When the iron gates roll open to Philipp Plein’s villa in Cannes, it’s like stepping onto an extravagant movie set.
In the palm-lined courtyard, a luxury fleet is ready to roll, including a gold Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, a Bentley, an Audi A8 and a matte black Range Rover.
Behind glass garage doors – under a neon sign that reads “Every Weapon Needs a Master” – a Ferrari F12 and Lamborghini Aventador wait. Next to the garage, a three-meter, bright red gorilla beats his chest, standing on a pedestal labeled “King of the Jungle.”
Indeed, Mr. Plein would seem to be the German king of high-end flashy fashion — and he has the expensive taste to prove it.
“Money that is earned must also be spent,” he explained. “Otherwise, it is worth nothing.”
Within just seven years, the “King of Bling” has gone from fashion sales of €8 million to over €200 million. With 250 employees, the Philipp Plein brand has 90 flagship stores worldwide, in places including Milan, Paris, Berlin, New York, Moscow, Hong Kong, Seoul and Dubai.
The New York Times recently hailed the 37-year-old as a “maximalist” who has quickly gone from being “unknown to essential” for celebrity clients such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna, Beyoncé and David Beckham.
In the news media and fashion industry, Mr. Plein’s clothing and accessories are known for his excessive use of skulls, rhinestones and studs. But down deep, the son of a Munich doctor is a clever businessman with a feeling for the spirit of the times.
“The secret is, there is no secret,” he said.
That might not go over so well in an industry that celebrates designers as geniuses. But Mr. Plein doesn’t play that game: His success is the result of hard work and calculated strategy.
With glitzy collections and legendary parties, he has found his niche and consistently expanded it. Now, after leaping into the same league as Versace, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana, he is planning his next steps.
“A brand is a machine to print money in the basement,” he said. “It costs €5 to print a T-shirt, and any halfway well-known luxury brand can sell that for €150. We are slowly getting there. Our product is becoming more commercial. Ultimately, not everyone can wear a T-shirt with bling.”
His villa is equal parts atelier, showroom and residence. It’s where he displays the Plein brand for employees, visitors and the media – and he understands the power of images.
With countless chandeliers hanging from ceilings, the interior could be the VIP area of a Paris nightclub. On the ground floor, a private cinema is being built for 25 viewers, with deep black walls and golden decorations. In the foyer, a stuffed lion stands upright, watching over colorfully dressed women who come and go.
The studios are in the basement and designers sleep upstairs – a thoroughly styled creative commune in stark contrast to the atmosphere at his company headquarters in Lugano, Switzerland, where the weather is bad once again.
“A brand is a machine to print money in the basement. It costs €5 to print a T-shirt, and any halfway well-known luxury brand can sell that for €150.”
Mr. Plein came to fashion after several detours. While he was studying law in Nuremberg, he decided to start a furniture company with 20,000 deutsche marks inherited from his grandfather.
After his first million in sales, he started covering his steel-rod furniture with leather in crocodile prints. Then in 2003, he started using the leather scraps to make women’s handbags and showed them at a fashion show in Düsseldorf. The bags quickly sold out.
The following year, he used old German army jackets to decorate his stand at the Maison&Objet Paris furnishings fair. For a few euros each, he had skull emblems stitched on them using Swarovski crystals. The jackets sold for up to €300 and also soon sold out.
From then on, fashion was his game. In 2006, he moved with his newly founded company, Philipp Plein International AG, to Amriswill on the Swiss shores of Lake Constance.
In Switzerland, where tax advantages are as attractive as the landscapes, he managed to conquer a fashion market that was dominated by big luxury brands like LVMH and Kering.
“We are like Tesla – an exotic in the industry,” Mr. Plein said. “The top dogs try to isolate the newcomers. If you have a similar product, you have relatively little chance. The others are bigger and faster, they have the better deliverers and break you down.”
You have to try something totally different, he said, “and only then can you do what you want.”
Mr. Plein found his niche in opulence and attitude.
“We all have enough to wear,” he said. “I could never have sold a simple cashmere sweater. But when I write ‘I Have No Tits’ in Swarovski crystals on a cashmere sweater, I can sell it for €3,000. Because there is no cashmere sweater with such a slogan on the market. It is important to position yourself where there is no competition.”
