WSJ | Christina Binkley Fashion has a new enfant terrible in Philipp Plein, a German designer-entrepreneur who compares his artistic aspirations to those of English artist and celebrity Damien Hirst. Mr. Plein has stormed Europe and Asia with his rock ’n’ roll fashions, such as moto jackets embellished with crystal-studded skulls. Now he is turning his sights on the U.S. with a spate of store openings and a head-turning marketing binge.
“We have to get famous in the U.S.,” he said of his label, which has recently opened stores in Miami and New York City. “Give me two or three years.”
Having just opened his 38th store, in Los Angeles, Mr. Plein, who is 36, is pressing ahead globally, with 12 more stores under construction in Seoul, Istanbul, Beirut and Moscow. He forecasts having 80 to 100 stores by the end of 2015, most of them franchised.
To raise his public profile, he has been holding splashy fashion shows in Milan, bringing in performers such as Rita Ora, Iggy Azalea, and Theophilus London for events that are more spectacle than catwalk. He held his men’s show last summer around a large pool, complete with a synchronized swim team. Performers zoomed around on Jet Skis while Mr. London sang—also from a Jet Ski.
Mr. Plein estimated his marketing budget is €50 million ($63 million). Even more unusually, Mr. Plein also said that he owns his company himself with no debt, a statement confirmed by his head of marketing, Ludivine Pont, and his chief financial officer, Gilles Gaucher-Cazalis. Mr. Plein said his annual revenue is more than €250 million.
Though franchising has its risks, since the stores aren’t owned by the brand, Mr. Plein said that the model enables him to expand faster and that he prefers to have stores selling only his products. In the U.S., his clothing isn’t carried by any other retailers. He designs the interiors of stores, from the furniture to lighting, shelving, and music. “I control the entire environment,” Mr. Plein said last week in his new Rodeo Drive store.
Mr. Plein’s looks—such as flirty mini skirts and denim embroidered with red lips—are similar to those of other sexy, sassy labels like Balmain and Moschino. “He’s picking up on the Cavalli base of consumer. The style is very specific, very aggressive,” says fashion-business consultant Robert Burke, noting that the clothing is reminiscent of labels such as Chrome Hearts, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. “It looks pretty derivative of brands we’ve seen in the past, and the U.S. is a highly competitive market, so creating a unique position is really the question.”
Though his brand is well-known in Europe and Asia, he has struggled to find a place within the tight-knit fashion industry, where designers, stylists and magazine editors socialize and go out of their way to support friends.
Mr. Plein said he wasn’t allowed on the official fashion-show calendar in Milan until 2013. In a show of his outsider status, Mr. Plein scheduled his own runway shows there at off-hours. Jane Reeve, CEO of Milan fashion’s governing body, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Lukewarm reviews of his styles, sometimes seen as cheesy, have stung him. “I’m not designing for the fashion industry. I’m designing for my clients,” he said. He is disdainful of the cliquishness he sees in the industry. “I had this in my boarding school,” he said. “I changed schools six times because my parents were moving. I’m used to this.”
Based in Lugano, Switzerland, Mr. Plein is a constant globe-trotter. In L.A. last week, he went house-hunting, looking for a modernist manse in Bel Air or Beverly Hills, he said. He conceded that he wouldn’t have time to live there, but said he has dreamed of owning a home in L.A. since he visited as a teenager. “I decided, I am going to live here one day,” said Mr. Plein, who arrived for the interview wearing a black Zara T-shirt, which exposed an expanse of deeply tanned chest, and accompanied by a leggy young woman in short lace shorts.
Asked what sort of car he drives, after he mentioned crashing three Porsches, Mr. Plein replied, “A Lamborghini,” then paused. “And a Bentley. And a Mercedes. And a Harley. And a Ferrari.”
“I like toys,” he said. “I’m a boy. Boys like cars. Boys like women. Boys like things they can play with.”
He has also been studying the luxury industry, and hiring financial, sales and publicity executives from rivals, including Louis Vuitton, Prada, Valentino, Michael Kors, Hugo Boss and Dolce & Gabbana.
Mr. Plein’s runway show in Milan in September cost about €2.5 million, he says—a huge amount even for the world’s biggest labels. The show involved turning a construction space into an underwater cave using lights, projections and other stage effects. It was followed by an elaborate dinner and after-party. Mr. Plein was so excited to start the party that he didn’t waste time greeting guests backstage, as is customary after fashion shows, leaving his publicists to search for him.
Mr. Plein stumbled into fashion after training to be a lawyer and selling leather-covered furniture at trade shows. A consummate salesman, he decorated sofas with Swarovski-crystal-covered pillows, and sold tons of the pillows. To decorate a rack at a furniture show, he bought an army-surplus jacket for €3 and studded it with crystals in a skull shape. People wanted to buy the jackets, so he sold them for €150. With those sorts of profit margins, he said, he became interested in selling luxury fashions.