The Ascendance of Joseph Altuzarra

Exquisite tailoring and embellishment are the hallmarks of the young designer's ever-evolving aesthetic.

An acute eye for detail, texture, and color place Joseph Altuzarra in a league of his own. With ready-to-wear collections inspired by everything from 18th-century dandies, to Truman Capote’s stylish “swans,” to circa 1950 American railroad workers, New York–based Altuzarra is the thinking woman’s designer. His refined pieces—in a wide range of fabrics and finishes, including linen, leather, burlap, and velvet—all tell a visual story, and often incorporate parts of the designer’s Franco-American background, as well as his love of literature, film, and dance.

Raised in Paris by a Chinese-American mother and a French father, Altuzarra studied ballet before heading to the U.S. to pursue a degree in art history at Swarthmore College. It was through these studies that his eyes were opened to the world of fashion, one that he went on to learn about from the ground up, working at maisons on both sides of the Atlantic. With early experiences at Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler in New York, followed by an apprenticeship with patternmaker and former Rochas head Nicolas Caito, and after a role as first assistant to Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy, Altuzarra launched his eponymous line in 2008.

In just eight years the brand has become synonymous with feminine tailoring and a sophisticated-yet-playful aesthetic, with expansion continuing beyond the designer’s signature thigh-high slit skirts, vibrant silk blouses, flowy dresses, and fitted jackets. A minority investment by Kering in 2013 helped fuel the addition of a handbag line that includes a mix of casually structured shapes in everything from smooth calf to Sfumato leather to luxurious crocodile. It all culminated in 2014, when he was awarded the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s prestigious Womenswear Designer of the Year award.

Altuzarra’s spring/summer 2016 collection marks the next chapter in the designer’s multicultural, artistic exploration. It was the discovery of a book, Wilder Mann by Charles Fréger, featuring photographs of pagan rituals from the Basque region of France, that spurred the creation of this latest assortment of effortless, dip-dyed linen dresses and coats—as well as the exquisite mother of pearl and broderie anglaise embellishments that adorn them. Surface recently met with Altuzarra at his Soho atelier to discuss the influence of his banker parents, whom he credits with his pragmatism; his favorite campy films; and the role his husband, Seth Weissman, as well as friends including Alexander Wang and Vanessa Traina, play in his creative process.

You were born to a Chinese-American mother and French-Basque father. How does your background inform your design aesthetic?

It’s central to how I think about fashion and clothes and also my process. There is a duality between my French and American sides: I grew up in Paris surrounded by film and dance, so I have that French sensibility. On the other side, I’ve always been fascinated by American culture and the pragmatism, ease, and comfort it embodies. The marriage of these two sides of my personality is the Altuzarra brand.

I’ve read that you love film. Are there any movies that have been particularly impactful for you?

My parents love movies, and I grew up surrounded by all genres. One film that was particularly important was Si Versailles m’était conté [Royal Affairs in Versailles (1957)]. I watched this sprawling epic about life at Versailles over and over again, and the campy evolution of the costumes fascinated me. I also loved anything with Audrey Hepburn—Sabrina (1954) was a favorite—and tended toward less mainstream films as a teenager. Orlando (1992) had a huge effect on me because it was more ambiguous in its narrative.

Why did you choose to study at Swarthmore, and why art history?

Growing up bilingual with a Chinese-American mother, I always knew I wanted to study in the U.S. None of my classmates were going abroad for university at that time, and there were no SAT prep classes. I happened to see the film Ten Things I Hate About You (1999) in which the star ends up at Sarah Lawrence College. I looked it up online, and a box popped up saying, “If you like this school, you’ll also like Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams, Brown, and Haverford.” I applied to many of them, and one of my father’s colleagues suggested I go to Swarthmore. It was an incredible experience, as it was the first time I found my community—I was always nerdy in high school, and I finally felt free and surrounded by people like me. I loved studying art history: the analytical side of it, and the subjective way of looking at the world. I wrote an essay linking fashion advertising to classical art iconography, specifically about the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec on the Yves Saint Laurent Opium perfume advertisement with a naked Sophie Dahl. Art history spurred my love for fashion.

You had a very impressive CV prior to starting your own company. Did those experiences have an effect on the way you run your label?

When I worked at Proenza Schouler, there were just six people there, and I had no formal training or technical skills. I also apprenticed at Marc Jacobs just out of college, where I was lucky to be a part of that busy process. I went on to apprentice for Nicolas Caito at Rochas, where I learned the technical side of fashion design—pattern-making, draping—and this boosted my confidence greatly. Nicolas encouraged me to go back to Paris, where I met Riccardo [Tisci, creative director of Givenchy] and became his assistant for two years. I was so young and under-qualified, and he believed in me. He was a great mentor. I’m still incredibly grateful to him.

Your parents were both bankers and have been your biggest supporters. How did their business acumen help to launch the Altuzarra brand?

They made me a business-minded person, and I have always loved that side of the Altuzarra brand. My goal is success in design, but I always strive for financial success as well. Their involvement from the beginning—in the recession of 2008, no less—created a culture of frugality and an awareness of what we were spending. My mother, Karen, was the CEO of the brand for the first four years, before transitioning to our current CEO, Karis Durmer. My mom is still the chairman of the board and is actively involved in all aspects of the brand.

What was the inspiration for your first collection? Did you see a void in the market?

My first collection [spring/summer 2009] was born out of my wanting to create clothes that were sophisticated yet sexy, for a changing consumer. I was seeing women who were aging differently—through different nutrition and exercise—who wanted to be seductive and strong, but in an adult way. I saw women identifying with Meryl Streep, for example, who wanted to be the romantic lead in their own lives. That thought process has been the through-line for every collection since. Bottom line: Women want to be beautiful, not frumpy.

