Bottega Veneta’s new Vicenza atelier blends local tradition with sustainable modern technology every bit as happily as its eternally desirable designs. By Nick Compton.
[dropcap size=small]F[/dropcap]rom a rooftop terrace you can see the Castello della Bellaguardia, also known as Castello di Giulietta, and the Castello della Villa, also known as Castello di Romeo, squaring up to each other across the hilltop town of Montecchio Maggiore (although the link with Shakespeare’s bad-luck lovers and warring clans is tenuous).
But below it is a dull stretch of flat farmland, light-industrial sheds and the busy autostrade from Venice, an hour’s drive to the east, and Milan, two hours in the opposite direction.
Bottega Veneta’s new atelier, Montebello Vicentino, in the middle of this plain, is a rare beauty. A restored 19th-century villa with an agricultural annex, it has been converted and extended to create a clinically clean new home for its 100 or so in-house craftsmen and craftswomen, and 200 support staff. More cool hi-tech campus than dark, satanic workshop, it is a modern-day restatement of the beautifully-made-in-Italy artisanal promise, in glass and bleached FSC-certified pine topped with 12,900 sq ft of solar panels.
The company calls it ‘an incredible vitrine for the craftsmanship, creativity and of course identity of Bottega Veneta’. And although this is an atelier, not a production site proper (only prototypes and samples are crafted here), you can see the new facility, set in 590,000 sq ft of spruced-up historical parkland, as the anti-sweatshop, with whiter-than-white-collar working conditions for cutters, weavers and stitch-up artists.
Opened last September, after almost seven years of planning and consultation with Bottega Veneta employees, the new atelier is designed to sit lightly on the land with environmental credentials far beyond the call of duty, even in the age of good corporate citizenship. Automatic dimmer switches react to natural daylight levels, saving on energy consumption, and an underwater reservoir cuts water usage by 40 per cent. Construction was local and sustainable. More than 75 per cent of the original building was restored, and recycled materials were used in the additions. All the woods used came from sustainably managed forests, and local suppliers and contractors were employed whenever possible.
Bottega is fully expecting the new complex to be given Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification this April. If it happens, the atelier will be the first building in the fashion and luxury sector to be awarded architecture’s most-wanted seal of approval.
The atelier houses a 6,000 sq ft cafeteria offering free lunches. And every one of the atelier’s employees received a 1,000 euros pay rise after the move, to compensate for any increase in their travel time. It also includes a home for the Scuola della Pelletteria, established in 2006.
Here Bottega Veneta hopes to train the next generation of craftsmen, who complete three-year courses in the classroom before they are let anywhere near the atelier proper. For an operation that was facing extinction 12 years ago, Bottega Veneta displays remarkable rude health, ambition and a very proper and particular way of doing things in Montebello Vicentino.
Bottega Veneta was established in Vicenza in 1966. The area was already known for its leatherwork, and the company employed local craftsmen. It concentrated on bags and accessories, and its trademark was a new criss-cross weaving technique called intrecciato.
The company was also an early champion of designer discretion and stealth wealth. Its motto, when your own initials are enough, is a clear swipe at competitors promising status by borrowed monogram.
Bottega was a brand to be reckoned with in the 1970s and 80s. Jackie Onassis shopped at the Madison Avenue store, and Andy Warhol directed a promotional video. By the end of the century, though, it was in trouble.
Discretion was proving a tough sell, and in 1998 they recruited the young British designer Giles Deacon and the stylist Katie Grand to liven things up. This they did, introducing leather hoodies, lizard-skin headphones and short skirts appliquéd with pornographic imagery, earning a lot of press attention in the process.
It did little to boost sales, though, and in February 2001, a matter of months away from bankruptcy, the company was bought for $156 million by what was then PPR and is now the Kering luxury group. In June that year the German designer Tomas Maier, who had built a reputation working freelance for companies such as Hermès and launched his own label in 1999, got a call asking him to take creative control at Bottega Veneta… Read more in Quintessentially Asia.