The German designer, who opened two stores in Dubai last week, has made it big by going against the grain
Philipp Plein: Fashion's shameless maximalist
“I am a maximalist,” Philipp Plein announces. “It is very important these days to know who you are, who is your client, who is your audience and who it is you are talking to. It is all about positioning nowadays, and about the DNA of your brand.”
A larger-than-life character – with movie-star looks and the confidence to match – the founder of the eponymous brand, Plein cuts straight to the point about who and what his label stands for. “I can give you a big talk about positioning in fashion, but to cut a long story short, in this industry – where everything already exists – it’s really hard to find a space. If you want to enter this saturated market, you have to create a niche. And this is my direction – being a maximalist,” he reiterates.
I met the designer when he was in Dubai last week to open two new stores for labels Philipp Plein and Billionaire at The Dubai Mall. As the business tycoon warms to his audience, he launches into an oft-repeated monologue. “We are all about being maximalist, this is what we celebrate and communicate, and we think it is very important to stick to your roots. The brands that change with trends... the customer doesn’t get it. The customer has a picture of a brand, and if you want a Coca-Cola, you want a Coca-Cola. You don’t want one day Fanta, or Red Bull, or water. It’s important to stick to your roots. Brands forget this sometimes, and then they lose core clients, and this is very dangerous. Never forget where you are coming from or who you are.”
When Plein launched almost 20 years ago, fashion was all about pared-back minimalism, and Giorgio Armani and Alexander McQueen dominated with their sparsity of cut. With impeccable tailoring as the focus, little interest was paid to surface decoration. Into this gap stepped Plein, realising that those who preferred their clothes to be a little more high-octane had few choices. He launched his label (first in multi-brand stores, then as a stand-alone boutique in 2008) to provide blinged-out, look-at-me-clothes that people could wear when they were partying. Plein is all about decoration – and lots of it. Logos and rhinestones have been a recurring theme, as have cultural elements such as cartoons. His offerings are showy and ostentatious, and while popular with customers, Plein has been shunned by the fashion establishment at times.
“I started [my fashion] show in Milan, but nobody wanted us. We were not part of Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana [Milan Fashion Week’s governing body], and because we were young and nobody knew us, we were forced to do our show at night when there were no other shows. I was so worried nobody would come, so we made it an after-party to make it attractive.” A shrewd move that made Plein’s shows famous, with the events getting bigger and bigger over time. For spring/summer 2016, the designer had a gold monster truck driving over gold cars. Why? Why not. “It got to the point where we were competing with ourselves, and I thought either we stop doing shows completely, or we do something different,” he says.
“So we stopped Milan and started in New York, in a market where we weren’t known. It is far more dynamic and closer to the zeitgeist. Our first show was in January 2017, and I really didn’t have any expectations, but we had Madonna and Kylie Jenner. This would never happen in Milan.”
It may be shameless ostentation, but there’s no doubt that it’s working. Fashion editors may extol the virtues of discreet understatement, but the customers are queueing to snap up Plein’s vision of sparkly excess. “Everything we know, we have learnt by doing,” he says. “We don’t have consultants, we built this ourselves and are a US$300million (Dh1.1 billion) brand, with 200 stores worldwide. But compared to the mega brands, we are still small. The Philipp Plein label is about having fun and a rock-and-roll mentality, because we are still the new kid on the block.”
Rock and roll it may be, but there is a canny thought process behind it all. An early adopter of e-commerce, the brand went online in 2010 (a full two years before fellow maximalist label Versace), and in 2012, the designer signed on as the official fashion partner of Italian football club A S Roma. Last year saw Plein sign a two-year deal with Floyd Mayweather, meaning when the boxer stepped out to fight Conor McGregor in last year’s controversial bout, a worldwide audience of 132 million viewers (legal or otherwise) all saw his bespoke Plein robe. A year earlier, the designer chose bad-boy singer Chris Brown to front the summer 2016 advertising campaign, while for his debut New York show, models Sofia Richie and Jeremy Meeks (aka the Hot Felon), and American football star Danny Amendola all walked the runway. Rather than take an after-show bow as is the norm, Plein stood onstage before the show started and gave a speech declaring his intention to make New York great again.
Even the current rush for models of different ethnic backgrounds is old news to Plein. “I did a black casting years ago for summer 2014, but nobody was talking about it because we were new,” he explains, “It was Franca Sozzani’s idea [then editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue]; she was my biggest supporter. Franca was one of the first people to really understand the brand from the beginning, she really got it. She even directed my campaigns.”
Unbowed by talk that retail is dying and that in the future all shopping will be done online, Plein is clear about why a physical shop – despite the investment required to keep it running – will always have a place in fashion. “Luxury brands cannot exist without a strong offline retail. In order to be successful online, you need to be successful offline,” he explains. “It is still a celebration to go to the store, it is a social activity, it’s an experience. The Dubai Mall is celebrating this on the highest level, otherwise this mall would be completely empty. And some products need to be touched and felt. You would never buy a mattress without lying on it, it is the same in luxury retail. A suit or evening dress, they have to be tried on, to be fitted – that’s part of the experience.
“Fashion is no longer just a product, it’s a lifestyle. You can buy a T-shirt anywhere, so it’s about the message the brand delivers to you as a person. We don’t consider ourselves to be part of mainstream fashion, even though next year we celebrate 20 years. Being in Dubai is a great opportunity for us, because like Philipp Plein, Dubai is the new kid on the block, and people either hate it or they love it,” he concludes.