When I decided to start this new series, which will look at how developments like e-commerce, globalization, and the accelerated fashion cycle are changing the way we consume, the first person I wanted to interview was Tomas Maier. It seemed to me the designer was already thinking about these questions—and, knowing him, with a certain precision. He is about to embark on a major expansion of his Tomas Maier line, which until now has consisted mainly of a small chain of cultish stores. And while he will also keep a firm hold of the reins at the luxury brand Bottega Veneta, where he has been creative director since 2001, he is planning a very different model for his namesake label—no runway show, no advertising, a lower price point, and an emphasis on everyday clothes, all with the goal of “making a direct connection with the consumer.” I sat down with Maier in his midtown design studio. It’s located in the same building as the sleek Bottega Veneta offices, only here the surfaces are raw plywood. That’s a clear statement of intent. This is Maier in startup mode.
You’re opening a new store on Madison Avenue on October 15, the first of several. You’re revamping your website, and you’ll develop that further over time. In the future, how do you see the relationship between physical stores and e-commerce developing? Not just with your own line but in luxury fashion in general?
I think you need both. I think people need to be able to go physically to a store. You have to try things on, you have to feel things, you have to get the vibe of the store, what it is about, and so on. I think you can be a client online easily once you know the product. Once there’s a go-to pair of pants or a shirt or a T-shirt that is more or less always the same, you know you like that. Me, I order online. Because it saves a lot of time, not having to go to the store, absolutely, great. But certain things, I think it’s a pleasure to shop in the physical environment. And then it’s always how you get that ambience translated to a screen, that you can have that feeling like, OK, this really feels like I’m in their store. That’s what I’m working on even now for the little revamp [of the website]. I mean, sure, I look at everything else, but I don’t want it to look like anybody else’s, either. Make it personal.
Obviously things like Twitter and Instagram are now a big part of a lot of companies’ thinking. Is that part of yours?
Yeah, it is part of mine. Not so much part of me—it’s not my world—but it’s part of the in-house PR. That’s obviously on the list and it’s important, especially because we don’t advertise.
But we’re not going to see any Tomas Maier selfies?
No. [ laughs]
When you think about the physical store, what is the relationship between the decor and the product? In other words, what’s the balance between displaying the product in a way that optimizes sales versus creating an attractive ambience?
I think there’s always a fine line. When it’s too overly commercial and too pushy in-your-face, I think it’s a turnoff. There’s a way to display clothes so it can look correct, so they hang the right way. There’s a way to merchandise a store without overly merchandising it. And then there are fixtures that you can design in a certain way. I talk a lot about that, how to display certain categories, how to display jewelry, how to display belts. I always hate how belts look when you have them in the store and they’re hanging on the wall and every belt is a different length. Having worked on all those Bottega stores obviously has helped me a lot in working on this store design. And then going forward, the idea is the stores will never be really the same because locations are all different and neighborhoods are different and structures are different. Maybe the next one will be a building from 1870. This one is from 1920, the next one could be completely modern or mid-century. When I pick a store, obviously the location’s very important to me, but it’s not only the location and the square footage and the price, it is really also about the character of the place, because you can’t make that.
“You don’t want to go to a store if every store looks the same wherever you are in the world. It’s total boredom.”
Is that very different from the approach with Bottega, which is obviously a much bigger brand that has stores everywhere around the world?
Yeah, but I’ve been very involved always in the Bottega store design from Day One and also in picking stores…and we don’t hang a facade at Bottega, a facade in front of a building. That I absolutely hate because I think it takes away from the character of the town, it takes away from the shopping experience. You don’t want to go to a store if every store looks the same wherever you are in the world. And obviously you’re going to get clients that shop from you in New York, and they’ll walk by your store in L.A. and they’ll walk in and check it out. You don’t want the stores to be the same. It’s total boredom. It needs different merchandise, by the way. I think merchandise needs to be spot-specific to location, and what works in a certain light doesn’t work in another. An apple green bag actually works in Bal Harbour but probably looks hideous on Madison.
Sometimes you travel around the world and you see exactly the same window display in a luxury store that you just saw in New York. Obviously they have a picture or something.
Yeah, a window program. A window manual.
But your approach is different.
