Photography by Matteo Cherubino
Backstage at Marni, a galaxy takes shape. Models orbit the espresso machine; stylists motor from racks to shoes; flashbulbs spark supernovas in a corner. As Anna Wintour surveys the clothes up close, designer Consuelo Castiglioni explains her vision to a small group of journalists, who transmit her every word back to base camp — otherwise known as the Internet.
The still point in this whirl is public relations maven Karla Otto. Lithe and watchful, Otto wears a ponytail, slim-cut clothes, and a serene expression that translates as “no worries, we’ve got this.” (Except, you know, more grownup.) And as the chaos around her grows, Otto lowers her voice — a signal for the fashion flock to mellow out. It works.
“Shouting doesn’t get anything done,” Otto says later, as Marni’s employees neatly pack its Fall 2016 collection into giant white garment bags that could probably hold a few bodies. “Respect, listening, understanding the instincts and realities together — that gets things done.”
And Otto is an expert at getting things done. Her eponymous PR firm has ties with nearly a hundred luxury brands, including Jil Sander and Givenchy. She has satellite offices in seven cities, Beijing and Hong Kong among them. She nurtures young designers such as Simone Rocha and Mary Katrantzou. And she does it all while speaking German, Italian, English, Japanese, and French. “But those are the only five languages I know,” she shrugs. Only those!
Otto’s journey to Very Big Deal began the way many do: skipping school. “I traveled through Asia instead of starting college right away,” Otto explains as we perch, postshow, on Marni’s catwalk. “I fell in love with Japan, decided to study there … and that’s where I was asked to model. It was totally by chance, but I said ‘yes’ because it helped finance my studies. And it was how I discovered the world of fashion. Everything fascinated me — the photography, the journalism, the business — so of course I totally abandoned school and started working full-time!”
Otto’s modeling big break was booking an Yves Saint Laurent campaign in Asia. “It was forty years ago,” she says with a laugh. “So thankfully, the pictures are not really online.” Otto’s business breakthrough came a few years later, when designer Elio Fiorucci met her in Milan. “We were talking about his business, and he basically just asked me to do his international PR. But public relations was very unstructured then. It was like, ‘Hey, what do you feel like doing today?’ At first, I thought, ‘If this is what a proper job is like, nice!’ But then it was boring. So I gave it some structure.” She realized if a brand had an archive of clothes, photographs, and campaign images, it could create a story bigger than just its clothes. “And once I started building that story,” she said, “the job took on a real life of its own.”
She opened her first office in 1982, and became Prada’s first publicist after the company’s president, Patrizio Bertelli, revealed that the brand was starting a clothing line designed by his wife, Miuccia. The collection debuted in 1989.
“When I first saw her clothing, I loved it,” Otto remembers. “I’m not saying this because now Prada is super famous. I could immediately see the special approach she had to fashion. I really loved it … but many people had to get used to it,” she laughs. “And Mrs. Prada … she’s not ‘ambitious’ in the sense that [everybody] has to love everything right away. She wants to do what she feels is relevant to fashion and to her own vision, and she did that, and she’s never stopped. That’s why she’s so famous.” What about another of her clients, Céline’s Phoebe Philo? “The only word I can use for her is extraordinary,” Otto says. “Her work, and also her influence.”
Ah yes, influence, the word that launched a thousand Instagram #ads. “People throw that word around a lot now,” Otto says, “but influence doesn’t necessarily need to come from bloggers. It also happens in a one-to-one interaction. A person can be very influential in your life. A politician. An artist. There’s so much variety. What’s changed is that [bloggers] have so much more exposure now, and that makes a hell of a difference.” But it doesn’t always translate into a front-row seat, or even a fashion show invitation.
“If someone wants to come to a fashion show I’m producing, they need to be relevant to the designer,” Otto says. “It’s not just followers or celebrity. It’s really connecting that designer with the audience that will most appreciate and support them … and some designers don’t even like celebrities,” she adds with a laugh. “Though I must say, when a celebrity embraces one of our clients, [sales] go very fast. It makes a very big impact for them.” Otto refuses to name names, but we will: Her client Givenchy just dressed Rooney Mara for the Oscars. Three days later, Mara’s dress is still a Facebook trending topic.
“Can you think of anther industry that works with art, entertainment, music, film, technology?” Otto continues. “Fashion is in the middle of everything interesting! And when you work in fashion, you feel like you work at the very center of the world. It’s a privilege. You’re really at the center of the universe when you do fashion. This is it. This is everything.”