Listen to this article
Fashion industry arriviste Philipp Plein, 38, will have you know he is not a lot of things. He is: “not a designer”; “not a fashion person”; and, strangely, given the frequent Instagram posts of his black Rolls-Royce Wraith, Lamborghini Aventador and homes from Cannes to Lugano to Lexington Avenue, “not rich”.
Think what you will about that lattermost “not” — it’s the first two that fuel the pistons of his lucrative, incendiary and self-named label, which raked in €200m in 2015 by selling gauchely conceived clothing and accessories to the nouveau riche, be they in Miami, Moscow or Macau; the man is all fast, furious business. He has 80 stores around the world (13 of which are privately held; the remainder are franchises), and more in development, which peddle high-tops and graphic sportswear for men, racy diamanté studded dresses and leather fringes for women, furniture, children’s clothing and more. He’s sold in hundreds of other retail outlets, too. Last week it was announced that Plein has taken a majority stake in Billionaire Couture, the flashy luxury men’s label started by Formula 1 star Flavio Briatore in 2005. Plein is planning to double the brand’s global presence by adding 30 stores over the next five years.
Money — showing it, spending it, making it, flaunting it — is his purpose. In Plein’s eyes, fashion’s romance is dead, as are its traditional points of politesse. He sees it as just another commercial wheelhouse, another machine to juice the ripened pockets of the freshly minted. And, despite dismissals by many in the field, his approach is working; he sticks up a middle finger at propriety, perhaps wearing one of his T-shirts that spells out “Rich A$$”, “Pimp from hell” or “Fuck the police”.
While the message of Plein’s brand and conceit is clear — more is more, rude is right, wild is the way — the company’s back-story is cloudier. Rumours abound as to how Philipp Plein was originally financed, and how the man and house appear so flush with cash today. His lusty, combustible fashion shows cost into the millions: for AW16 in Milan, he arranged for a fleet of monster trucks to drive on set to dispatch a cargo of scantily clad models on to a mirrored, pitchy club set so clouded in dry ice and diesel fumes you could barely see the clothes. New stores are opened frequently, and there is a general understanding among observers that if Philipp wants something, he gets it.
But Plein says his is a self-made prosperity, and one that began in his birthplace of Munich with an initial investment from his father (a heart surgeon who did well but was by no means as wealthy as whispers suggest), who supported his decision to deviate from law school and try his hand at furniture design — with dog beds.
“In 1998, I read an article. People were talking about the pet-supply industry, which had never been hit by downturns in the economy. People love their pets. They will love them even in a crisis,” says Plein, handsome in sweatpants and a T-shirt in his Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse’s living-room, which is brightly accented by 15 chandeliers. “My mother had bought some dog beds from Burberry — our dogs destroyed them. We had a modern house, so she didn’t want to buy, you know, a basket, and this gave me an idea.”
With his father’s loan of what would be around €10,000 (Germany still used the Deutsche Mark in 1998), Plein built a prototype, “a steel sofa for dogs”. When he found general pet-supply stores too low-market for his prices, he decided to display the piece at furniture shows (in turn, he started producing sofas for people, too). “In the beginning, I didn’t sell anything, but then in a moment it blew up.” He soon found a niche with another luxury product: mock-crocodile, leather-inset tables. “We made crocodile consoles,” he says, “I sold them in every dimension.”
In a few short years Plein had turned over “€3m or €4m”. “I was comfortable. I was happy,” he says. “I had these two ideas that helped me to realise what I needed to do to make money; I needed to sell things that were different, not comparable, to the rest of the market. If I didn’t, I’d look like a wannabe.”
Plein abandoned the career in law and kept reinvesting into his company. During this time, too, he invested in a stainless steel company in Germany, among others — it still exists today.
His foray into fashion happened obtusely in 2003, when he was asked to design and build an installation for the champagne brand Moët & Chandon, at a trade show in Düsseldorf. Part of the agreement was that he could also promote and sell his furniture. To advertise the colours of leather he offered, Plein made little handbags to display as swatches. Passers-by ended up buying the bags. Bags led to dog-leashes (more of the pet-centric) and then in 2004 he had the garish but arguably genius foresight to add Swarovski crystals to military jackets — if ever a moment for Swarovski existed, it was the mid-2000s. Remember bedazzled Sidekick flip-phones?
“This was at Bread & Butter, a trade show that no longer exists, sadly,” says Plein. “I hung five jackets — bought by the kilogram, old military coats — that were applied with crystal skulls. People stopped and asked for the fucking jacket! They wanted to have this with the fucking skull. There was the old woman, the young girl, the banker, the fashion guy — I sold them for €350.” He then adds, with an intense laugh: “OK, in America, everyone says, ‘Oh, I love your jacket’, or, ‘Oh, I love your shoes’, but in Germany, believe me, when someone stops you for your jacket, you have to do something about it.”
Plein would go on to cultivate a voracious, affluent customer base through trade-shows and wholesale, capitalising on the overt branding craze of the times, before staging his first fashion show in 2010 in Milan. At first, the Camera Nazionale della Moda, Italian fashion’s governing body, did not recognise him. “There was someone in the Camera Nazionale who didn’t like us,” says Plein, “I won’t say who — you don’t even want to know this person.”
