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The Quiet Rebel

The Quiet Rebel

Peter Lindbergh

Bottega Veneta’s creative director, Tomas Maier, on subversion, collaboration, and Alfred Hitchcock 


From Peter Lindbergh's Spring/Summer 2013 campaign

In this race-to-the-bottom era of digital ratings, with the media scrambling after page views and social media shares, when even august titles like The Guardian and The New York Times are finding ways to blur the lines between editorial and advertising, there's something deeply reassuring about print ads that exist on their own terms, unique and distinct from the content around them. For the great fashion houses, in particular, the success of a campaign still rests on a single, arresting image. What would Calvin Klein be without the provocations of Herb Ritts or Bruce Weber? And try to imagine Benetton without Oliviero Toscani's profound and profane imagery. Long before we started talking about "virality" and "media impressions," it was people like Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Ellen von Unwerth, and Steven Meisel who helped a fashion brand find a distinctive voice, one that could resonate around the world.

Under the stewardship of its creative director, Tomas Maier, the luxury Italian label Bottega Veneta has taken a slightly different approach, more often favoring art photographers such as Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson to help articulate Maier's vision. The cumulative power of enlisting a different collaborator each season -- since he took over in 2001, Maier's solicited 27 photographers -- makes for a formidable retrospective of the brand's 21st-century evolution, one that shifts in subtle ways but which is never still. Maier calls himself a "quiet rebel," and through the images collected in a new book, Bottega Veneta: The Art of Collaboration(Rizzoli), you begin to grasp what that means. Although there is a muted drama in many of the photos, the lasting impression is one of control and restraint, much like his clothes. As a designer Maier is thoughtful, methodical, and consistent, eschewing the flash and splash (and burnout) that is a hallmark of so many other designers. That is a kind of rebellion. But he is also a little subversive. Anyone who would invite the photographer Tina Barney, best known for her portraits of privileged upper-class Europeans, to shoot a campaign for a luxury brand must have an impish sense of humor. It's no surprise to hear that the film directors who've most influenced his approach are Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. "I like that darkness, and I like the attention to color and light -- it's super, super sophisticated," he says. "There are so many Hitchcock movies you can refer to, but the one that comes to mind for me is North by Northwest. The scene in the train compartment is unbelievable."

SLIDESHOW: The Art of Collaboration

You see the influence of Hitchcock in Maier's Spring/Summer 2011 collaboration with Alex Prager whose startling images of a woman channeling The Birds' Tippi Hedren and a man as Cary Grant in North by Northwest are so carefully constructed that you are left feeling that if you could just hit the pause button, the movie would continue. Where Prager's images are thrilling, the languid, sun-infused shoot by Goldin for Maier's Spring/Summer 2010 campaign exudes sex. "I think the shabbiness and rawness of the environment really inspired her," explains Maier. "All she was interested in was getting into the girl's soul."

Prager and Goldin could hardly be more different in terms of their approach and aesthetic, and yet both of them have found a way to work with the brand that is complimentary without losing what makes them inimitable. "I always like to work with people who bring a certain weight to the art -- I don't want to have to check the name to see who made it," says Maier. Equally, working with iconoclasts like Ryan McGinley, Juergen Teller, or Philip-Lorca diCorcia requires Maier to give up a little control. As he puts it, "I have great ideas about how my house should look but it's nothing if I can't collaborate, if I can't talk to an artist."

Collaboration, he says, is the agent of creativity. "It's like jumping into cold water again, and again, and again -- keeping your balance with one hand, but allowing yourself to see something new, unexpected."

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