The young entrepreneur holds no reverence for the fashion industry. “It is completely old-fashioned,” he said. “A suit is always a suit. You also cannot reinvent pants or a T-shirt. You can only reinterpret them.”
Everyone copies someone else in the industry, Mr. Plein said, from product to business models.
“Simply compare two brands from LVMH and Kering,” he explained. “You will not find a product that the other does not also have. The prices are identical. They often produce in the same factories, and the quality is interchangeable. Both brands open stores on the same street with interiors that all look the same everywhere in the world. Everyone advertises in the same magazines, with the same photographers and the same models. That is a completely transparent concept.”
To stand out, he said you have to create desire in a saturated market.
“We now have four collections a year and 8,000 items,” he said. “The products change all the time. The only thing that stays the same is the brand – and only because of that will someone pay €6,000 for a suit.”
The recognition factor is what makes his brand successful – and Mr. Plein achieves that through showy flamboyance.
“Bling is in our genes,” he said. “Every girl wants to be a princess at some point. She is fascinated by stars, diamonds and everything that glitters. We offer exactly that. If I had begun with a black T-shirt, I would have landed nowhere.”
Mr. Plein sees himself as both designer and businessman. His actual accomplishment is to have realized his vision as well. Established fashion firms did not admit the newcomer at first, and refused him an official place at Milan fashion week.
So he showed his collections after all the other designers, complete with wild after-show parties. When more and more journalists and buyers streamed to him, Camera della Moda, the umbrella organization for Italy’s fashion industry, finally gave in and put him on the official calendar.
Today, Plein events are the biggest spectacle of Milan fashion week. While other designers show no more than 15 minutes of fashion, Mr. Plein stages roaring parties for several million euros for thousands of guests. He has used monster trucks and a roller coaster as decor.
At his last show in September, alternative rock star Courtney Love appeared in a strobe light storm, surrounded by robots and flying drones.
The German designer’s villa is almost his permanent exhibition. One room is lined with mirrored tiles, and the sofas are covered with fur blankets. There are skulls everywhere, butterflies and apes – it’s so overwhelming that two zebra heads almost blend into the walls. Off-color sayings are stitched onto colorful sofa pillows. For instance: “Kiss me like you love me. F— me like you hate me.”
The entire estate is a stage, and everything inside is loud and mildly pornographic, blurring the bounds between the brand and its creator.
And Cannes is just one of Mr. Plein’s playing fields. For summers, he bought a townhouse near Central Park in New York with seven stories and 600 square meters, or about 6,500 square feet. In Los Angeles, he is building a 3,000-square-meter house on land once owned by Howard Hughes.
Mr. Plein sees himself as more global than German. “Karl Lagerfeld is also not really seen as a German outside of Germany,” he said. “That’s not what’s important.”
His girlfriend floats into the room after arriving from Moscow, wearing a light blue dream of flowing fabric. They exchange kisses on the left and right cheeks, then disappear into Mr. Plein’s bedroom. A half-hour later he returns and poses in a narrow cut black suit, like a modern Midas, before he goes back to business.
The atelier is full of fabrics, badges, leather patches and belt loops. Young women sit in front of screens, and Mr. Plein tweaks the designs — here a bit more black, there a zipper rather than a button hole. His fashion does not emerge on a sketch pad, but rather on a computer as teamwork.
Bling is hard work. After turning himself and his name into a brand, he now wants to ignite level B and really make money. “Today, we can also sell T-shirts with a simple logo. That would not have worked in the beginning.”
The chances seem good. In the men’s market, Mr. Plein does not have any real competitors. Dolce & Gabbana have pulled back their second line D&G; Versace functions only in Asia; and Dsquared2 produces mainly jeans.
With every other luxury brand, accessories dominate. They often make up 70 percent of sales, while clothing contributes 30 percent. With Mr. Plein it has been the reverse – so there is still a lot of money to be made on accessories, where profit margins are much bigger.
Only in financing his expansion does Mr. Plein fall back on his German roots.
“We work without banks and owe them no money,” he said. “Not because I was born rich – because I was not. Rather, we grow by our own means.”
“My father always said: ‘Never buy something on credit!’ I have always listened to that.”
To contact the authors: email@example.com