Philipp Plein likes to push the envelope.
First there are his clothes: for spring, the designer trotted out bomber jackets imprinted with ferocious tiger heads, navy sweatpants set ablaze with flames, and denim ripped and torn so many times it’s surprising that the jeans were able to stay on his models at all. And then there are his runway shows: this past season, front-row guests were treated to a twisted Grease-Evel Knievel mash-up, with songs like “Summer Nights” blasting loudly overhead as motorcycles, Ferraris, and monster trucks screeched by. Vogue.com christened Plein “the Donald Trump of fashion designers.”
But the 39-year-old, Munich-born Plein doesn’t consider comments like that insulting. Describing his last collection, he says with a figurative shrug, “We always do a certain kind of luxury ‘tacky.’ You can call it street couture.”
Clearly, Plein is playing by his own rules. “We are who are we,” he says of his Swarovski crystal-bedecked offerings. “We’re not trying to be anyone else. We don’t try to be cool.” Cool is an elusive concept for most designers, and especially for Plein, who originally had no interest in fashion at all. In fact, he remembers his mother dressing him until he was a teenager, when he started experimenting with conservative boarding school attire, like chinos and polo shirts. He kept that aesthetic until he started his own furniture design business at age 20. “I look more like a banker,” he says. “I was always wearing a suit and tie.”
Nowadays, Plein sports a small faux hawk and a salt-and-pepper beard; he’s heavily tattooed and is known for his signature skinny sweats. (His furniture line, for its part, still carries the minimal aesthetic he grew up with.) He got his first break in fashion with accessories made from the remnants of extra leather used in his chairs. “We ended up only using the good pieces of the skin to cover the furniture, so we started doing wallets and small leather goods just for fun,” he says. “It caught the attention of some people, and that was the first step into fashion.”
Plein fell in love with fashion precisely because of how different it was from interiors. “Furniture design is about timeless pieces: you pick up an Architectural Digest from 20, 30 years ago and you would not even realise that the magazine is that old. People still live the same, but fashion you get to start from scratch.” He goes as far as to say that his over-the-top runway shows are like “happy funerals”. “People look at me with big eyes and say ‘What the fuck do you mean?’ But the second show is over. I have
to start working again on a new collection,” he says.
Plein credits his 600-person team—70 per cent of whom are under 35 years old—for keeping him continuously amped. “It’s important to take this energy from your people,” he says. He likens his design process to that of a woman who is slowly but surely ageing, saying, “They have to find ways to stay young and attractive.”
Luckily for Plein, he has an intuitive sense of what works. His brand is now a $300 million company with 200 stores worldwide and without a single outside investor. (The designer is quick to emphasise that he “didn’t start with rich parents,” if that’s what you’re thinking.) Though he does $30 million in online sales, Plein is hell-bent on keeping his retail footprint firm, despite the closing of brick-and-mortar stores worldwide. “You don’t want to buy a $30,000 leather crocodile bag or a $45,000 fur jacket online, without having it in your hands and trying it on,” he says. “People like the whole experience of trying on clothes, especially when it comes to luxury.”
What Plein is banking on next are two lines that are relatively new for the firm: his athletic Sport and Billionaire lines. It’s not been lost on the designer that people are living increasingly casual lives and want their clothes to reflect that. Asked what company he wants to emulate after 15 years in the business, Plein quickly answers, “Nike. Nike is the biggest fashion group in the world,” he says. “They have a $30 billion turnover and they don’t sell one pair of denim. That is what I think is really exciting. We are here because people obviously like the product. People are buying the product.”