How Philipp Plein Became the King of Lowbrow High Fashion (2023)

Leaving Chateau Falconview, I found myself in my rental car right behind a truck whose flatbed was occupied by the enormous sneaker, which was largely uneaten, save for a watermelon-size gash in its toe cap. I watched the cake, its sponge now slightly soggy, as it jostled gently to and fro down Bel Air Road, on its way to Skid Row.

Plein grew up in a middle-class family in Munich. His mother was a housewife; his father, who is no longer alive, was a doctor and an alcoholic. “He was not very nice to my mother,” Plein said. When Plein was three, his parents divorced, and mother and son had some hard years, briefly living with Plein’s grandmother and moving around frequently. Plein switched schools several times. Life became more stable after his mother remarried and had a second child with her new husband, also a doctor, who treated Plein like his own son. But Plein’s early-childhood experiences left their mark. “I’ve always felt like an outsider,” he said.

When Plein was a teen-ager, his family moved to Nuremberg, where he began booking modelling gigs and cleaned ashtrays at a night club. (“They wanted good-looking kids to work there,” he told me, pulling up a picture on his phone so that I could see him posing on the cover of a 1995 issue of the German teen magazine Bravo Girl!—a grinning, shirtless boy with a surfer’s blond bob.) He was thrilled by the fast money he could make in night life, but his mother and stepfather, unhappy that he was neglecting his studies, sent him to boarding school. Once more, he was the new kid, and he struggled to adjust to the school’s preppy environment. “I cut my hair like Harry Potter and wore polo shirts,” he told me. “And then, after two months, I decided, I don’t want to blend in anymore.”

In the nineties, Plein began attending law school in Nuremberg. (“I wanted to study about the rights we have as human beings,” he told Women’s Wear Daily, in 2014.) But he didn’t like being a student who was financially dependent on his parents. He had happened upon a newspaper article about the profitability of the pet-supply industry and had come up with an idea that he felt would be a surefire money-maker. Flush with a small inheritance he had received after his grandfather’s death, he designed and produced a luxury dog bed—a clean-lined, Le Corbusier-style metal and faux-leather mini-sofa for the pooch that wants for nothing, which he sold for fifteen hundred dollars. “The production price was five hundred, and I thought, If I sell one thousand, I’ll make a million. And I really wanted to make a million,” he told me. The bed was a hit—Plein made his million—and he dropped out of school and began to produce furniture meant for human customers as well as accessories and clothing. His design language coalesced into what has since become his familiar, neo-Baroque vernacular, though he claims that this had nothing to do with his own taste. He’d in fact always liked Bauhaus-influenced design, he told me, and things that were “simple as fuck.” But, after consistently selling out of pillows and jackets that he adorned with Swarovski crystals as an experiment, he began to realize that people liked bling, and so he “gave them what they wanted.”

On a Friday morning in January, Plein pulled up in a Mercedes G-Class S.U.V. at his headquarters in Lugano, across the border from Italy. His company has been based in the city for the past decade, and he lives there during the week. Switzerland offers considerable tax incentives to foreign businesses such as Plein’s, making it a popular place of operation for international fashion brands. But Plein also likes Lugano for its high quality of life and utopian lakeside vibe—“It’s the Disneyland of Switzerland,” he told me—a far cry from what he sees as the real-world bleakness of Milan, where his showroom is situated. “Milan is dirty, it’s so ugly,” he said. “I would never live there.” On the weekends, he drives to his estate in Cannes, which he shares with his girlfriend, Lucia Bartoli, a vegan chef and a social-media influencer, and their one-year-old son, Rocket Halo Ocean. (Bartoli is now pregnant with their second child, and Plein also has a ten-year-old son, Romeo, from a previous relationship, who lives with his mother in Rio de Janeiro.) With pillowy lips and a pneumatic figure, Bartoli, who is British, seems perfectly made to represent the Plein brand, which she often does on Instagram. (In one recent post, she is squatting in crystal stiletto platforms, leather leggings, and a sparkly jacket, with the words “Fuck me like you hate me!” in mirrored lettering on the wall beside her.)

Plein, charging up the stairs to the fifth floor of the handsome marble-and-glass office building, seemed even more kinetic than usual. He energetically pointed out elements of the décor along the way, including several paintings by Alec Monopoly, the American graffiti artist beloved by the YouTuber Jake Paul and the reality-TV star Scott Disick. (One painting was made on actual dollar bills: “This is illegal, you know.”) Plein had a couple of big days ahead of him. That night, he was staging a show of his tailoring brand, Billionaire, as part of Milan’s men’s fashion week; the next day, he was hosting a large-scale presentation and party for the Plein Sport line. Reaching his office, he sat down for a meeting with Olga Burfan, the head of his global e-commerce operation, to view N.F.T.s that would be rolled out alongside the online launch of a collection of Plein Sport sneakers.

