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Karla Otto: 'Communication Is More Important Than It Used to Be'

German PR guru Karla Otto tells Tim Blanks about her early days representing Jean Paul Gaultier and Jil Sander, and the state of fashion communications today.
Karla Otto | Photo: Diego Diaz
  • Tim Blanks

LONDON, United Kingdom When Edward Bernays died at the age of 103 in 1995, his obituary in the New York Times referred to him as "the father of public relations." His most famous screed was "Propaganda," published in 1928, in which he argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy. Ears pricking up all over the place, I poked around his Manhattan milieu until, two or three degrees later, I came across Eleanor Lambert, who might fairly be described as "the mother of public relations," at least as it pertains to fashion.

It’s a peculiar irony that the practice of public relations suffers from such an image problem with the very public it seeks to relate to. In fashion, the perception is possibly worse. It’s looked upon as the industry’s dark art. Would that make Lambert its first witch? Like Bernays, she had also bested a century by the time she died in 2003. She is not the subject of this story, but the women who followed the path she paved in fashion PR have hewed to a remarkable degree to the prototype she created: fiercely individual, fearless, usually difficult, often infuriating on behalf of a client, with the unquestioning ardour of a handmaiden. And also blessed with the kind of longevity that defies the usual ebb and flow of time.

In fashion, that doesn't necessarily mean anything temporal. It can also apply to fate's fickle finger (cf. Heidi Klum:"One day you're in, the next day you're out"). That's why I could time-machine with Karla Otto till my vocal cords dried up. She was there… and there… and there. We're propped up in her den in the elegant townhouse in Mayfair that houses her London showrooms (there are similarly stylish premises in seven other cities around the world) and though the present demands her presence at the opening of Coach's new London flagship on Regent Street, it's the past that draws us, me pell-mell, her with a reluctance shaped by a career built on discretion. Oh well. Sorry, Karla. Here goes.

She describes herself as “a child of the '70s, 100 percent”: anti-war protests, political engagement, wrapped up in theatre and cinema. Fashion wasn’t on her radar at all. Otto’s uniform was sweater, jeans and parka. “The fashion we had in Germany wasn’t very attractive. Fassbinder, Herzog, Wim Wenders, Joseph Beuys… they were all much more interesting.”

After finishing high school in Bonn in 1973, the adventurous teen headed east. She ended up spending two years in Japan. A photographer scouted her on the street in Tokyo one day and in no time at all, she was booking jobs. “Modelling opened up a world I didn’t know existed. I thought it was absolutely fantastic.” So much so that she continued to model when she returned to Europe.

I started with designers to make people understand and value what they were doing. There was no one else doing it. It was not really a proper job.

In 1979, Otto had just got back to Milan after another stint in Japan when she was introduced to Elio Fiorucci. He was looking for someone to handle international PR for his company, and there weren't many people in Milan with her global experience at that time. In fact, Otto recalls, there weren't even many people who spoke English in the local industry. She stayed with Fiorucci for two years, alongside the likes of Maripol, Ettore Sottsass and the photographer Oliviero Toscani, when the company was a cultural, as much as a fashion, force in Italy. When Elio sold it, Otto set herself up as a consultant for businesses looking to enter the Japanese market. One of her clients was Adriano Goldschmied, whose denim-based empire included Diesel, Replay and Goldie. He also financed and produced a label called Bobo Kaminsky for two of his protégés, David Mantej and Evelina Barilla. They asked their friend Karla to do their PR.

Bobo Kaminsky has inexplicably faded into fashion’s ether. In its moment — not much more than 30 months until Mantej was debilitated by depression — it hit so hard and fast that Otto soon found herself in New York, in Polly Mellen’s office at Vogue. The clothes were weird, wonderful, heavy on concept, a perfect storm for a publicist to communicate. “The strategy was the same as now — create the right perception with the right publications,” Otto remembers. “I was doing everything, sales as well as press. But we were three friends and it was so much fun.”

Otto never pictured her future. "I didn't plan it as an agency, but Adriano asked me if I could do some work for Katharine Hamnett, who he was backing. And almost immediately I met the people from Gibo, who were producing Jean Paul Gaultier." They insisted Otto fly to Paris with them on their plane to see his show. (This was 1982.) "I met him backstage. I remember what I was wearing — high-waisted Bobo pants, with the wide, cropped legs. He looked me up and down and said, 'That's amazing, you can work for me.'" And thus began a beautiful thing. Otto has been at every Gaultier show since, except the day her son was born in 1991. "We still see all the things he came up with," she says, with unshakeable loyalty. "I've found it a privilege to be with such interesting collections."

Then came Jil Sander.