You create sophisticated, sexy clothes that combine a French and American sensibility. Is there a core customer? A muse?

[Stylists] Vanessa Traina and Melanie Huynh have been supporters since the very first season and represent the Altuzarra woman to me. These are women in their 30s, balancing full lives, who have an exacting, sophisticated sensibility. These women continue to inspire me, as do women like Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, who possess inherent style and self-confidence.

Who were your earliest champions?

Carine Roitfeld [former editor of Vogue Paris] has been an incredible mentor from the very beginning, even before my first collection. Mark Holgate is a great mentor and friend who set up my first meeting with Anna Wintour [editor of Vogue]. Funny story about my initial meeting with Anna: I was supposed to meet and present my collection to her the day after flying from Paris to New York, but the airline lost everything. She was gracious about rescheduling and has been an incredible supporter ever since. She called and got us into places like Barneys and Dover Street Market and really helped to launch the Altuzarra brand.

You’ve been the recipient of numerous awards: the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear Design in 2012, the CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2011, the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year Award in 2014. Which one has been the most meaningful?

The CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2011 was a huge moment for me because it was a competition: months of work and dedication went into the process, and ultimately, it put us on the map.

You’ve designed costumes for the New York City Ballet. Would you like to do more theatrical design?

That collaboration came about through a summer share in Fire Island several years ago. My husband and I were in a house with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who was working with the New York City Ballet at the time. I’ve always loved ballet and studied dance throughout my childhood, so when he asked if I might be interested in designing costumes I jumped at the chance. I went to all of the rehearsals and saw the choreography in progress, and we came up with a very American, casual look for this piece, one that was all about light, flirty garments that would highlight the movement of the dancers.

You’ve collaborated with Target and J. Crew, among other brands. What makes such projects interesting?

As the winner of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award, I was invited to collaborate with J. Crew on a collection of six pieces—a dress, shirts, sweaters, shoes—that were inspired by a preppy American aesthetic, but also by Breton stripes and French gingham. I wanted to play with the codes of prep, and also introduce Brigitte Bardot shapes and 1950s styling to a wider audience.

What made the sale of a minority stake to Kering particularly interesting to you?

I was approached by [Kering CEO François Henri] Pinault, who is a wonderful person and has respect for designers and their process. I felt that he loved our brand and could add value, and the partnership has been hugely beneficial to us. From the logistics of production teams in Italy, to helping with the development of our handbags, to expertise in margins and world geographies, we’re always learning from Kering.

Last fall saw the launch of your first collection of handbags, inspired by bull riding whips from the American Southwest. What do you love about their hand-woven details?

It was our first product extension, so it had to embody the core values of Altuzarra. I wanted the bags to have a French/American duality, and also to be sexy with an easy sensibility. I didn’t want them to be hard or structured, and I was focused on incorporating folkloric craft. I found the braided whips while researching online and fell in love with the handcrafted aesthetic, as well as their sturdiness and practicality.

What was the inspiration for the hardware and the handles? Do these elements fuse your love of things both French and American?

The ends of cigarette lighters were the inspiration for the gold hardware on the bags, and this is definitely the French influence. The closures and handles were inspired by equestrian life, specifically American horse culture. I have incorporated elements of the New Mexican riding whips into everything from hobo bags to cross-body versions.

With a bag, form follows function—what makes your elegant yet utilitarian bags work?

I wanted the bags to be beautiful, but ultimately they have to work for today’s busy, professional, stylish woman. The braiding of the straps needs to be soft and malleable, handles need to fit over bulky coats, and they often need to hold heavy things like laptops, so they need to be sturdy. And I was adamant about them being easy to open and close with one hand. The bags feature inside/outside zips, light linen insides so that finding keys is easy, and covered magnet closures that actually work but also look good.

What bag shapes will we see next and in what leathers?

The first bags were less structured, more casual, while the next version will be a more formal shoulder bag in smooth calf.

What has been the most challenging part of handbag design? Was there something you didn’t know going in?

When designing clothes, you aren’t always thinking about functionality first. With handbags, however, you can’t design unless you know how the person will use it. Will it hold an iPhone? A computer? Papers? I also didn’t know much about attaching handles and the importance of a swivel feature.

Your husband works in property development in New York. How did you meet?

We met 10 years ago, were friends for five years, and we married in 2014. One anecdote that gives insight into his personality is the story of our engagement. Every Saturday morning we walk our dog, Bean, and one of us goes for coffee and the newspapers. On this particular Saturday, Seth went out, changed into a tuxedo, and put a “Will you marry me?” collar on the dog. I said yes, of course, and was greeted by the Swarthmore a cappella group singing “A Whole New World.” From there we went to Soho House for a surprise engagement brunch for 100 friends. The entire day was spectacular.

While you aren’t particularly part of a flashy fashion party set, many of your friends—Alexander Wang, Christopher Turnier, Vanessa Traina—are involved in that world. How were these friendships formed, and why do you choose to lay low?

Part of it comes from knowing that the fashion world is fickle. I want my happiness to be predicated on things outside of the industry. I think it’s important to have deep, real, long-lasting friendships that I don’t have to put on Instagram. I’m lucky to have friends who are true and constant.

If you had to pick three items you would never part with, what would they be?

My platinum engagement ring by James de Givenchy engraved with the lyrics to “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which was our wedding song. Another precious object is a Hermès diary given to me by mother when I was 18. It’s embossed with my initials and is now full of sketches. The last thing isn’t an item or an object, but is Bean, our almost-8-year-old mini-schnauzer.

What’s next for you?

I’m a slow and steady person. I believe you have to be careful and deliberate about what you put out there. That said, our next area of focus would likely be shoes, where I’d like to expand dramatically.

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