Plein is known for his elaborate runway shows, which have featured everything from pyrotechnics and Jet Skis to a roller coaster on the catwalk. “I do stuff for the people!” he said. “And the people love us! They are like us!”Photograph by John Phillips / Getty

Watching a screen above his desk, Plein began going over the N.F.T.s—a series of videos of complicated-looking running shoes in various vivid hues orbiting in space, not unlike the bone in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The black-and-gold colorway was his favorite, he said. But he seemed distracted. He was stressed because the rapper Tyga, who had been booked to play a set at the Plein Sport party, had fallen ill and cancelled his appearance at the last minute. “I have five thousand people coming tomorrow,” Plein told Burfan. “Worst case, I’ll perform.” He smiled thinly, and spritzed himself with one of a number of Plein fragrances arrayed on his desk.

Jason Derulo, the pop and R. & B. singer, had agreed to stand in for Tyga, but, Plein said, one of the brand’s executives was against that choice, and pushing instead for the British drill rapper Central Cee, whom Plein had never heard of. “She has this complex about being cool,” Plein said, of the executive. “When she heard about Derulo, she was, like, He’s the worst, he makes me want to puke, I won’t come.” He went on, “She’s a girl who’s, like, too fashion.” He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips to mimic a snooty expression. “When you’re too fashion, the people don’t understand it.”

Then, abruptly, he turned back to the matter at hand, quickly approving the videos that Burfan showed him. “Va bene, super, super,” he said. “So, everything is under control. Money never sleeps.”

Back in his Mercedes, on the way to the showroom in Milan, Plein talked with his P.R. reps about the Derulo conundrum. “He’s big on TikTok, he has a lot of hits, Italians like him,” Plein said. “He’s a little bit cheesy, O.K., but he’s a nice guy—he loves the brand.” The conversation then turned to other aspects of the party, which was to take place at a hangar on the outskirts of the city, and on which, Plein said, he had already spent more than eight hundred thousand euros. R.S.V.P.s were looking good, and a long line outside the venue would be all but guaranteed. “We have an amazing, huge location. We need to get a return on our investment,” he said. He asked, jokingly, whether it would be possible to have police helicopters, with searchlights, flying above the crowd outside the event, but seemed to accept that that wouldn’t be possible.

The car crossed from Switzerland into Italy, where, Plein told me, the approach to speeding is more relaxed. He gunned the Mercedes up to a hundred and seventy k.p.h. “This isn’t fast even,” he said, as I clung to the door handle.

Plein’s showroom—a multistory building whose interiors are clad in the designer’s usual marble, chrome, and crystal—sits on a quiet side street in the heart of Milan. Entering the space, he checked in on a collection of Billionaire items that would be presented to an intimate group of clients and buyers later that day. “You have nothing like this on the market—look at these details,” he said, fingering the cuff of a black python overshirt. (Retail price: thirteen thousand four hundred dollars.) “It’s all the most expensive fabrics. We have the best silk from Como.” He picked up a crocodile loafer, then put it back down. Billionaire is “a maximalist brand, like Plein, but it’s more classic,” he said. It is meant for an older client: “This is for the sugar daddy. He’s in his fifties, he has a beautiful home in Palm Springs or Miami. In the summer, he’s in Saint-Tropez. He has a young girlfriend and a fast car.”

Four times a year, Plein’s designers spend a week at one of his houses, where they put together a new collection. Plein likes to focus on the graphic elements of the clothing, in particular, working alongside one of his head designers, Simone Scalia, who has been with him for seven years. Earlier in the week, Plein said, Scalia was looking through the Dolce & Gabbana Web site when he happened upon a Hawaiian-print design that he thought looked a lot like one that he and Plein had come up with the year before. “I’m not going to do anything with this,” Plein said. “I have many of these examples. But, listen, obviously I’m not everyone’s darling. I am not liked by those people.” He went on, “Look at me, I’m different, I do what I want, I do what I like.” A few minutes later, he was trotting up the stairs to the building’s top floor, to check out the Plein Sport merchandise. “Ah, this is where you smell the money,” he said.

There are troubling elements to the Plein world view: the antagonism, the obsession with material success, the portrayal of his brand as a populist business venture despite the fact that even his cheaper offerings, from the Plein Sport line, are still above what most people would be able—or willing—to spend on something as supposedly serviceable as a pair of running shoes. And yet there’s something to respect, if not necessarily revere, about Plein’s straightforwardness, his acknowledgment that fashion has become, in his words, “too fashion.” The designer’s blazing spoils are probably a more apt and honest reflection of our fiddle-while-Rome-burns cultural moment than any number of muted cashmere sweaters.

At 9 P.M. the next day, a long line was snaking in front of the event space where the Plein Sport presentation was being staged. Inside, Plein, who was wearing a leather biker jacket over a muscle shirt, was walking a clutch of guests around the cavernous, smoky, still mostly empty space, which was illuminated by sweeping green laser beams. Jason Derulo was set to perform, though he arrived, to some consternation, on crutches, having injured his foot during a basketball game back home in Los Angeles.

Deafening house music was thumping on the powerful sound system, and Plein orated loudly as he showed off the new collection—colorfully patterned and logoed activewear, sneakers, and parkas—presented in large glass display cases churning with fake snow, creating a “Blade Runner”-meets-Pacha effect. “We’re opening three hundred stores in the next thirty-six months,” Plein said, as if for the first time. He led the group outside, to a McLaren motor home that had been refurbished as a pop-up store. “Welcome to the Plein Sport experience!” he cried, ushering his guests into the vehicle. “Don’t be shy! You can touch the truck, you can touch the product!”♦

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