Fashion Branding

The Great Unknown

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    In a fast-paced industry obsessed with the cutting edge, Karla Otto has decades of experience shaping major brands to keep them relevant.

  • Facts


    • Karla Otto landed her first PR role with Fiorucci, and counted Jean Paul Gaultier, Jil Sander and Prada among her early clients. She now has over 300 employees and eight offices around the world.
    • The pace of the industry has accelerated, with the weighty spring and fall collections giving way to four launches each year.
    • Presence on social media such as Instagram is now key to success, but the runway remains a central marketing tool, with big brands spending up to €5 million on a 15-minute show.
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Der Berliner Mode Salon Arrivals – Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2016
Karla Otto, a massive presence in international fashion. Source: Getty Images

Her eyes sting slightly this morning, even though she always takes out her contact lenses when she flies. And she often has to fly. The day before yesterday, she was still in Hong Kong.

Now it’s Saturday morning and she is sitting in her Milan office on Via dell’ Annunciata, at an hour when most people are still pulling blankets over their heads. Her travels will soon take her to New York, London and Paris. She has her a base in each of these cities. Likewise in Beijing and Shanghai – “after all, there are a billion people there” – as well as Los Angeles. Her agency has eight offices and employs more than 300 people across the globe.

Yet there is no Karla Otto office in her native Germany. The boss rubs her eyes in apparent wonder. That does seem a little crazy. “But Germany stands for mechanical engineering, dependable cars or specialized chemicals. In fashion, unfortunately, the country isn’t a world power.” And fashion is the business of Karla Otto.

Karla who?

Karla Otto isn’t a big name in the global fashion circus – for outsiders. But those in the know hold her in extremely high esteem. Those who know their Marni from their Céline, and don’t think Demna Gvasalia is a Romanian soap or wonder what Justin O’Shea will do after Brioni – such people are also familiar with the branding specialist’s power and influence. Ms. Otto doesn’t design, at least not fashion. She designs names, labels and companies.

Others make the products. Ms. Otto once orchestrated everything around Miuccia Prada’s designs, from the advertising campaign to designing the fashion shows. Its her job is to provide brands with a message. Sometimes just a face, sometimes a story. A sound perhaps, a feeling. And always a little bit of soul.

The profane term for this is PR. Public relations. But it’s much more than that. Especially in a world that moves faster each day. More and more brands. More and more collections and influencers. Being smiled on by an important chief editor used to be enough to establish a new designer name. Today, every fashion show is attended by bloggers who reach more people via Instagram and YouTube than most magazines. This brings formidable challenges to such tasks as drawing up guest lists and seating arrangements.

“The goal has remained the same,” Ms. Otto says in a pensive manner that doesn’t seem to fit her hyperventilating profession. The goal is to make brands big – in other words, highly sought-after. “But the routes have changed enormously and become incredibly intricate. Everything happens more or less simultaneously. Our many years of expertise help us. Hundreds of case studies.” Show Karla Otto a collection and she knows where the label can hope to be in five years.

Her own firm will turn 35 this year. The only German brand she has handled in all these years was Jil Sander. It was also the only German label to achieve an international breakthrough.

When she graduated from a Bonn high school in 1973, Karla Otto would never have thought what began as a bit of fun would turn into a lifelong calling. She would have liked to study medicine but her grades weren’t good enough. So she took some time off, traveled through Asia and became involved with avant-gardist theater group Tenjo Sajiki, which she had gotten to know in Munich a year earlier, at the Olympic Games.

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