c.2015 New York Times News Service
c.2015 New York Times News Service
MILAN — The year 2015 is just over two months old, but Philipp Plein has already tallied a few more notches on his belt: He has staged a cage fight, bounced onstage with his new friend Snoop Dogg and overseen the construction of a roller coaster. He has also opened eight stores.
Such is life for Milan Fashion Week’s most unapologetic maximalist, a by-the-bootstraps success who has gone in short order from unknown to unmissable. Plein, 37, who was born in Germany and lives between his headquarters in Lugano, Switzerland, and a home in Cannes, France (with a new manse in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles for good measure), spares no expense to be memorable. He is devoted, he says, to bringing fun back to fashion. The stiff-upper-lipped fashion industry has not uniformly smiled, but, as Plein is now a free-spending advertiser, it is paying attention.
His fashions have begun to evolve from their early iterations as crystal-bedecked, skull-detailed lounge wear, although oversize crystal skulls in the Damien Hirst mold still decorate some stores. This season, he riffed on streetwear — mink-trimmed football jerseys and leathery bra tops — that stood as his most polished styles to date.
Plein holds no truck with minimalist chic. “We are not a Jil Sander,” he said. “We are not a Céline, obviously. We are not attracting this type of client.”
His clothes are flashy and a little trashy, but there has long been a customer for a version of this look, and designers, including many lauded and seasoned ones, who were ready to provide it. Plein declined to compare himself to other designers, but he did note that the customers he sees in his stores are often toting bags from Versace, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana.
It is through his fashion shows — first presented on the official Milan schedule in 2013 — that Plein has announced himself as a barnstormer, and he is as known for the way he shows the clothes as for the clothes themselves. Baroque, even pyrotechnic, runway displays are not unheard of in fashion, but Plein has dedicated himself to outsize productions with uncommon zest.
In addition to Snoop Dogg (who performed at the most recent menswear show in January, after the cage match), Plein has booked Grace Jones, Rita Ora, Iggy Azalea and Theophilus London to perform. One show featured jets of fire; another was held at a revivified Milan swimming pool, and ended with a Jet Ski joust between tuxedo-clad male models. (London, who performed at that show on the back of one of the Jet Skis, admitted afterward that he had fallen into the pool during a rehearsal and, not knowing how to swim, had to be saved by one of the models, carrying him “like a prince.”)
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The spectacles are the work of Etienne Russo, who performs similar magic for Chanel, Moncler and Hermès, and is one of the many top-tier collaborators Plein has begun to call upon. After the fall women’s production last month, for which Russo and Plein commissioned a full-size roller coaster to be constructed in the Palazzo delle Scintille and put the show’s models onto it after their final catwalk lap, Russo called it one of the most difficult he had ever done.
Guessing the shows’ cost has become a local sport. “I don’t know," Plein said when asked what the budget for the latest show was. “I don’t want to know. It’s so boring to talk about this.” But Ludivine Pont, Plein’s longtime head of marketing, ultimately confirmed published reports that staging one recent show had cost 2.5 million euros, or $2.8 million.
Plein is aware that there may be no return on this investment. “I’m not selling more because I did a show, or less because I did a show,” he said. But that is not the point. He cited instead “the fun effect.” His shows typically evolve into vodka-fueled parties after the last runway exit, packed by a crowd entirely separate from the industry audience. At his showroom in Milan, Plein wondered about the capacity for one such party. “Legally, 2,500,” Pont replied.
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The courting of the customer — rather than the clique-ish editorial crowd — is a key part of Plein’s strategy, and a shrewd one.
“Everything I do is mainly for them,” he said. “My real customers, who really buy my brand, they are not the fashion crowd. They are not really getting influenced from this kind of things.”
He added, “I am not so much into the fashion crowd.”
Nevertheless, Plein’s gate-crashing arrival onto the scene has become a topic of fashion week conversation. (He compared the industry to school, where he was, as the perennial new kid, greeted with suspicion.) Rumors about the secret of his success and the wellspring of his funding abound. One has him as the scion of the Russian oligarchy (or worse, mafia). Another posits that he comes from an elevator-manufacturing fortune.
Plein, when asked about his putative elevator origins, laughed merrily. “I never heard that!” he said. “My father’s a doctor. And we don’t have a fortune.”
Which is not to say Plein is not doing well now. He owns his company outright, with no debt. And while the critical response has gone from harsh to muted — “It is what it is,” one magazine editor said after the recent show — business is thriving.
“I’m only existing because I’m selling clothes,” Plein said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
According to the company, its wholesale turnover was more than 200 million euros last year. (Wholesale accounts for 70 percent of sales.) The label performs especially well in Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe. (“In Kiev, $10,000 every day,” Ennio Fontana, the head of sales, said of one store. “Even when there was a war,” Plein added.)
Lately, Plein has set his sights on the United States, opening stores in Beverly Hills, California, Miami and New York in the last 18 months. He estimated that 80 percent of his 52 stores are franchised with local partners, but he and his team design each one. They now crop up on the most totemic avenues of luxury worldwide, alongside the major European brands: on Via Montenapoleone in Milan, Madison Avenue in New York and Rue de Rivoli in Paris.
With Plein settling himself among the major fashion brands and the recent appointment of a leading fashion publicity firm (the same one that represents Céline and Jil Sander), it seems that despite his denials, he is indeed interested in validation by the fashion establishment. He has made a friend, supporter and unofficial counselor of one of its longest-serving authorities: Franca Sozzani, the editor of Vogue Italia.
Sozzani recalled that her first communication with Plein came when she refused to run one of his ads in her magazine, deeming it “not appropriate.”
“He really had a bad reaction,” she said. “We started in the worst way.”
But after time passed, both came around: Plein to Sozzani’s counsel, and Sozzani to Plein’s advertising. She praised his dedication to his aesthetic. Most people judge fashion, Sozzani said, by “'Do I wear or do I not wear?’ Who cares? What is important is does he have a concept or does he not have a concept. Whether you like it or not, he has a concept. He’s young and he wants to dress young and wealthy people. What Philipp wants to sell is not fashion, it’s the concept; it’s the style of life.”
Asked whether she saw parallels between Plein and designers like Roberto Cavalli or Dolce & Gabbana, Sozzani said no, 13 times.
But Plein’s ambitions are in line with designers of that stature, even if he is the first to admit that he landed in fashion by coincidence. (He began in the furniture business, originally creating clothes only to accessorize his booth at furniture fairs.)
“It’s working,” he said. “It’s also surprising me. It’s not that I always knew people would come.”