Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Bottega Veneta’s Matthieu Blazy: ‘If I do just fashion, I will go cuckoo’

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Even amid the high-rise, multibillion-euro fashion headquarters of Italy’s fashion capital, the Milanese office of Matthieu Blazy, the 39-year-old creative director of Bottega Veneta, is particularly jzushy. Clad in warm wood with easy chairs, it resembles perhaps the penthouse of a Japanese luxury hotel, or a reading nook in a mid-century Californian ranch, rather than anything close to a place of work or fashion.

Blazy says he not only conducts all his interviews here, but huddles with his creative team to boil up his collections for the Italian label, founded in 1966 as an early incarnation of what is now dubbed quiet luxury. In a jet-set era of designer licensing and increasing logo visibility, Bottega Veneta’s tagline was “When your own initials are enough”.

Today Bottega, as it is generally abbreviated, still eschews loud branding, and Blazy lets the considerable craft of his clothes and accessories — amazing shoes printed to resemble banana leaves, jacquard fringed dresses like fish-scales, embroidered leathers and hand-knits — do the talking.

As its SS24 campaign shows, Bottega Veneta still eschews loud branding . . . 
A woman in a black dress sits on a panda ride for small children
. . . focusing more on craft and design

That seems to be something that consumers relate to: bucking the drop in turnovers at fellow Kering brands in the first quarter of 2024, Bottega Veneta reported a modest 2 per cent rise in comparable revenues; total turnover for 2023 was €1.6bn. The brand, however, still feels like something of an insider — unlike, say, Dior or Chanel, its style is more malleable, trickier to divine, without a signature silhouette. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that it staged fashion shows.

Blazy is quick to point out that Bottega has a decent pop cultural history all of its own: Lauren Hutton carried a Bottega Veneta bag in the film American Gigolo, and Andy Warhol received love letters from his partner John Gould on the brand’s old advertising imagery. But most people don’t know that.

“I think the rich story of Bottega wasn’t really told yet, as it could have been explained for any other house such as Vuitton or Hermès,” Blazy says, in his strong French accent. He perhaps cites two Parisian houses because he was born in that city, and still has a home there, although he’s in Milan most of the week. “Italian people, they know what Bottega stands for, they know the story,” he continues. “They all have a relative who has a Bottega bag and it’s something that’s considered precious.”

The preciousness of a Bottega Veneta bag comes from the craft. As if to prove the point, in the corner of Blazy’s office there are a couple of rectilinear stools resembling wine crates. One is in simple wood, the other wrapped in Bottega Veneta’s signature intricate intrecciato weave — fine interlaced strips of leather which, since the late sixties, the brand’s artisans have woven into soft, exceedingly expensive bags (the most expensive of those, on the brand’s website, retails for £15,220; an alligator version exceeds £35,000). “The weave was just a pragmatic thing because the leather was so thin,” says Blazy. “To make a soft bag that will last longer, they wove it, which I find amazing. The intrecciato is a solution that became an aesthetic. I love this.”

The two stools are Le Corbusier’s LC14 Cabanon design, Blazy tells me, part of the brand’s installation for Milan’s Salone del Mobile furniture fair. They were also used as seating for Blazy’s autumn/winter 2024 show in February, around a catwalk punctuated with giant Murano glass cacti, both of which are an indication of his interest in crossovers between creative disciplines — design, art, fashion.

A woman with a black bag and shoes in a long pink shirt with tassels and a shirt
A campaign image for SS24, including the brand’s signature intrecciato bag

“I grew up in a creative environment and there was never any hierarchy nor boundaries between different fields of creation,” Blazy says. His father was an art expert, his mother a historian. “So the interest for architecture was the same as clothes, the smell of a perfume or a painting you would look at in a museum. And me, my personal interest, I don’t just look at fashion, I look at those fields and I like to interact with those people, whether it’s a foundation, an artist, a designer. If I do just fashion, I will go cuckoo.”

That said, Blazy’s experience and fashion trajectory has been impressive, studying at La Cambre, the esteemed college in Brussels, before beginning an enviable career. There was a period alongside Phoebe Philo during her fashion-resetting tenure at Céline, and a stint as head of Maison Margiela’s artisanal collection and women’s ready-to-wear, prior to John Galliano’s appointment as creative director. Blazy’s take on Margiela, which included recycled antique dresses and masks embellished with reused vintage crystals, garnered industry plaudits.

In a full-circle moment, Blazy’s first job and his last role before joining Bottega were both with Raf Simons, at the Belgian designer’s own label and then as vice-president of design for womenswear and menswear at Calvin Klein from 2016 to 2019. With Pieter Mulier, another Simons-trained designer (and Blazy’s ex-partner), heading the Alaïa label, they constitute something of a “School of Raf” in fashion today.

“With Raf, what I loved the most is that anything could be an inspiration — everything was possible, and therefore I was never scared to try an idea, never,” he says. “With Raf, architecture can become a jacket, an image can become shoes. Chewing gum can become a sneaker. It’s endless. And this, with Raf, for me, was the best methodology.”

It’s something that feels especially applicable to his work at Bottega Veneta, where he has been creative director since November 2021. Coming in after Daniel Lee (now chief creative officer at Burberry), who created sharp accessories such as chunky, woven bags with thick, gold chains and square-toed shoes that were much hyped, Blazy’s tenure has been markedly softer, shifting Bottega Veneta’s style towards something more gentle and emotional.

Indeed, he made a feature of transformation — namely, of the humdrum into something sublime, which is a word he loves to use, as an exclamation of delight with an idea, a person, or indeed a dress. Some of the most notable designs from Blazy’s tenure so far have been exercises in trompe l’oeil — a trick, perhaps, learned at Margiela, whose founder made a leitmotif of, say, printing cheap viscose dresses with the effects of sequins.

A model wears blue jeans, and a shirt
Kate Moss wears one of Blazy’s trompe l’oeil designs, a pair of ‘jeans’ made of leather, on Bottega Veneta’s SS23 catwalk © Filippo Fior

Blazy’s effects, however, are the opposite; his first show introduced the idea of pinstriped banker’s button-downs, lumberjack, check shirts and faded-blue jeans actually made of printed leather, ordinary clothes elevated to extraordinary levels of luxe.

“The idea of just that tank top and the denim, a very, very casual look, but just translated in leather for me was enough to show the technique and to make anything look like Bottega,” he says. “Voila.”

Later shows have revelled in other techniques: complex knits, basket-woven dresses, giant paper pom-poms, all connecting to that idea of Bottega Veneta being synonymous not just with the look of its woven leather, but with the painstaking human handwork it takes to make it.

And, fairly uniquely in Milanese fashion, Bottega Veneta is based around making. While other companies shuttle sketches to factories to manufacture garments, then adapting the results in a ping-pong of back-and-forth, Blazy creates with an atelier, his design team working hand-in-hand with craftspeople.

“Sometimes, we draw, but most of the time we make.” Blazy thrives on that multifarious interaction. “If I would enter a room and just have to validate sketches, I would be a very sad man.”

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