Handelsblatt magazine chose the simple descriptive title of ‘King of Bling‘ for their portrait of fashion designer Philipp Plein. Even before meeting him, any visitors arriving at Plein’s sumptuous villa Cannes will quickly see why (not to mention an observant assignment photographer). South of France palm trees appear rather mundane behind the first object one notices in the garden – a larger-than-life, vivid red, fibre-glass gorilla, who towers aggressively over a row of gleaming supercars. If the visitors bravely turns their backs on the gorilla to enter the villa, an enormous stuffed lion, frozen in an upright posture of attack in the porch, may make their hearts miss a beat. But, continuing inside, they will be rewarded by a wall display of hundreds of bottles of special Plein edition Moët & Chandon champagne, and the chances are that a beautiful, young Pleinite waif will step out of the shadows to greet them. In his self-styled design jungle, Philipp is king – and what better place for this kind of jungle than the Côte d’Azur?
Living the Cote d’Azur dream
Philipp Plein may be German, but he couldn’t be more at home on the French Riviera. He opened his first eponymous store in Monte Carlo in 2008, and now, with boutiques in St Tropez and Cannes among his global portfolio, Plein chooses to spend many months of the year in the South of France. His villa is more than just a home: it is designed as a workplace (in the basement, semi-clad models-come-designers float around with scraps of cloth and butterflies), as an extravagant showcase of his fashion label (big-shot corporate meetings take place inside a shiny circus cage, made interesting with shag-pile and diamanté-studded seats) and, last but not least, as the ultimate party pad (the bars, swimming pool, in-house cinema, sauna & astonishing sound system throughout are testament to its Cannes Film Festival star-studded after-party potential). Here, the dream is lived, in what Plein has humbly christened ‘The Jungle of the King’.
Awaiting the King
Two journalists had flown to Nice from Germany and they joined my assistant, Georges, and I early that morning in Cannes, ready for a ‘day in the life of fashion mogul’ piece. “After the interview & portrait first thing, we can go around Cannes and observe his day: you can photograph him driving, working, eating at his favourite restaurant“, they enthused. However, things didn’t quite work out as planned. Observing Philipp’s day mostly involved being offered hospitality by the gorgeous Pleinites and, from time to time, glimpsing the King from afar, on his mobile phone, stalking up and down. The writers got increasingly hot and edgy, as they waited. However, I’d been briefed to take some details of his villa and interior design, so happily got to work.
Skulls and guns
A property photographer has a license to open more or less all doors and I made the most of it as I explored Philipp’s pad. Unlike a recent Monaco real estate shoot, where the property’s small size made it challenging to photograph, this villa was large and filled with attention-grabbing features: a photographer’s delight. The lighting ranged from enormous, kitsch chandeliers to colour-changing club-style neon, decorative objects were big, shiny and surprising (although there was a recurring theme of guns and skulls that quickly became unsurprising) and everything, thanks to the work of a team of uniformed staff and the requirement for everyone to replace their own shoes at the door with Philipp Plein-branded slippers, was immaculate. However, to keep it jungly real, Philipp’s apparent penchant for exotic animal remains was demonstrated throughout, by deep fur throws over beds and couches, stuffed zebra heads and display cases full of dead butterflies.
Kiss me like you love me
But it’s not all just about Philipp. House guests at the King’s Jungle can pick a bedroom depending on their erotic mood – Euphoria was one of the very mildest door plaques (Plein’s own bedroom has no name, leaving intimate visitors to guess, although the silver letters etched on the exterior wall of the villa – visible in the photograph higher up the post- give pretty clear instructions: ‘Kiss me like you love me; F*** me like you hate me‘). Indeed, words of wisdom abound throughout the villa – guests can take away a little advice from cushions sequinned with ‘Rich girls take your heart. Bitch girls take your money‘ or be given a little spring in their step as they cross the villa’s threshold where a doormat is replaced by brass letters spelling ‘Irresistible‘.
Alice in Wonderland
By lunchtime, Philip still hadn’t presented himself, so designers, writers, photographer and assistant were led to the dining room. Dramatically decorated, the marble table (inlaid with the words ‘La Jungle du Roi‘ in silver) was laid for at least 30, although we were only 6. Seated on a stone chair so heavy that it was impossible to pull in and out without the aid of a muscular uniformed butler, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Handling oversized silver cutlery soundlessly on the glass-topped table proved impossible. All 5’10” of me struggled to reach the condiments and so, since giant floral decorations were making conversation difficult, I focused all concentration on manhandling my plate of seafood.
Finally, at long last, over coffee, it was announced that Mr Plein was ready to begin the interview in the lounge. However, the journalists barely had time for a couple of questions before another arrival was announced. Philipp’s high-cheekboned Slav girlfriend appeared in front of a helper heavily laden with designer luggage and clearly hadn’t seen her beau in a while. Without a hint of sheepishness, Plein simply excused himself and, without further explanation, the two of them disappeared into the room next door (which I now knew to be his bedroom). The journalists, Georges and I waited, raised eyebrows our only sign of dissent, as with the aid of polite conversation, everyone tried to pretend that what was happening wasn’t.
Man or Mouse?
By the time Plein emerged, looking dishevelled, but of course manly and king-like, and the journalists had hurried through a few questions, he was now late to leave for dinner in Monaco. I was told by Plein PR that the photographer could have just a few minutes to take his portrait. Knowing that these were the only photographs of Plein that I was going to be able to deliver for what was to be a 10-page portrait feature, the pressure was not eased by the rapidly diminishing sunlight, and Philipp arriving with his own kingly concept of where he wanted his portrait taken, despite the set-ups already prepared. In not the most relaxed of situations, Georges and I worked fast and decisively, and I suspect that I was a little less deferential than is generally expected in the audience of a king. However, given the circumstances, I considered that jungle law applied.
On the other hand, Mickey Mouse had no ideas of his own and was there all afternoon.