He’s the king of bling – and doesn’t care who knows it. Philipp Plein on women, money and what the next generation wants to wear
Midday, Milan, in the sunny garden of a snooty hotel with two fashion PRs: one male (four inches of ankle), one female (four inches of heel). Philipp Plein strides over in a suit, box-fresh sneakers and a T-shirt whose scooped neckline is a declaration of dedication to depilation.
He orders a Red Bull and ice – “I don’t do drugs, never in my life. I don’t do coffee. I don’t smoke cigarettes. But for me, Red Bull is like a drug. I drink it, I wake up. And when I work a lot, I have to drink it.” His English is good, his accent German, his delivery fast. The waiter begins to explain that Red Bull isn’t available and 37-year-old Plein cuts him off with the wave of a room key: “Here. Room 216 – I have one in the minibar. Is that OK?”
Disconcerted, the waiter retreats. Plein keeps talking – “There is a lot to say!”
Philipp Plein never went to fashion school. “In fact, my own first show was the first fashion show I ever went to.” That was here, in Milan, back in September 2009. It was scheduled for 9pm on Saturday night (and his shows invariably start at least 45 minutes late): a horrible, graveyard slot in the fashion calendar, when most big-deal fashion editors fully expect to be contemplating the off-menu steamed fish at the latest cool restaurant (which is Bice, for anyone not in the know). “Really, I started fashion by mistake. I never planned to be in the fashion industry and everything we have done was from scratch, with no experience. We are learning by doing.”
You may not have heard of him yet – “For sure, why the f*** should anyone have heard of Philipp Plein?” – but he’s gone from nothing to £150 million in annual sales in six years. He only started selling shoes four years ago – this year, he will shift £43 million worth.
One particularly notable dress from an early womenswear collection bore the exhortation, “F*** You F***ing F***”, written on it in Swarovski crystals. Such embellishment – not always so profane – is his thing. He says, “I cannot sell a plain cashmere jumper. So what can I do? I take this cashmere pullover. I write on it in Swarovski. And I sell it for $3,000! You can go to Mr Armani and buy a T-shirt for 150 euros and what you get is plain, 100 per cent cotton. Come to PP and you get it full of something; full of stars, embroidery, detail. I’m not the simple guy.”
Plein fondly recalls the first time he came to Milan for business. He and his girlfriend of the time were on a budget. So they saved cash by sleeping in a hotel that they had to move out of every morning so that the local prostitutes could rent it by the hour until the early evening. He caught terrible flu – “I was really sick, shaking” – but the trip was successful. Today, he has an HQ in Lugano, Switzerland, showrooms in Milan, a sprawling villa-cum-office in Cannes and 66 stores around the world (his first standalone shop will open in London in 2016). He’s just bought “a small mountain” in Bel Air, a 3.4 acre estate whose only downside, he says, is the time difference with Europe. “It can be hard to sleep. And if you go to the toilet, you cannot look at your phone [to check your emails] – because if you do, then you will never get off the toilet.”
Plein is making a pile of money and he is spending a lot of it, too. His shows are completely beyond the industry’s established norms. The first one I went to was a menswear collection. Plein’s team refurbished and filled an Olympic-sized lido. The rapper Theophilus London and stunt riders emerged from the razor-teethed mouth of a great-white-shark backdrop on jet skis, which they then rode into the pool as the models walked around. Afterwards, there was a massive party.
My second Plein show was a womenswear collection. His team built a network of caves beneath a Milan high-rise in which a full symphony orchestra played from behind a hidden backdrop as the models walked in front of a lightship rendering of an undersea abyss. You could barely see the clothes. Afterwards, there was a massive party.
At Plein autumn/winter 2015 men’s, I was next to Paris Hilton (which allowed me to tweet, “I sat next to Paris in Milan”). Snoop Dogg deejayed in front of a laser-beam-rendered panther’s face. There was cage fighting and a gang of Stomp-ish drummers. Hilton says she loves Plein because, “He always has a lot of hot guys in his shows.” Afterwards, there was a massive … you get the picture.
These shows cost between £1.5-£2.5 million each and there are four of them every year.
