Joseph Altuzarra’s decadent A/W 12 collection launched him into the top of the fashion elite. The designer speaks to Indigo Clarke about his influences, being a school nerd and meeting his hero.
On a particularly iconic downtown-cool Manhattan block exists designer-of-the-moment Joseph Altuzarra’s studio, slated between cult NY eatery The Smile (where at any given hour lines form around the block) and hallowed concept-boutique, Opening Ceremony. The shabby-chic locale, tucked between SoHo and Chinatown’s frantic thoroughfares, couldn’t be more fitting for the young designer renowned for his sophisticated yet urban aesthetic.
The Paris-born, New York-based Altuzarra has been on the radar of fashion insiders since his humble 2008 debut (a 12-look presentation where models outnumbered available shoes), though more acutely following his breakout risqué Tim Burton-inspired leather patchwork confections of A/W10, and grungy 90s-style argyle-print and reworked outerwear for A/W11. While his chameleonic ability to present a radically new vision each season (much like London’s Christopher Kane) captivated fashion's elite from his label's inception, it was his most recent A/W12 offering that thrust him firmly into the global spotlight.
“My latest A/W collection was kind of a milestone for me,” explains the charming designer from his sparse whitewashed studio, bookshelves lined with fashion magazines and vases of white roses and peonies breaking up the space. “Like the Tim Burton collection, it was the most ‘complete’ and representative of the brand I’ve done. It was sexy but complex, and from a commercial perspective very consumable. There was a strong vision and offered pieces that women could pick out and think, ‘I would wear that to death’, which is the hallmark of timeless houses like Celine.”
Altuzarra’s ‘vision’ for his brand is simple – “we are very French in spirit,” he says, unwaveringly. “The French woman has that mix of bourgeoisie and perversity, sensuality and sexuality… The idea of empowerment is also an important factor – it’s become more crucial as women have taken on increasingly powerful positions in the workplace.”
It is women, not girls, for whom Altuzarra designs – and ultimately this distinction sets him apart from his oft-compared New York contemporaries, and friends, Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, and Alexander Wang. “Alex [Wang] and I had a couple of seasons that were really similar, and you can’t imagine the amount of times people said to us, ‘you two have been hanging out way too much!’” he recalls, laughing. “Even I can see the similarity sometimes, but the product is very different. I dress someone a little older and more assured of her sexuality. I am more about creating for women, not girls.”
Remarkably, Altuzarra’s fast ascent cannot be neatly attributed to his game-changing Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) award win late last year, or the substantial commercial interest gained after creating an eponymous capsule line for American sportswear giant J Crew following the accolade. Nor can it simply be ascribed to being admired, and mentored even, by numerous multi-disciplinary fashion luminaries including Anna Wintour, Diane Von Furstenburg, Tom Ford, Carine Roitfeld and Jenna Lyons. Rather Joseph Altuzarra, at just 29 years of age and with no formal fashion or business training, has won international renown, and commercial success, in four short years through cultivating an impressively cohesive and mature vision for his brand – evidenced in full force by his flawless, critically lauded, A/W12 collection.
Inspired by “iconic French Gypsy-sailor” 60s comic-book character Corto Maltese, the collection fusing eccentric flounces and embellishment with classic tailoring and lithe silhouettes was a triumph of art successfully meeting commerce. There was also a decadent sense of play, accentuated most keenly in the coin-encrusted ruffled dresses donned by the models photographed in and around Altuzarra's studio during the interview, causing a flurry of jangling as they excitedly flitted and twirled in front of mirrors like children in fancy dress, capturing their reflections on mobile phones.
Altuzarra designs for, “a woman who is not afraid of aging, who wants to remain sexy and seductive,” for those who are successful in their own right, not simply ‘it-girls’ with money to burn. “A woman who really inspires me is Carine Roitfeld. Beyond the way she dresses, she is inspiring because she’s emblematic of today and how older women feel about their bodies," he suggests. "20 years ago, it would have been seen as inappropriate or vulgar to want to look sexy at 55. Today, with knowledge about eating right, exercise and even plastic surgery women who are 45, 55, 65 still want to feel beautiful and desired – and that’s a great thing.”
“We are starting to see it more and more in popular culture with mature actresses like Meryl Streep continuing to play romantic leads,” he continues. “Women don’t feel life has to stop because they are over 40. A big part of Alaia’s success is that he cornered that market - everyone looks beautiful in Alaia. And honestly, older women are the ones who can afford it.”
