The third part of our PR series focuses on German-born, London-based Karla Otto
You might have noticed her backstage at some of the most influential shows of fashion week (Céline, Givenchy, Simone Rocha) or at the most exclusive events of the season: a chic German woman, stylishly clad in darkly elegant clothes. Then again maybe not, as Karla Otto has always preferred to let her work do the talking. Famously discreet and not given to doing many interviews, what Otto lacks in media presence, she more than makes up with her unrivalled reputation for efficiency and attention to detail.
Called ‘the stateswoman of PR’s’ by Pucci’s Peter Dundas, ever since she launched her eponymous firm in 1982, Otto has been redefining the rules of fashion public relations. Growing up in Bonn, West Germany, her first exposure to the wider world was when the local cinema screened a series of Japanese films. “I knew nothing about Japan and those films were showing me a completely different world,” she recalls. So eye opening was the experience, she decided to take a sabbatical before university travelling throughout Asia. “It was a true turning point. I fell immediately in love with the country and its culture. The experience itself made my life shift: it opened my eyes to what is creative, subtle, sophisticated, unexpected, things that to this day still fascinate me.”
"I loved working in a creative environment and traveling but I never thought of myself as a model"
It was while in Japan that Otto got scouted to model and where she first got exposed to the world of fashion. She confesses, “I loved working in a creative environment and traveling but I never thought of myself as a model. But it was for me a great opportunity to discover the wide creative environment that was growing in those years.” A chance meeting with the pop culture impresario, Elio Fiorucci at a Milanese restaurant led to the offer of a job to do international PR for his brand. Though she admits that “at that time, the idea of PR was completely new”, she soon launched her own firm in 1982 with Bobo Kaminsky, Jean Paul Gaultier and the Spanish designer, Sybilla among her first clients. “PR at the time wasn't a high profile business as it is nowadays but yet the basics were there: establishing and nurturing relationships with the press, listening to editors and understanding their needs, identifying angles to build relevant and interesting stories, shaping the perception of the collections, being impeccable in the organisation. In this sense, nothing has really changed.”
For Otto, choosing whom she will take on as a client is the hardest decision of all, stating, “I do not want to work with people who need to make up things. I am naturally drawn to people who are original, have a personal vision and translate it all into a collection.” Her ability to spot and nurture extraordinary talent is key to her success, having consulted for the likes of Miuccia Prada, Phoebe Philo and Jil Sander: “It's a matter of intuition. Since the beginning I've been quite good at spotting talent. It’s the part of my job that I love most. I look for a certain personal affinity with the people I work with: I connected right away with Riccardo Tisci when we first met, for instance. He had no money but the talent was bursting and I could see it.” She also credits the newer generation of young designers such as Erdem, Mary Katrantzou, Simone Rocha and Marco De Vincenzo “who are all so inspiring and refreshing. Recognising new talents, encouraging and fostering them, unleashing their potential definitely makes my job meaningful.”
"Being side by side with creative minds...truly inspires and motivates me"
And while she attributes the birth of her son Charles in 1991 as a personal highlight; her own company continues to expand with seven offices around the world and the list of services her company provides now including brand consultancy, digital strategies, event production and VIP services. She’s even embraced social media, being an avowed fan of Instagram. “Personally I love it: it has the immediate strength of purely visual communication. Social media is deeply affecting the nature of our work and I truly believe it could be a great way to boost the awareness of a brand. However all the digital exposure being so powerful, it requires accuracy and subtlety in the way it is handled.” More than 30 years since its inception, Otto’s challenge remains the same: “to create a special balance between the structure and the true soul of our company.” While Karla Otto may be a truly international PR firm, she still sees her brood as one big family, looking out for all her clients and helping them build their vision. She says, “I’m driven by my genuine fascination towards everything that is unexpected. Being side by side with creative minds – supporting them, seeing ideas turn into directional collections truly inspires and motivates me.”
Words by Kin Woo