“Money is money. You have to burn it,” Plein says. “One million today will not be a million in ten years. Spending all these millions on these shows is something I enjoy.” His first didn’t cost nearly that but, from the start, says Plein, he knew he wanted the show to keep on rolling into a party. “All this money and for what? For ten minutes of having a catwalk? I make a party and invite the people. I can buy a box of vodka for $2,000 and 500 people can drink vodka and have fun. Why should they not have fun? From the outside, this fashion looks glamorous and fun. But at the end of the day, when you are in it, it is an industry. And like every industry, it is just about money and power – not about fun.”
Plein’s professed ambivalence about fashion is partly down to the resistance he encountered when entering it, and the disdain with which he is seen by some inside it. At first, he says, the Milan fashion organising committee, the Camera Nationale Della Moda Italiano, would not have him on its schedule. He shrugs: “In Milan, these brands have been together for 20, 30 years; they are used to each other. So when they see another one coming in, they look at you in a strange way.” He points out that until his label launched, no other commercially successful brand had entered the Milan fashion ecosystem for some years.
“These big fashion brands are like old women,” he says. “These Armanis, Pradas, Guccis – they are the 55-year-old ladies, all of them with big diamonds on their fingers. Imagine them all at a dinner table. Fully made up, fully tuned [he means surgically augmented], sitting there. And then in comes PP. We are the 22-year-old girl everybody wants to f***. We are young, we are good-looking, we are not tuned and maybe we are a little bit stupid. Because what is a young woman, a 22-year-old, against an experienced woman who has seen everything?
“That is how we feel right now in this industry. But we are young. So this is our biggest time.” Plein slaps his hands together for emphasis. “Because we are what they are not. They are old. And you see it.”
Last week, Plein says, he discovered that not one of his employees is over 40. It’s not an ageist thing, he says, but you can tell he’s happy about it. He pays almost as little heed to fashion editors who will dismiss Plein’s clothes as gauche while happily taking his marketing spend. “Honestly, I don’t care [what they think]. Because they are not my customer … Some of them don’t have the money to buy what they want to buy, so they get it for free. It [the fashion editor] is a difficult animal to deal with.”
He looks at his head of marketing, who seems remarkably sanguine. “What I say to her is that we have to make our customers happy, not editors. They don’t pay our bills – we pay their bills! They come to us because we pay them to. We advertise in these magazines. We are their clients. They have to make us happy. And we have to make our clients happy to pay our bills.”
To understand the source of this accidental fashion designer’s robust MO, you have to steam off the Swarovski, look underneath the jet skis and cross the Alps to Germany. Plein was born in Nuremberg, to two doctors. His mother, Hanne, divorced his father and then married another doctor, Claus, with whom she moved to Munich. (Plein has a sister who is ten years younger than him and also a son, Romeo, two. “He lives in Brazil, which is a disaster, because his mother took him away,” Plein says.)
Plein was sent to boarding school aged 15 because he was going off the rails. He had long hair and had been modelling for teen magazines. He was recruited to work in a nightclub where he met an 18-year-old model named Tina and fell crazily in love with her: “My parents were freaking out.” They sent him to school, where, “I changed. It was full of kids from old families wearing Ralph Lauren chinos. So I cut my hair, wore a shirt. It was a different vibe. Everything was motivated to make good grades and I graduated, not so badly.”
After a trip to the US with his best friend, Alexander (“I remember we went to Bel Air and saw this house a bit like the place I just bought, and there was this guy with a Ferrari and a beautiful wife and I said, ‘One day, we are going to be here’ ”), he went to study business law in Munich, because he had noticed successful CEOs often had law degrees.
But Plein had a problem. “My mother is a very dominating woman, and I was not happy to ask my parents if I want to go out on holiday, to go to the cinema. And my mother always hated all my girlfriends. At a certain point I could not bring girlfriends to my home … So I had to get out.”
