta's spring/summer 2014 advertising campaign photographed by Pieter Hugo. Courtesy: Bottega Veneta
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It began with a simple image of the leather strips used to create Bottega Veneta’s iconic Cabat bag. That shot, so stark and yet so striking, was the starting point for a 14-year project that has seen the luxury brand collaborate with some of the world’s leading artists and photographers.

Launched by Bottega’s creative director, Tomas Maier, soon after he joined the company in 2001, the premise behind the Art of Collaboration project is simple. Each season, Maier invites a world-class photographer or artist to shoot an advertising campaign for the brand. The aim is to work with a range of creatives – some of whom have no connection with the fashion industry – and see how they capture and communicate the brand’s identity and carefully crafted creations.

“The first photographer I collaborated with was Robin Broadbent for the fall/winter 2002/03 campaign,” Maier recalls. “It was not long after I had started at Bottega Veneta, when I was redefining the brand by focusing entirely on the craftsmanship. I had created the Cabat bag, and Robin took a still-life image of the leather strips that are woven together to create its shape. The power of the image is in its simplicity, in celebrating the raw materials and the skills of the craftspeople who work with them.”

Since then, Maier has collaborated with 27 different photographers and artists, and the resulting 1,000-plus photographs are being showcased in a book released this month entitled Bottega Veneta: Art of Collaboration. Featuring shots by industry icons such as Lord Snowdon, Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel, Robert Longo, Nan Goldin, Nick Knight and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, the 656-page tome presents a series of stunning narratives, each of which is entirely unique.

A turning point, says Maier, came when Philip-Lorca diCorcia was called in to shoot the spring/summer 2005 collection. “Before him, it was almost all about product and the craftsmanship behind it, but it was with diCorcia that the complete scene – the environment, the location, the models, etc – became important. He brought the narrative and the dramatic scenario into our advertising portfolio for the first time, and kept the same spirit for the next season, fall-winter 2005/06, shot in the elevators in Bottega Veneta’s flagship store in New York.”

When it comes to emblematic images, there are too many to mention – from the colourful shots by filmmaker Alex Prager for the spring/summer 2011 campaign, which feature strong references to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and art photographer Ralph Gibson’s fall/winter 2013/14 campaign, which captures the mood of 1950s cinema noir, to the powerful nature-inspired images shot in the New York Botanical Garden by Ryan McGinley for cruise 2014/15 and sculptor Robert Longo’s stark, monochromatic masterpieces for fall/winter 2010/11, also to be found on the cover of the book, where the models look like they are being flung around like rag dolls.

There was an underlying sense of freedom and spontaneity to the whole process, says Maier, which sits at odds with the often regimented business of fashion. “The images that we shot with David Armstrong for the cruise 2013 campaign are a perfect example of how spontaneity and chance can enter the collaborations,” he recalls. “We had planned to shoot the images in sunlight in New York, but that day was grey and bleak. The rain kept falling and the sun never came out. David shot all day, quietly and without fuss. The images that he created turned out to be perfect. It shouldn’t have been right, but it was.”

The name of the project is telling – collaboration is absolutely central to the complete Bottega ethos, Maier explains. “First of all, everything that we produce is as a result of people working together, from my role as creative director, to the design team and the craftspeople who make our products. We are very proud of our artisans working in the atelier in Montebello Vicentino, in the Veneto region in Italy where Bottega Veneta is from. I like the sense that there are skilled hands behind Bottega Veneta who come together to make our products. In a way, the Art of Collaboration campaign extends this sense once the products have been made, collaborating with photographers and artists to create something valid and of quality.”

Beyond its obvious beauty – and there are some images that quite literally take your breath away – the book serves as a visual chronicle of the brand’s evolution under Maier’s stewardship. Founded in Vicenza in 1966, Bottega Veneta has always been defined by its meticulous craftsmanship. The most obvious manifestation of this approach is the brand’s signature intrecciato, the distinctive cross-hatched leather weave, which is crafted from the supplest of leathers. From the beginning, the Bottega motto was “when your own initials are enough”, a rejection of gimmicky logos and flash branding. Instead, the quality and craftsmanship were supposed to speak for themselves.

In the 1970s, owning a Bottega Veneta bag was the height of sophistication. But by the 1990s, the brand had lost much of its lustre. And by the time Maier joined the company in June 2001, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. What has happened since can be counted as one of the greatest turnarounds in recent fashion history. Maier essentially brought the company back from the brink and transformed it into one of the world’s leading luxury brands.

In 2014, Bottega Veneta reported revenues of €1.13 million (Dh4.7m), had 3,212 people in its employment and 236 directly operated stores in its portfolio. While the brand’s ever-popular leather goods still accounted for 87 per cent of revenue last year, one of the things that Maier has focused on since his arrival is the expansion of the product line, which now includes a fragrance, fine jewellery, a watch, furniture and home accessories, along with the ready-to-wear clothing, handbags, shoes, small leather goods, eyewear and luggage.

Maier, who was born in 1957 in Pforzheim in Germany, has taken the brand back to its roots, shifting focus to the four cornerstones upon which the business was built – outstanding craftsmanship, innovative design, contemporary functionality and the highest-quality materials. Under Maier’s watch, the outside of Bottega bags are again free from logos, and the trademark cross-hatched pattern of the intrecciato has become a recurring motif, adorning everything from cushion covers and picture frames to shoes, wallets and Maier’s unstructured Cabat tote, which has become the brand’s go-to ‘it’ bag.

Bottega Veneta products are discreet, streamlined and strictly for those who “get it”, and they are striking a chord with an increasingly discerning breed of customer, who is looking for a quieter, more sophisticated type of luxury. As the new book so artfully shows, the product is more than capable of speaking for itself.

“Bottega Veneta has an identity that is wider than the traditional logos of the fashion industry,” says Maier. “When you look at these images together, you see that there is a connection between them which is beyond product. This is the world that we create under the motto ‘when your own initials are enough’, because it is about something other than the usual branding. It is much more about a sensibility and a feeling, and an appreciation of individualism.

“I like to look at the images as an ensemble, and to see the past 14 years as a body of work that features many different narratives and ideas. I like to think about how Bottega Veneta exists in the real world, once the bags or the clothes have been bought and become part of someone’s life. Looking at the campaigns together, they give me a sense of this, because the images have narratives and scenarios that go beyond the typical fashion image.”