Bottega Veneta’s Handcrafted Empire

Courtesy Bottega Veneta

Bottega Veneta famously calls itself the brand to buy “when your own initials are enough.” But Italian artisans have their names on every piece.

Traditional craftsmanship, it seems, is the new king of style. At a recent industry-wide conference, one fashion tycoon declared it—along with quality and creativity—the consumers’ new, nonnegotiable demand. During the fall shows in Milan, one designer defined luxury as “when you can see the craftsmanship in every single detail.” And another pointed to the renewed preciousness of “everything that has a lot of handwork.” Luckily for Bottega Veneta there is no need to jump on the bandwagon—craftsmanship has been there from the beginning. Bottega Veneta, after all, means “Venetian workshop.” And as designer and creative director Tomas Maier points out, “the Italian artisan was the starting point. Today the collaboration between designer and artisan is at the heart of everything we do.” Witness the hands of the craftsman at work on the woven-leather camp stool at left. The seats are done in a soft calf leather sourced in France and backed in natural linen. They are supported by iron frames hand-painted gunmetal gray using a technique created for painting cars, but it’s the finely interlocking leather strips of the intrecciato weave, first used by founders Michele Taddei and Renzo Zengiaro back in the late sixties, that make the pieces unmistakably Bottega. Intrecciato was born when the company’s workers had to cut the superfine leather into strips to get it through sewing machines designed to stitch cloth; the weave made the leather more durable for accessories. In 2006 Bottega Veneta opened a school for leather artisans in Vicenza, Italy, to ensure the intrecciato’s—and the craft’s—future.

Last year Maier commissioned a photographer to document the making of several pieces from the fall 2009 clothing and furniture collections in Bottega workshops throughout Italy. “The project was a way to record and illustrate the time, talent, and tradition that go into each piece,” says the German-born designer, who, after stints at Hermès and Sonia Rykiel, took the helm at Bottega in 2001. “Every product we offer is made mostly or entirely by hand.”

The story told through the images is, Maier believes, central to the brand’s identity. The photographs also reveal the breadth of the artisanal techniques at work throughout the collections: A jeweler chisels a braided gold bracelet; a glassblower in Murano shapes amber-colored tumblers; a Neapolitan tailor carefully sews thread through a peaked lapel and a buttonhole; a cobbler meticulously stitches the leather of a brown lace-up shoe. It’s also a visual diary of the way Maier incorporates his design with traditional craftsmanship, whether that means highlighting tiny handstitched pleats on a dress or the beading on the surface of a handbag. “I can design,” he says, “without worrying about how a factory will translate the sketch or whether the pieces can be assembled across continents.”

The home collection, launched in 2004, was created on the same principles that Maier calls the Bottega cornerstones: quality, craftsmanship, timeless design, and, refreshingly enough, practical use. “I love the functionality and clean design of camp gear,” says Maier, who in addition to the camp stool on the previous page did a foldable camp bed (leather pillow included). And because the home objects are seen as another kind of personal accessory, Maier swears that even the largest pieces, including tables, desks, and screens, are purposefully lightweight and can be easily moved by two people—wearing Bottega cashmere, of course.

Also from the Collection…

“We’re proud of our craftsmanship and the skill of Bottega Veneta’s artisans,” says creative director Tomas Maier, who creates every piece with these techniques in mind, from the drawer chests done by a single Italian carpenter to glass tea holders and vases blown in Murano to the tote bag and low screen woven in the signature intrecciato pattern. For details, call 877-362-1715 or go to bottegaveneta.com.