Creatively-oriented since childhood, Altuzarra had an interest in art and trained to be a ballet dancer until 14 when he realised he “was never going to be tall enough”. Though enjoying a privileged upbringing in Paris with his merchant banker parents and elder brother (now an Environmental Engineer based in Singapore), his youth wasn’t particularly enjoyable. “I had a very unhappy high school experience in France,” Altuzarra reflects, “I didn’t have a lot of friends, I was super nerdy.” His interest in clothing a bi-product of being an outsider fascinated by the transformative power of fashion, “My attraction to clothing came from wanting to be more liked at school. All those teen movies like ‘She’s all that’ were coming out, pushing the notion that the right outfit would just change everything and suddenly your life would be great.”
A trans-Atlantic move affected Altuzarra’s desired life change, his experience at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College studying Art History providing the impetus to pursue fashion. “I came out very early and that was difficult for me in France,” he pauses, and with a contented sigh continues, “Arriving in the US was awesome! I went to a very liberal school, it was the complete opposite of France, which was quite conservative. It was like gay guys were super cool, and it was very artsy and political –exactly what I wanted.” Upon graduating, he applied for an internship at Marc Jacobs on a whim and without prior experience or an appropriate degree fortuitously made the cut. After six months, he moved to Proenza Schouler and finally to Givenchy assisting Ricardo Tisci, gleaning the basics of cutting and tailoring. “Ricardo is such a narrative guy. He’s really interested in how the story evolves throughout a collection, I learned so much from him,” Altuzarra considers. “I decided to start my own line when I realised I had something to say – because as an assistant it’s your job to put your own perspective aside.”
Altuzarra as a brand, he’s the first to admit, would not have been possible without the financial, and emotional, support of his parents. “Their help has been crucial,” he readily allows. “People often ask why there are so many Asian designers in New York and I think it’s because a lot are family-backed –like Italians it’s a family-centric culture. I never feel negativity from other designers because of this – though, it could be different if we were in, say, London where hardship is considered part of the process. A really good example of the New York fashion community letting the quality of the product speak for itself is Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s line being entirely embraced.”
Yet another pivotal factor in Altuzarra's brand taking shape was the lasting influence of audacious designer Tom Ford. “Without Tom Ford, I doubt my label would even exist," he reasons. " Tom Ford was so inspiring to me, he was one of the first openly gay men I knew of, and it got me through high school. I always say he was the Gianni Versace of my generation, because he really hammed it up in a subversive and chic way. He stood for everything you think fashion is about as a young person – glamour, sex and being hot. Growing up with his super-sexy ad campaigns shaped how I look at fashion, and Carine [Roitfeld] inspiring both of us is not necessarily a coincidence.”
Coming full-circle, at New York’s CFDA awards last year the young designer encountered his hero. With an endearingly disbelieving laugh, Altuzarra recalls, “It was so awesome. Tom Ford came over saying ‘I’m such a huge fan of yours’, and I was like, ‘I’m such a big fan of yours!’ It was like ‘what? This is so crazy.’” Actress Kate Bosworth was by his side for the event, donning one of the key looks from his latest collection, “Kate is so sweet, and just really chill, I loved attending with her. It’s so nice to dress someone that loves your clothing and understands what you do.” And appreciate his talent Bosworth most certainly does, “I feel so lucky and excited to be the same generation as designer’s like Joseph, Alex Wang and Proenza Schouler,” she says enthusiastically over the phone from LA. “They are so talented and continually challenge themselves, but also support each other and are so willing to share ideas, it’s inspiring. Joseph is so impressive, for someone so young he has such a mature point of view and takes his work very seriously. I am such a fan and really believe in his vision.”
Joseph Altuzarra's thoughts on some key industry insiders:
I think Ricardo was my true first mentor. He was the person who gave me a chance to become the Designer that I am now and he really allowed me into his process and I’ll always be so grateful for that. He is so talented. He is to me the epitome of a Designer who stayed true to his vision despite what people were saying. He really stuck by what he believed in, and it paid off.
Jenna Lyons is such a visionary woman. She’s amazing and she’s incredible because she really know her brand. She knows if something is on brand or off brand and she’s such an inspiring person because of it because she can just cut through the bullshit and know what needs to happen. She understands brands so well.
Diane Von Furstenburg:
Diane Von Furstenburg is like my Godmother. She is such an incredible benevolent figure in the fashion community. At every step she has just been so kind and offered support and encouragement and advice. Actually we have a couple of her wrap dresses in the back because I’d never seen a wrap dress in person and it’s such an iconic thing and such an amazing idea. She’s such an amazing designer.