Now, the media maw — old media, social media, any kind of media — is constantly ravenous, demanding feeding all the time. That’s why, in the interests of historical perspective, I’m fascinated by Otto’s early years, when the lines were drawn so much more clearly, when she had to deal with a designer like Sander, whose reticence bordered on the pathological. “Going backstage to get a quote was not appropriate to what she was doing,” says Otto, wryly acknowledging the shift in post-show protocol over the years.

The strategy was the same as now — create the right perception with the right publications.

She remembers the proposal. "Somebody from Jil's office called, they'd heard about me. I flew to Hamburg, we had a long chat in her super-beautiful showroom. She didn't want to show, so I had to convince her. It took two years." Sander's prior mode of relating to the public was through one-on-one appointments in her Milan showroom. Her collection was already selling well internationally, but, outside German-speaking areas, it had no designer image in the way we understand such a concept now. One of Otto's clients was Martine Sitbon, whose boyfriend Marc Ascoli was doing all the big shows in Paris. Otto brought him on board, and he, in turn, introduced Nick Knight, who started shooting Sander's campaigns. "It was exciting," she recalls, "because it was very much brand consulting. That was the first time I'd done such a thing, saying to Jil, 'You need to do this, you need to work with this person.'"

Two years later, in 1988, Otto started with Prada. It can’t have been coincidental, though she insists, “Jil and Miuccia didn’t know each other. And clients wouldn’t really ask questions about other clients. They’re quite discreet.” But when Otto assumed the responsibility for Prada’s worldwide PR at the end of 1988, with the launch of the house’s first clothing collection, it became obvious that it would be impossible to do everything from Milan. So, at the beginning of 1991, she opened an office in Paris.

I first met her then. She stood out at shows because she was always accompanied by Nena, her Jack Russell terrier, loyal, therefore leashless. (Metaphor alert!) Nena was a gift from Sybilla, the Spanish designer who lingers as mythically on the fringes of fashion as Bobo Kaminsky. Otto found Sybilla at Milano Vende Moda and brought her to Gibo. “All the new talents would be at a fair in Milan or Florence,” she says. “I started with designers to make people understand and value what they were doing. There was no one else doing it. It was not really a proper job.”

Not strictly true. There was the odd precedent: Eleanor Lambert in New York, Sylvie Grumbach in Paris, the redoubtable Lynne Franks in London. (As the alleged inspiration for Edina Monsoon in "Absolutely Fabulous", she can take the blame/credit for the freeloading Bolly’n’Stolly-swigging persona who introduced the concept of fashion PR to the average British household.) But Otto was the woman who updated Lambert’s original prototype – with the added plus that she could carry off her clients’ designs so effectively that she became a kind of amanuensis to them.

I often find designers are very good at creating but not so perfect with communicating.

For our night out, she's dressed in a long, three-quarter sleeve, black bouclé-ish Celine dress with big slit up the back. There are Prada platforms on her feet. This severely chic, borderline-ascetic style became the blueprint for the people who came after her in PR, women like Michele Montaigne and the formidable Keezia Keeble, who connected with Otto through a mutual friend in 1984 for advice on how to open her own agency in New York. (The result, Keeble, Cavaco and Duka, is better-known now as KCD, and it's Otto's closest rival in terms of global profile.) Why so many women? "I think it's pure coincidence," says Otto. "There are quite a few men if you look at it. But maybe the psychological aspect of PR requires more caring, and a female pragmatism." Then there was the fact that she herself so efficiently embodied a combination of old world and new. "My base is very German – the pragmatism, the ability to deal – but after living in Italy, I started to become very flexible, open, inventive. It really gave me a lot of additional traits I didn't have before."

A career watershed for Otto was the moment when Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli suggested she move in-house. "It was the toughest decision I ever had to make," she says of her no. "But I really liked my independence." Maybe it's that resolve which has always made her seem a solitary figure, alone in a fashion crowd. She says she likes it that way: no ties, all the anonymity and solitude that come with a nomadic life. "I've always moved around a lot, ever since I left high school, but over the past ten years or so, since my son left home, it's been extreme."

Charles was the product of a 15-year relationship with the artist François Berthoud whom Otto met in 1982 when he was working on Vanity magazine with Anna Piaggi. There were practical reasons, like his schooling, to keep her in one place. Now there's an equally practical reason — a global empire to maintain — for her to never linger long. She copes by ordering her life into precise rituals (wherever, a bath to break day and night, for instance). At the same time, she insists she's "pretty much a social animal. There's an event every two days. But I kind of enjoy it. If I didn't like to be with people, I couldn't do this job."