Plein was 20. One of his housemates acquired a labrador named Sofia, who chewed up some Burberry pillows and this made Plein think. He had just read a piece in the newspaper that said even in the recession, people spent money on their pets. “If you have a big dog, he is going to lie on the sofa … If you had a client coming in to buy a sofa for 5-6,000 euros, he is going to spend 1,500 on a dog bed. He does not want a cheap basket next to his expensive sofa. So I invented a Le Corbusier-designed steel dog bed, covered with fake crocodile and fur. You can take off the pillows and re-cover them, but the frame is steel – indestructible! I put a patent on it and sold them for 1,500 euros, in two sizes.”
Plein was making 1,000 euros profit per unit sold full price. “I thought, if I can sell 1,000 of these, I can make 1 million euros. So I was driven. Because when you are young, you want to have a beautiful sports car, a beautiful watch, a beautiful girlfriend with big boobs … It’s normal. So it worked. I sold a lot of these dog beds and made my first million.”
He bought a Porsche and crashed it.
Plein’s next significant money-spinners were coffee tables and lamps covered with fake crocodile skin. He built up a good relationship with interior design firms and furnished boats, jets, hotels and private houses. His dog leads made from leftover faux-croc cuttings had an even better margin than the dog beds. “I once sold 400,000 euros worth of leads in six days, and I was making them out of waste. So now you understand where I am coming from? I was selling everything, basically. I built a solid business. At some point, it was doing 5 or 6 million euros and I was a one-man show.”
The catalyst that saw Plein begin his move from furniture into fashion happened at a Parisian trade show called Maison & Objet a few years later. To display a steel clothes rack – “Very minimal, only a steel bar” – he needed some clothes. Most designers used white shirts or black suits for this purpose, but Plein liked the look of an army-surplus jacket he had seen his sister wearing. Already, he was peppering Swarovski crystals on leather pillows. So he bought a consignment of those surplus coats and had Swarovski appliquéd on the back of them, in the skull design that had been successful on his upholstery and in stencils of phrases such as, “Rich Pirate by Philipp Plein”.
Why so much sparkle? “The bling bling. Every woman wanted to be a princess when she was young. With the crown and the diamonds.”
He bought the jackets for 10 euros and sold them for 200. This was a better margin than even the dog bed. “I took them to New York, LA and I made more than a million in a year with these jackets.”
It took a few years to get from furniture fairs to Milan Fashion Week, and there were various twists and turns along the way. At one trade fair in Paris, he built a large fake washing machine and hid the elderly Bavarian woman who did his Swarowski application inside it under a sign that said “Pimp Machine”. He hired an Elvis impersonator to exhort passers-by to take off their trousers and put them in the machine. They got their trousers back covered in crystals that spelt Plein’s name and slogans. “After two hours, there were 200 people with no pants on waiting to have their trousers pimped. It cost a lot of money, but everyone was talking about it.”
Today, says Plein, his customers remain passionate. “As a brand, we have fans. Can you imagine Hugo Boss having fans? ‘Oh, the new Hugo Boss collection is out; I cannot wait to buy it.’ Ha!”
And who are those fans? “The fashion customer is a young girl with a rich boyfriend who wants to be always fresh, always new. To show off in front of her girlfriends.” Plein is currently selling more menswear than women’s, so this is a definition that applies to both genders. Later he says, “I am the king of bling and I don’t have a problem with it. [Bling] is in all of us and it will sell always.”
Plein sits with us in the snooty hotel’s garden for 2 hours, 47 minutes. He sucks down that Red Bull, then two Cokes, and the sips he takes are pretty much the only time he stops talking. He is nonstop. He seems both disdainful and enchanted by this fashion world that he has gate-crashed. We know he loves its margins, but does he have any tender feelings for it? What does the fashion designer who never planned to be one think of fashion?
“Ha! On one side, there is frustration that there is no magic behind it all. Because you want there to be magic. A secret. Then you discover there is no secret, that it’s just a game. A commercial game. And at the end of the day, it is a business. So I am using this system. But when you play, say, poker, or any game when you don’t know the rules, you will have a hard time to win. I still have to analyse the game and learn the game in order to be able to play with the other guys. And then they have to let me play with them!”
Plein’s here for the long game. And if you don’t like it? The answer’s on that dress.