Undeterred, Plein decided to throw a fashion event-turned-party at the end of the day, because if he’d staged something “next to Gucci or Prada, no one would come”. That decision formed the obsidian bedrock of his now volcanic spectacles: runway shows that morph into thrashing raves that have a 1am curfew (often produced by Etienne Russo, who also does Chanel’s elaborate sets). In 2013, Plein was recognised as part of the Camera Nazionale and is now “officially” on the calendar.
Listening to Plein casually describe his fashion show feats — some of which have been budgeted at over €3m (“they are operating expenses; sometimes we even come in under budget,” says Graziano de Boni, Plein’s new chief executive of the Americas) — conjures a mental film reel of over-the-top, kitschy action movies all spliced together, like Charlie’s Angels (the newer one) meets Point Break (the newer one). “I had a roller-coaster, I had a cowboy city, I had a military squad, I crashed the cars with a monster truck, I had the jet skis in the pool, I had a skate park.”
Past the sheer extravaganza and expensive chrome of it all, he also often hires big names to perform and model. It’s a common practice to populate one’s show with recognisable faces, but with Plein the placement somehow feels more transactional — he’s paying, so you’d better show up. Names of the past include Chris Brown, Snoop Dogg, Lindsay Lohan, Naomi Campbell, Mischa Barton, Iggy Azalea, Rita Ora and Theophilus London. For social-media reach and for easy headlines, his shows are golden. But, as one might imagine, for the tamer fashion flock, many of whom are also in attendance, they’re the equivalent of frat parties. Many are disdainful of Plein’s outrageous shock-and-awe showmanship.
Plein feigns lack of interest but his complicated relationship with the media suggests he does take the industry’s, let’s say, distance . . . personally. “Some of these fashion editors,” he says, “they arrive and if the show is one minute late, they make a drama. Like, who the fuck do they think they are?”
Plein does concede that he believes in the longstanding — though not often openly discussed — policy of scratch-my-back advertising; that if he’s spending $80,000 for a double-page spread in an American magazine with a circulation of 500,000, he should also be getting editorial coverage. But he’s dismissive of their influence.
“Editors don’t buy my brand, they don’t pay my bills,” Plein says. “We are paying them to write about us, in making advertisements. The show is for my clients, and the branding is through our own outreach. Don’t think the phone is ringing the next day if there’s a jacket in the magazine. What editorial coverage does is to help with reputation, for insiders to see what we are.”
And Plein does have some powerful allies. Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani, for example, gave him a big nod in December 2015 with cover credits in a shoot by Tim Walker. Carine Roitfeld, the ex-editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris who now runs her own publication, CR Fashion Book, has also recently become friendly with Plein (to note, he advertises in both Sozzani and Roitfeld’s publications). “I asked to meet Philipp,” says Roitfeld, “because he is an atypical character in the fashion world. I’ve always loved people acting differently from others. I find his drive to succeed, in its way-off-the-beaten-path method, to be very surprising. Being different attracts me.”
Whether people agree with his strategies or not, Plein is a firebrand success story. He claims to have no debt, “not even one dollar on loan”, and is set to open three more stores this year, including posts in Atlanta, London and Philadelphia. He sells crocodile jackets lined with mink for $80,000 — “in late March, we sold one in Rome. I’ll probably sell about six of those in a year, through my own stores. I don’t know how they’re doing at other retailers.” And he unashamedly postures around social media posting muscly, tattooed shirtless images (#hungry), pictures of his dwellings (in New York, an inlaid brass Yankees logo on the front staircase) and memes such as “You can’t do epic shit with basic people.”
He is essentially the embodiment of everything that the fashion establishment despises, and yet there’s something compelling, possibly even magnetic, about Plein and his misfit machismo. He knows where to light fires but also how to sell and coax, and he doesn’t appear to cave to anything, which is admirable in an age in which everyone is a critic and has some judgment to pass. Photographer and friend Steven Klein, who shoots Plein’s advertising campaigns and has known him since 2013, says: “He understands the modern world and the type of images modern people respond to. He does what he believes in, not what he thinks is the proper thing to do.”
Which begs the question: is impropriety the key to success? It won’t work for everyone, but it’s the only way Plein knows and, vulgar as it sounds in admission, there is an appeal in being naughty, a charm in the crassness, a hedonistic twinkle in the hideous smack of so many crystal reflections bouncing around the room, like sneaking cigarettes behind the bike shed or, in this author’s case, dreaming of throwing on a gold-foil Batman-logo sweatshirt from Plein’s AW16 men’s collection and feeling kind of awesome in it.
Cliché, yes, but the thought, the instance, is thrilling. And, for better or worse, bad taste has never been more pop-culturally relevant — just look at the Kardashian machine. Plein knows it, and if you’re against him, he’s not going to be terribly bothered by it — he and his legions aren’t after highbrow prestige or inner-circle exclusivity. They’re into currency signs, exotic imports and nightclubs, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Photographs: Rebecca Marshall; Getty; Philipp Plein