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Otto’s agency. “It used to be a small community, the professionals, the press, the buyers,” she reflects. “Suddenly, we started to talk to everyone who’s interested in fashion immediately. The speed now is extraordinary. And clients nowadays are even more demanding than five years ago. Twenty, thirty years ago, there was almost a purity, an ingenuousness about designers. Now people always know everything from the start, because they grow up knowing everything, all nicely lined up on VogueRunway. Before, that was absolutely not the case. Now they want that right away for themselves.”

To feed the speed, she has over 300 employees across Milan, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, in Hong Kong since 2011, and in Shanghai and Beijing for the past five years. Communication is a full service: PR, event-organising, video, every warp and woof of digital outreach (Otto's agency has been responsible for anything from Bulgari's Instagram and Agent Provocateur's Snapchat to a Mercedes Benz campaign with Michel Gaubert), plus a VIP department that's been finely honed over ten years. "It started when Peter Dundas came to Pucci. There was no advertising budget, so we had to find other ways to accelerate awareness. We started to do a lot of work on celebrities. It went so fast, got so big you can't even imagine. After a year, we already had 90 covers of A-list publications for a brand without advertising."

Communication is more important than it used to be because there is so much more out there.

Her mention of Dundas makes me wonder if fashion's current bad case of revolving doors has made her job more difficult. "Not at all," Otto answers coolly. "I have so much experience having to spin this story all the time. How many case histories do I have, seeing from the start how they develop, how we can improve, how we can do damage control?" Which doesn't mean that she is entirely in love with the present. "In the '80s, and the early '90s, fashion was really interesting," she concedes. "It was the best time because it was new. It's hard to do that now. It's so diffuse. That's why I really admire people who can come up with something fresh." And that's why her commitment to fashion's next wave remains as strong as it was at the outset of her career. In amidst the fashion heavyweights on her client list — Valentino, Givenchy, Celine, Chloe, Marni — you'll find Simone Rocha, Iris van Herpen, Craig Green. "As a company we are at the point where we are no longer emerging, and not yet established," says Green, "so having the support and guidance of someone like Karla makes a huge impact."

If the paradox of PR, at least if you credit the industry’s own “trust surveys”, is that the public doesn’t relate to it, it is still, as far as clients are concerned, fashion’s first and last port of call to vindicate and consolidate the existence of new talent, re-positioned talent, or old talent on the rebound, even more so when the great leveller of social media is figured in. “I often find designers are very good at creating but not so perfect with communicating,” Otto muses. “I talk to them. I speak very directly to them, because I’m working for them, not the press. And the press is never direct with the designer. It’s amazing how people come backstage after a show, and there’s not one person who says, ‘I didn’t like it as much as last time’. That’s misleading for designers.” Has she ever lost a client because of her honesty? A pause. “Not often.”

"Communication is more important than it used to be because there is so much more out there," Otto says. In addition to fashion, her agency services a raft of lifestyle and design names – from Cassina and Boffi to La Rinascente, the Mandarin Oriental and the Four Seasons hotel chain – food and drink, beauty and fragrance, media (including the BoF 500 party during the Paris collections) and art and film clients. Otto's agency has, for instance, handled the PR for the director Luca Guadagnino, for Leonardo DiCaprio and Natalia Vodianova's foundations, for Taryn Simon and Cindy Sherman exhibitions at the Gagosian Gallery. And, after three decades, Jean Paul Gaultier and Sybilla are still on the list.

On the wall of her London office hangs an Andreas Gursky, a gift from the artist. Likewise the Francesco Vezzoli. “We work with him.” Julie Verhoeven is on the wall because she is an artist Otto likes. “But I don’t really collect art,” she says. Same with her clothes. With a client list like hers, you picture closets filled with fabulous one-offs. Not so. She admits there are pieces she really can’t give away. “Old Gaultier, old Sybilla. I’ll wear them on very rare occasions.” Otherwise, it’s all about ruthless and regular editing. “Even though my size has never changed, the proportions have.” So true. I’ve spent decades trying to find a way to make Matsuda look now-ishly wearable.

Yes, she’s been reluctant to talk about herself, and no, she is no PR show pony, but Otto is still the very visible public figurehead of a business whose nature is dictated by a circumspect client-comes-first ethos. I remember the frisson of disapproval a few seasons ago when she took a front-row seat at one of her clients’ shows. “There was an empty seat in the front row, and we couldn’t have that,” she says dismissively. Of course, it’s the client’s image that comes first, not her own - or the industry’s, for that matter. Hence Otto’s conviction that she has shaped an agency which will continue to run perfectly well when she is no longer around. If trailblazing centenarians Edward Bernays and Eleanor Lambert are any indication, that day could be decades away. In the meantime, she insists, “There really is a solution for everything.” And off we go to find it.

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