Ferrari and Philipp Plein should get on just beautifully. After all, few companies spell money and life in the fast lane quite like the Italian manufacturer. And few people personify the ostentatious display of wealth quite like the German fashion designer known for leopard-print gowns, crystal-studded sneakers, and skimpy swimwear. But that’s where the trouble started.
Plein has posted photos on Instagram featuring a pair of bikini-clad women suggestively gyrating atop an acid-green Ferrari while the designer douses the proceedings with a garden hose. Another series showed Plein’s sparkly footwear arrayed on the hood of his 12-cylinder Ferrari 812 Superfast.
A law firm representing the Italian company quickly dispatched a letter demanding Plein take the pictures down within 48 hours, calling them “distasteful” and incompatible with its image. Ferrari also pointed out that displaying Plein’s sneakers on its cars would hurt shoe labels already affiliated with the carmaker. “This behavior tarnishes the reputation of Ferrari’s brands,” the letter said.
Plein went on the counterattack, posting the letter online and decrying Ferrari’s treatment of a loyal client and longstanding fan. He then put up a photo-montage depicting Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri as a clown and asked his 1.8 million Instagram followers to send him photos of shoes on their cars.
“Can’t even put in words how disappointed and disgusted I am about this unfair and totally inappropriate claim against me personally,” Plein wrote in an Instagram post accompanying the lawyer’s letter. “Obviously I love cars and ESPECIALLY FERRARI !!!!”
The spat between Ferrari and Plein highlights the awkward co-existence of brands whose clienteles overlap, but where one side starts to have second thoughts about being associated with the other’s risqué image. It’s similar to the dilemma faced by Cristal champagne, which a decade ago tried to rid itself of an affiliation with the street style of rap stars, and fashion label Burberry, which for years was stigmatized as the sartorial choice of blue-collar British hooligans.
Since Plein owns the car and says the sneakers in question are his own shoes, the case raises questions of what constitutes personal communication and what is promotional activity by celebrities and business people.
“The lines between what is private and what is public and what is commercial are increasingly blurred,” said Karin Sandberg, a lawyer at Hamburg law firm Harmsen Utescher who specializes in trademark cases. “This is an issue that will gain prominence in coming years as companies try to determine how influencers associate themselves with brands.”
Carmine Rotondaro, an independent legal adviser to Plein, called Ferrari’s accusations “totally baseless.” He said the designer never sought to promote his brand via any affiliation with Ferrari and that he has no intention of taking down the posts.
“The images are consistent with the aesthetics that car brands have built over a very long time,” Rotondaro said. “When I think of Ferrari, I think Magnum P.I.-- and there were lots of bikinis in that show.” Ferrari declined to comment.
Plein has used Instagram as a powerful marketing tool, mixing his brand, company and personal adventures on the photo platform, typically featuring fast cars and private jets against lavish backdrops as he criss-crosses the globe to build his empire. Plein has burst onto the international stage in recent years, opening luxury shops at a record pace and upending the rules of high fashion by putting cash before cachet with a pop-culture sensibility that fetishizes the new and flashy and downplays old-style craftsmanship.
And while Plein professes his love for Ferrari, the brand isn’t his only automotive crush. His driveway—and the Instagram photos--also feature a sedan from Rolls-Royce and an SUV made by Lamborghini (neither of which has complained about the posts, attorney Rotondaro said).
Ferrari, incidentally, boasts more than eight times as many followers as Plein on Instagram, where it features images of shiny sports cars cruising coastal byways, close-ups of chrome-plated exhaust systems, sculpted leather seats—with nary a bikini, garden hose or sparkly sneaker in sight.