Yeah. This is going to be different here, too, because this will be more like looking into the store. I’m not so much a “window” person…Even the old stores in Miami, they never really had “windows.” They were more like an aquarium where the window, the facade, was more like you get to see the whole store. And if there were dummies or whatever, they weren’t even by the window display, they were more toward the back wall.
Do you feel that’s more welcoming?
I think it’s because we don’t sell one product. We don’t push one product. We sell an overall lifestyle, an idea of how this could be a possibility, this could be a proposition. I think it’s better for the person who walks by, the onlooker, that you get an overall view.
Why did you feel now was the right moment to expand?
It’s easy. Why now? Because it is 15 years old and it was there before Bottega. And Bottega was not supposed to happen. I had another idea in my mind, which was this one. But then when Bottega came to me, it was the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come every day, and at that point I was 43 years old and I kind of got it. Like, OK, this is more or less what I used to do before, when I was a freelance designer, but I used to work for six companies and now I’m doing everything for one company with one vision. It’s not that strange to me and a great opportunity as well. Bottega became very important and needed a lot, a lot, a lot of help, so TM was on the back burner for so many years…It had its wholesale clients, it had its three stores, it paid its employees and office rents and store rents, and it’s a company that always broke even, was valuable and debt-free, and it made all these people live. We always had, like, 14 or 15 employees at all times, and that I’m proud of…Now what I see is the potential of having a designer brand, you know, with the idea of making clothes that are a little bit easier but yet special, and with a bit easier price point and not so much about celebrity and runway and red carpets and all of that—that’s not the point. It’s just a direct connection with the consumer. That’s how I feel…I think this is a good time to take it to another level.
Do you think that fashion in general became too obsessed with the image and the way it’s presented on the runway and that the consumer maybe got lost or ignored a little bit in people’s thinking?
I think the consumers are educated. The consumer can get to everything thanks to people like you…In today’s world, you look at the show yourself and you say, “OK, if I’m buying something from the season and investing in something big, I’ll buy myself that and that.” But that is not, like, normal shopping. I’ll cater to somebody who needs clothes for every day, and that doesn’t mean I don’t like the other clothes, but that’s not what you wear every day. That’s not how you pick up your kids and that’s not how you drive out to the countryside on the weekend. You don’t wear clothes like that and you don’t wear clothes in your free time like that and you don’t wear clothes like that at night when you come home. Many people who go to work don’t have to wear suits, either.
“Nobody needs another fashion show. I think all of you sit in so many fashion shows that you can’t take it anymore at the end of the season.”
Do you think it’s possible to promote a line without having a fashion show and all that?
Well, that’s a bigger challenge. Give me a challenge. Another one. We’ll try and then we’ll see. We’ll see. I think nobody needs another fashion show. I think all of you sit in so many fashion shows that you can’t take it anymore at the end of the season, and you have to look at so much crap, too, that you probably don’t even want to see. There are clothes that deserve to be on the runway, I think, and then there are clothes that shouldn’t be on the runway. I don’t want to call it crap, but there are clothes that don’t need to be shown on the runway because they’re not going to go into editorial anyway. So let’s put clothes on the runway that can be talked about. There’s a reason that they’re there—it’s because somebody worked with cutting, proportion, color, craftsmanship. This is, like, reason enough for us to get in a car, come over here, wait half an hour sitting in the front row for a five-minute thing. But I’m also with you that being at the show is always going to be different than seeing it online. It’s fabulous that you have the access to see it online, but I think people never know what you all experience, sitting in there and having the emotion of the room, the music, the light, whatever it was, the casting, the makeup, the hair. You don’t get all of that when you look at the image.
Will you be able to change the dynamic of the fashion cycle in other ways—like the constant sales and markdowns, for example?
Yeah, because there will be carryover product. There are products that we all like to shop online, like if you know that T-shirt fits. I love that T-shirt. Let me order five more. I don’t want to go to the store for that. I’ll just ship it to my house. Or, like, I like that shirt. That shirt fits me perfectly well. I only wear white shirts. Let me get four white shirts. I need new white shirts. Shopping like that, I think, is great. Those jeans, if you have a pair of jeans you like. It’s already bad enough to have to go buy jeans, no? With all the prints that there are now, the fits, I mean, it’s a nightmare. Who wants to try on all these pants? If you have a pair you like, then you can just order them again. Until somebody tells you you’ve got mom jeans. [ laughs]
Why is it important for you to keep the prices more accessible?
