He’s built an empire on OTT glitz and celebrity star power. As he debuts his first resort show, we meet the man on his home turf – the Cannes megamansion he calls ‘La Jungle’
“We call it paradise,” declares Philipp Plein with a smile. The 39-year-old designer is sitting under the beating sun on the roof deck of his Cannes home, nicknamed La Jungle du Roi – or ‘The King’s Jungle’. It’s a theme that runs throughout the property – from the stuffed lion in the guest house (an old circus relic rather than a trophy) to the chest-thumping, gloss red gorilla statue that towers from the greenery in the courtyard. The house’s name is even embedded in silver metal into the tabletop at which he sits, an expanse of white marble about 12 foot long.
There was a party here last night, and down below the balcony, various staff are in clean-up mode. Someone’s been driving Plein’s cars back onto the property, and a matt black Lamborghini sits in the sun. A Bentley and Rolls Royce have already taken up their spots once more in the garage, under giant silver letters which spell out the words: “Every Weapon Needs A Master”. The house was originally two houses, and is soon to be three – he’s just bought out another neighbour. “It’s a dynasty. It’s our little country. I’d try to build my own country but this is the beginning,” he says with a grin. Plein, who was born in Germany, also has homes in New York and Switzerland and is building what will be a $100m property in Los Angeles. By the look of La Jungle, it’s easy to imagine why. Although design classics, like Eames lounge chairs and Mies van der Rohe Barcelonas, are dotted throughout, you only need to start counting the chandeliers or carefully displayed bottles of Moet to see that Plein has a penchant for excess.
The evening before our interview, cars and people packed the drive up to the house. It’s nestled in the hills, and from the deck, you can see all the way to the glittering blue sea, dotted with superyachts. The fountain that marks the centre of the courtyard was filled with hundreds of bottles of Plein-branded champagne, dubbed Champlein, and a hot pink carpet snaked around the garden, creating a catwalk lined with acrylic, see-through chairs. Cushions were strewn across sun loungers, each bearing a neon, spray-painted dollar sign, and a DJ had taken up residence in the corner – the existential EDM of “I’m a real big baller ‘cause I made a million dollars/ And I spend it on girls and shoes” thumping over the sound system. Over by the stairs to the roof deck, guests snapped selfies by a set of giant glowing words on the wall, which read: “Kiss me like you love me, Fuck me like you hate me!” (By the time I returned in the morning, the word ‘hate’ had fallen loose, and rested on the floor).
The occasion was Philipp Plein’s first resort show – in keeping with the trend of lavish mid-season shows, the designer decided to stage one in his very backyard, inviting friends of the brand, high-profile, Plein-wearing clients and a few members of the press to come and see the collection. The clothes were a parade of studded and embroidered denim, with flowers and dollar signs (courtesy of artist Alec Monopoly, whose works were displayed around The Jungle, and could be yours for between €12,000 and €40,000) emerging as key motifs. As well as models and celebutantes like Sofia Richie, Plein’s friend Paris Hilton walked the runway (hand in hand with her boyfriend), as did world-famous “hot mugshot guy” Jeremy Meeks. “He’s got the biggest heart,” the softly-spoken model told me of the designer, in between rounds of selfies with female guests. “He’s an even better person than anyone could ever imagine.” “I love everything he makes. He’s one of my favourite designers in the world,” Hilton effused to a nearby camera crew.
In Plein terms, the occasion was relatively pared-back. Since his first fashion show back in 2010, his have earned a reputation for being among the most high-budget, outlandish and over the top ever produced – featuring monster trucks, jet-skiing rappers, and fairground-style rides. Usually, they include a celebrity performer, like Courtney Love, who sung “Celebrity Skin” in ripped jeans going down a travelator runway with a robotic backing band, Azealia Banks, or Lil Wayne, who stormed off stage mid-performance. Before one show, held in an elaborate, basketball themed set, Plein himself appeared, introducing the ‘robot designer’ of his new label Billionaire. Behind them, words like “wealth” flashed on an enormous screen, as cheering played through the speakers.
If money appears to be a theme, it shouldn’t be surprising. In a relatively short amount of time, Plein has enjoyed an immense amount of success (he states that his businesses turn over €300m, and this year introduced activewear line Plein Sport alongside Billionaire and his own eponymous brand). For all this, he didn’t exactly have a traditional path into fashion – in 1998, Plein had the idea to make a haute dog bed after one his parents had purchased from Burberry was destroyed by their canines. From there came furniture, before bedazzling army surplus kickstarted a ready to wear line, known for its extravagant, studded, and sparkling designs. Today, the company boasts 27 stores in Europe (there’s one in Cannes, complete with a giant sparkling skull in the window), 34 in Asia and nine in Russia, although many are franchises. Customers – described by the brand’s website as “people who choose the extraordinary things in life” – can expect to spend up to £500 on a t-shirt. One jacket, made of silvery-hued crocodile, costs £49,000.
