Opium for the people: Welcome to the church of Karl!

Hunting for the latest and greatest in fashion retail on this month’s European retail tour, I came across an example that made me think about the relationship between branding and religion.

The trendy German capital city of Berlin has seen diverse beliefs, preacher men and ideologies over the centuries. But its latest one is coming from a fashion brand and is called Karlism.

What is Karlism?

Karlism can be experienced when entering the new shop of Karl Lagerfeld in Berlin: “Welcome at Karl’s!” the novice is introduced by the well-trained shop assistant. To the left on the wall, Karl, the godfather himself, in neon lighting displaying his famous profile, ponytail and signature glasses.


Deeper into the body of this brand temple it continues to be all about its spiritual leader: Karl figures and soft toys, Karl accessories, Karl comics on iPads (which my male co-shopper found a welcome entertainment), Karl books, Karl comic prints on clothes and, of course, fashion designed by Karl.

Besides the comic pieces, fashion pieces are marked by a youthful take on the designer’s distinct aesthetic, and the whole collection is displayed on iPads that are attached to the racks.


Karl, the lower priced line of Karl Lagerfeld, debuted on January 2012 through online designer fashion store net-a-porter. Stores were then opened in Paris and Amsterdam, with the most recent one opened in Berlin this month. Online, the brand comes to life with a content-driven website that consistently builds the brand and lifestyle universe of Karlism.

What is Karlism’s recipe for success?

As we all know, the secret of strong brands is that the value perceived by the consumer goes far beyond the pure functionality of the product. But the most successful brands go even one step further: they create quasi-religious feelings in an increasingly agnostic world.

A view into people’s minds suggests that there is some truth to this. According to diverse experiments – for example, those by the Danish marketing guru Martin Lindstrom – certain branded products and famous logos triggers the same brain regions that religious symbols trigger with believers.

Are brands the new opium for the non-religious?

Several recent studies deal with what religious communities and brand communities have in common. Professor Gavan Fitzsimons and his team of researchers at Duke University found in a recent study that brands can fulfil one central function of religion: the increase of self-esteem.

Just as religion provides a sense of feeling loved by God and leading a valuable existence, wearing a status-displaying brand piece offers consumers a sense of feeling important and special, and that they deserve good things in life. Besides, brands like Karl provide the whole package of a lifestyle, set of values, attitudes and orientation in the jungle of modern culture and living.
Mirror, mirror on the wall

The individual is in the centre of this modern day religion. Individuals – and not only Karl but also his followers – are the stars of this staging. When probing a jacket in the dressing room, Karl was present via iPad to photo shoot me from all angles so I could see how the jacket looked from the back, and in case I was unsure, I could ask my friends on social media for feedback. Fabulous! …as the staff member commented.

After all, I couldn’t resist getting a little piece of Karlism for myself.



Only one question remains: Can religion-like fan communities be created consciously or do they develop autonomously? At least, the example of one of the world’s most fascinating communities of Apple fanatics, suggests the latter. Apple’s customers formed fan clubs long before the brand even took notice of them.

This highlights that clearly there are success factors of building an influential brand, but also the strong self-dynamics of the communities they resonate with.

In Karl’s case, the detailed, perfect execution of creating a whole lifestyle universe that goes beyond the function of a fashion brand – where followers know what to wear, what to listen to, what to like and how to carry themselves – has many of the ingredients of building a religion-like consumer empire.

Katharina Kuehn is the director of RDG Insights.





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