Because anything that is designer is always a high price point. I think it’s nice to show that you can do something a little bit more thoughtful, and I hate secondary lines. I never liked that system. OK, we’ll have the runway, the halo line that is un-findable. Basically I came out of school at 21, I’ve been working since I was 21, so it’s a repeat and a repeat and a repeat and a repeat, over and over and over. It just gets more interesting because technology has evolved, the information flow is better, and the client, the customer is more savvy, lots of things have gotten more interesting. The creative part you don’t want to lose on that, the emotion needs to remain because otherwise it becomes flat. But just for me at this point, I have to do things differently in order to still make it exciting. Bottega, for me, was interesting because there was something to prove. It was like nowhere and it was a week from being closed down basically when I came there, and we went through tough times with SARS and 9/11 and all of that in the beginning. It hit me over the head right away. It was a good wake-up. That’s an interesting run, from here to there, because there’s something to prove. Lots of people always said to me, “Really? Really? Really?” Yeah, really. We’ll see! Give me enough time to do it. This is another one of those for me. And I make it a little bit difficult for myself on purpose because that makes it interesting. I don’t want it too easy, because if it’s too easy, it’s not interesting to go to work, and if it’s just, like, a repeat of some sauce, like some precooked… It’s supposed to be done like that. You’re supposed to do this. You’re supposed to do a show. You’re supposed to advertise. No, I’m not supposed to. I’m not supposed to do anything at all. Every success story out there is a personal statement. It always boils down to people and a vision and an idea—an idea that has longevity to it. It’s like sailing a boat and not, like, changing every time the wind blows a little bit from left and right. That doesn’t mean you don’t have your eyes open. You listen, then you process and you do what you think is right for this animal, but you have your eyes open all the time. You’re not sitting in here not looking at anything and not listening to anything.
In terms of the customers, you mentioned you think they’ve become more savvy. What other changes have you seen in the customer in the last 15 years or so? Is everything much more global now?
Yeah, it’s very global, and I don’t think that people want a specific product in other markets. There was a time when people said I had to do special product for the Asian market and I had to do special things for North America. I don’t believe in that at all. I think the market is global and a woman who sits in Milwaukee, if she wants that thing from Paris or Milan, she wants that thing. She doesn’t want something that is reworked and redone and readapted at all. You want the real thing.
Has living in America changed your approach as a designer?
Sure. I find that very interesting. Sure, sure, sure. Because I grew up in Germany, where I lived until I was 19, and then I moved to Paris and I lived there until I was 43, so coming here, I think, has been very interesting. It’s just another experience. It’s just looking at everything with a different perspective.
Is there anything specifically in terms of clothes? Is there a casualness or something here?
Sure, there’s a casualness. There’s a casualness and there’s an innocence that I like, a certain naïveté that’s very refreshing. In Europe, everything’s a little heavy on the shoulders. But no regrets. I enjoyed my Paris times.
“Bottega Veneta was interesting because there was something to prove. It was a week from being closed down basically when I came there.”
But you see Tomas Maier, at least initially, as an American brand?
Yeah, yeah. And the company was founded in America, too.
There’s a lot of talk now about activewear and activewear companies. I don’t know if that’s what you started with, but obviously the swimwear was a big part of what you did at Tomas Maier. Is that something you look at?
Yeah, yeah. We still do that. Still we have the swim. We have it for women, for men. I look at active, and there are people who do a great job across the street at Nike. It’s really amazing, no?
Yes, and they keep innovating, too.
Yeah. And that’s what I like. I think they’re great and it pays off. They’re innovating all the time and they’re always pushing ahead. And they’re doing crazy things, too, which I think is really great in order to be brave and to be daring and to explore. I think it’s wonderful. I don’t have time to go there all the time, but it’s really one of my shopping grounds. I don’t go shopping often, but I like to go shopping at nighttime and I always buy something. There’s always a new shoe. And their workout clothes, it’s great. It’s well done.
Anything I didn’t ask you in terms of the future of shopping? Anything you see coming that we haven’t talked about?
We’ll see. There are always new openings. You just have to be awake all the time.