Karla Otto May Know All of Fashion’s Secrets (But She’ll Never Tell)

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Elio Fiorucci didn’t just create fabulous clothes – he created destinations, places where you wanted to see and be seen trying on and buying those fabulous clothes. At the height of the disco era in the 1970s, you chanced an encounter with an Italian heiress and her entourage, a glimpse of Jackie O slipping into a massive walk-in dressing room, or maybe even Andy Warhol installing art on the shop’s walls at the designer’s boutique in New York City. Fiorucci was a personality as big and as glamorous as the scene he was cultivating, and he needed someone to handle the particulars of his day-to-day enterprises.

At the time, Karla Otto was a young German model who bumped into Fiorucci at a restaurant in Milan completely by chance. The encounter quickly gave way to a job offer – heading public relations for Fiorrucci’s international brand  – and the rest was history. Back then, even the world’s largest brands were much smaller operations, and PR wasn’t much of a career field because the scandals, the scale, and the demands of multi-billion dollar companies simply didn’t exist. Eventually, after she established herself at Fiorrucci, Otto set out on her own. She had gotten in on the ground floor, and like any savvy business woman, she had laid a strong foundation.

Over time, she helped build a tiny German brand called Jil Sander into a globally recognized name. She boosted the profile of Jean Paul Gaultier and Prada. Wherever she cast her keen eye, brands flourished. Her help was always in demand, so much so that she had to set up offices all over the world to handle all of the work coming in. Otto has been given a lot of monikers over the years, all of them impressive. Peter Dundas called her the “the stateswoman of PRs” while others have dubbed her “maven” and “guru”. Clearly, she has the Midas touch.

Last year, she announced a strategic partnership with K2, an Asia-based production and events company founded by Isabelle Chouvet. Together, they merged to form The Independents, and both powerhouse women share a vision to bring a global, holistic approach to their enormous roster of elite clientele. The Independents recently merged forces with Dubai’s The Qode, giving them a powerful gateway into the Middle East market. Given the opportunity to speak to the legendary PR branding specialist, we discussed the changing landscape of fashion that she has witnessed over the last 30 years, her goals for The Independents, and how social media has dramatically changed her job. Listen in.

Karla Otto PR
Photo: Courtesy of The Qode

You started out as a model and sort of stumbled into this career after Elio Fiorucci tasked you with looking after his PR. Do you think it could’ve happened the same way in the present day, with fashion being so corporatized?
Much like today, relationships were built on a feeling and mentality – even corporate companies today understand this, and to have this personal element is as important as ever.   

That really seems to be what so radically altered the fashion landscape: the buying up of luxury houses by multinational conglomerates. How have you seen this change the fashion industry over the years? What have been the benefits? The drawbacks?
It has differentiated the big players from the not-so-big players and given way for global exposure and accessibility across all continents. It has seen the expansion and evolvement of fashion houses take a more structured route and a far more sophisticated business path. The benefits are that they were able to set bigger goals and achieve faster growth. However, the downfall has been that some of these fashion houses have lost their exclusivity along the way and become somewhat more targeted to the masses. Too many people can afford designer brands today and this, coupled with their accessibility, automatically compromises its exclusivity.

Where are you at in the development of The Independents?
Our goal is to create a multidisciplinary platform with a 360º approach to facilitate client needs on a global level through our experience and expertise.  

What has the experience of merging your company with that of a fellow female been like? Is there a built-in camaraderie or is it all business?
Female or not, I celebrate a great partner that resulted in a fantastic partnership. The fact that we are both females only proves how insignificant gender is when it comes to business. Partnerships are always about finding the right chemistry, and I feel we complement each other and our businesses beautifully – and that’s what is really important.  

The fact that we are both females only proves how insignificant gender is when it comes to business.

You’ve been self-reliant for so long. Was it a major adjustment to work with a new partner?
When it’s the right partner, you don’t really feel like you need much adjustment. We think along the same lines and our goals are very similar. It’s more about having double the mind and capability to achieve, so it’s a win-win situation.

The Independents, the result of your merger, has announced a strategic partnership with The Qode here in Dubai. Does this mean that the Middle East is becoming a stronger area of focus for you? What are your plans?
The Middle East is a unique region with a very particular consumer. It has become a nucleus for luxury with a population that is greatly driven by its desire for more luxury in all its formats. It was only natural for us to enter this market and look at ways of servicing brands in the region. Our partnership with The Qode was a natural marriage, and we are very confident that, together, we will be able to service the world’s biggest luxury brands in the region through a thorough understanding of both the global and the regional market.

In dealing with a brand’s local team and listening to the needs of regional consumers, what are some of the details that set the Middle East apart? What are some recommendations you tend to give when clients work in the Middle East?
The Middle Eastern consumer is very savvy in terms of fashion and luxury. They are well travelled and exposed. They know their brands and tend to have individual style. They are not only immaculate in their appearance, but also have a high sense of pride that is reflected through their relationship with luxury brands. With the Middle East – especially the UAE – being super diverse and home to so many expats, it is key to identify who you are addressing and devise different strategies that speaks to them in a voice they can relate to. It’s a complex audience in this region and requires brands to really dwell into who it is they are hoping to reach.

I think one of the most impressive aspects of your career was your invention of local showrooms. Instead of press having to travel all over the map to visit a designer’s showroom, they could visit the local version for a press preview. When did the lightning bolt hit you? How was the idea originally received?
With the immense number of brands currently on the fashion circuit, we understand how difficult it can be for editors to preview numerous key brands’ seasonal collections. The birth of the showroom allowed for many brands to be showcased under one roof at one time. It was about convenience and efficiency. With our work with the media being so important, we need to always look at ways of making our relationship go further.

What are you looking for when you decide to work your magic for a brand? What attaches you to their cause?
We work with many brands because we believe in what they do as well as their business and creative vision.

PR must have changed so much when Instagram came around because the platform really made plain how the public related to fashion in real time. How did your job change when social media became one of the biggest marketing and PR tools?
Social media has altered the speed of fashion and the communication surrounding it. Things happen so much quicker. Consumers are exposed to brand designs and developments as and when they happen. We get quicker feedback and are better equipped to make decisions and rectify situations whereas before, this would take much longer. As a result of social media, we always need to be prepared, switched on, and ready because the consumer has become accustomed to instant reaction and immediate feedback. It’s a much faster pace and a far more exciting time.

We have a strong suspicion that a powerhouse of your caliber isn’t satisfied to rest on your laurels just yet. What’s next? Are you already planning the next move?
We will continue to scout the world for strategic partners – firms that share our expertise in luxury and our understanding of the luxury consumer, but of course, with valuable insights into their specific regions and how luxury is translated there.

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