“You know what, no one believed in me when I was 20 years old starting to sell dog beds. And now look where I am” – Philipp Plein
It’s the designer’s self-made status that seems to be a major draw for hardcore Pleiniacs, who line up in their hundreds after his shows to attempt to get into his famous after-parties, and comment on his Instagram pictures telling him that he’s their idol. With his trademark aspirational hashtags (#allthewayup, #nobodycanstopus), he is the living proof that you can work hard and achieve your dreams – from the fast cars to the beautiful model girlfriend. He even has his name and logo tattooed on his right forearm; he got it when he made his first million, aged 22. “You know what, no one believed in me when I was 20 years old starting to sell dog beds,” he says with the voice of someone who had something to prove and has proved it. “They were laughing about me. And now look where I am.” Still, despite the shows, dinner table Instagram pictures with Nicki Minaj, and the fact he’s just invited a few hundred people to his home, Plein insists he’s “not a party boy”. You probably won’t even get a text back, he warns. “I’m not really a social person in general. I don’t really appear a lot at social events because I don’t really like it. I live in my own world and if I don’t have to leave my own place I am happy.”
Still, such success is pretty remarkable in an industry dominated by established brands and conglomerates. Amongst these, Plein is certainly an outlier – and he’s well aware of that. (In fact, he’s used to being the new kid on the block – prepared for it by a youth spent moving between schools). “Fashion is a very protected industry, they’re protecting their market from outsiders,” he surmises. “This is why, young lady, you do not find too many new brands. In the last ten years there have only really been a handful.” The reason he’s so successful, especially at a time when big fashion companies are struggling, Plein reasons, is because he’s different. “I try to stay away from people from the industry. These people are trying to tell me how I should do it without even knowing what they’re saying. If I do it like everybody else then I’m just like everybody else! Do I want to be like every other person? No. I cannot afford to be like everybody else because then I will start to lose.”
Of course, he’s not been without eyebrow-raising moments. In 2007, a t-shirt sparked outrage in Asia after it was printed with the words “Fuck You China”. In 2013, he armed models with fake guns a month after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting and as America’s gun control debates reached new heights. In early 2016, Chris Brown was chosen as the performer at a show that the press release said was about fearless women, while the questionable title of his SS17 show, Alice in Ghettoland, was an entire plot point on E! reality show So Cosmo. Most recently, Alexander Wang accused him of copying the staging of his H&M show for the Plein Sport debut (but team PP fired back). Through it all, the designer remains his unfiltered self. When he received a legal letter from Dolce & Gabbana accusing him of poaching staff, he posted a picture of it to Instagram, writing: “I want to take this moment to apologize (sic) to absolutely ‘NOBODY’ !!!!”.
The same attitude extends to his point of view on the fashion industry, which he says is “run by very conservative old conglomérats which are very slow and very heavy.” “These brands have problems – (but) they are showing off big-time, spending millions on building these temples of luxury much bigger than they need to just to show everybody how strong they really are. Complete wastes of space and money. When you see how many pages they drop in the magazine sometimes just to show off…” He sounds defiant. “It’s a big show off.” When I suggest other brands don’t quite go to the extent of putting dollar bills on their clothing, he simply says, “Wait a season and you will see it. They’re watching.”
Copying is something that apparently happens a lot. “Did you see Gucci and the skulls?” he asks. “On their bags, they have skulls now! Did you see the graffiti they put on their bags? Looking like Alec’s? They copied Alec.” (For reference, here’s a side by side, although I’m not sure which Gucci bags he was referring to). He cites another example. “When I had Bella Hadid walking my show (in 2015) I remember the casting director didn’t want her. The stylist didn’t want her. They said, ‘She’s not important.’ Nobody wanted to have Hailey Baldwin because ‘she was too short’ and she ‘didn’t fit the dress’. Nobody wanted her then and nobody wanted Bella. Nobody gave a shit about them. I put them both on the catwalk and put them in the campaign.”
Really, what Plein represents is the ongoing tension between tradition and change, fashion’s aristocracy and its nouveau riche. His work speaks to a kind of crisis in the establishment, the question of how far Instagram personality and celebrity affiliation are vital to success today. While other brands attempt to negotiate this fine line, Plein is charging ahead; resolutely doing things on his own terms. “Do I pay attention to criticism? No, not really,” he says forcefully. “Why should I? Who can criticise me? For what? What should it change? Who should judge me? It’s my company. I’m the designer. You know who can judge me? Only one person.” For a brief, naïve moment, I expect him to say God. “My clients. If my clients come to me and says, ‘Your shoe is not comfortable, I have a pain’ I’ll listen.” Does he do it all for them? “They pay my bills. I have a 300 million dollar company. They pay my fucking bills.”
“I don’t for the magazines. I don’t work for the people who criticise me because they’re not my clients” – Philipp Plein
In person, there is undoubtedly a curious allure to Plein’s outlook, someone who appears entirely unconcerned with the idea of fashion as an art form, who sees clothes as commerce and the practice of selling them as simple psychology. In an industry so tangled with relationships, unwritten rules, and blind eyes being turned, his decision not to stay quiet, toe the line, or play nice, is strangely refreshing. He doesn’t pretend to be anything that he’s not, and he, at least ostensibly, doesn’t care about the approval of anyone other than the people buying his clothes. “We're not stopping. We keep on growing,” he says passionately. “Why is that? Because I listen to my clients. People ask what do I do that's different… Hey, I work for my clients. I don’t work for the magazines. I don't work for the people who criticise me.” Fashion is built on appearances, and the ostentatious glitz of Plein’s brand is thoroughly superficial. Paradoxically, there’s something very authentic about it.