Hubert Burda Media

Joseph Altuzarra's journey to the top

The New York-based designer tells us about building his brand – and why he's not moving to Paris any time soon.

Joseph Altuzarra with Vanessa Traina (left) and Melanie Huynh

While lack of diversity on fashion runways is a hot-button issue, another less talked-about problem is the industry’s obsession with youth. You can’t deny that ageism is rampant in fashion, from adolescent models featured in magazine editorials to young actresses chosen as the faces of luxury brands.

Given that the women who can actually afford high-end wares are not waifish teenagers but well-rounded adults, you can’t help wondering why brands keep catering to barely out-of college 20-year-olds who are far from the average luxury shoppers.

Not many designers, especially of the younger generation, have addressed this topic, busy as they are chasing the limelight offered by social media and the short attention spans of young aspiring consumers who may “like” every Instagram post but don’t actually pony up the money for that big-ticket item.

French-born New York-based designer Joseph Altuzarra, on the other hand, has made it his mission to dress real women with full lives since he founded his label in 2008, after stints at American brands Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler, and Parisian house Givenchy.

Backstage at Joseph Altuzarra's autumn/winter 2016 show

Backstage at Joseph Altuzarra's autumn/winter 2016 show

His grown-up and sophisticated aesthetic, an effortless mix of French élan and American practicality, has won him raves from his very first collection, making him the go-to designer for women who want to look polished but not prim, more downtown chic than Park Avenue posh. In a matter of years, Altuzarra has built strong style signatures such as slit skirts and slightly open blouses, which give their wearer a frisson of insouciance and sensuality while never suggesting that she’s dressed to impress.

While fellow designers of his generation, especially stars such as his friend Alexander Wang or the latest darlings of the New York scene, Public School, infuse their collections with the tropes of street wear that are all the rage at the moment, Altuzarra has kept refining his aesthetic, building a repertoire of key pieces that are flattering and elegant without being too proper or old school.

A look from Joseph Altuzarra's autumn/winter 2016 collection

“I think it’s important for designers to own their own universe and it tends to be the most difficult thing for people to recognise what you’re about, or for people to be able to say, ‘This feels like Altuzarra’ or ‘This looks like Altuzarra’, and I think that it was very important very early on for me to establish what that vocabulary was – what the foundation of the brand was going to be, aesthetically, at least,” says the designer when we meet him during Paris Fashion Week, almost a month after he’s shown his autumn/winter 2016 collection in New York. “You’re never going to be everything to everyone – it’s more important to create a world that feels desirable, seductive and interesting, and that people want to be a part of, even if it’s just a few pieces, rather than try to fragment your message to try to please these people and these people. Because in the end, then you’re like nothing; you’re so many things to so many people that you’re not actually one thing anymore.”

So in a season when the utilitarian vibe espoused by brands like Vetements is pervading runways from New York to Paris and the accessorised-to-the-hilt magpie look of Gucci influences shows all over Milan and the high street, women looking for a tailored jacket that doesn’t look too corporate or a pencil skirt that doesn’t scream ’80s power suit know that they can rely on Altuzarra to provide them with the foundations of their wardrobes.

“I think it’s very important to stick to your message, no matter what happens,” says Altuzarra. “There’s this whole sort of culture, right now, this sort of street style, which I think is very relevant for some people and some people do it very well – and we don’t. It was sort of the same when minimalism was happening at the beginning of Céline; everyone was doing it but I’m not a minimal designer, it’s not what I’m into, and I just felt like some people did it really well so there’s really no point in trying to do it yourself – and you know, our woman is fundamentally someone who wants to seduce, wants to feel beautiful, wants to feel sexy in a lot of ways.”

Joseph Altuzarra backstage at his autumn/winter 2016 show

Joseph Altuzarra backstage at his autumn/winter 2016 show

Whether it’s French editor Carine Roitfeld, (an early supporter Altuzarra first met while working at Givenchy), or his close collaborators, stylists Melanie Huynh and Vanessa Traina, the women who surround Altuzarra – and those he designs for – are not shrinking violets or sheltered trophy wives but confident characters who are not afraid of showing the right amount of skin, without ever coming across as sex bombs. “It’s more sensual,” explains Altuzarra. “It’s an attitude, it’s more about the idea of wanting to seduce without being so overt about it. It’s more about an adult kind of sexy ... I mean Melanie and Vanessa are so important because they help me have a dialogue about clothes and about what women want to wear in a very intuitive way, so it’s not an incredibly intellectual process.”

By sticking to his guns and homing in on his strengths with laser-like focus, Altuzarra, who credits New York and the support he received from the local fashion industry for his fast rise, is slowly building a 21st-century luxury label founded on real products rather than hype, something that, especially in New York, is quite a rarity.

When luxury group Kering, the owner of Gucci, decided to invest in the young label in 2013, it was a seal of approval from the establishment, perhaps a sign of bigger things to come, such as an oft-rumoured appointment at a Parisian maison, which would seem a perfect fit given Altuzarra’s background, talent and reputation. Although a fair share of houses have approached him, a gig at a big European brand is not on the cards. “I’m so dedicated to Altuzarra and I think today it’s very hard to do two things,” he says when pressed about the matter. “There’s a benefit to being wholeheartedly focused on one thing and to not spread yourself too thin. You always listen to everything that people come to you with, but right now I’m very much focused on Altuzarra.”

Aware of the challenges of growing a brand in such a competitive industry, Altuzarra has managed to carve out a niche for his work, building a loyal following thanks to his no-nonsense approach. “I didn’t want to start a brand just to start a label,” he explains about his desire to venture out on his own after working for other designers. “I wanted to be able to say something and to be able to have a voice and I very much felt like there was this place in the market for a designer who wanted to dress real women.”

From his international background to his unconventional career path (he’s never attended fashion school, graduating from Swarthmore College with a degree in art history and then apprenticing with a pattern maker in New York), Altuzarra is not your typical millennial designer who made it big thanks to social-media prowess and gimmicky exploits. That he’s charming, humble and articulate clearly helped speed things up along the way, but there’s real substance to his work and if there’s a name on the packed New York fashion scene that you’ll keep hearing about in years to come, it’ll undoubtedly be that of Joseph Altuzarra.