The big interview

Joseph Altuzarra interview: ‘The fashion landscape has changed so dramatically’

New York fashion designer celebrates the 12th anniversary of his business

“What I have really cherished,” says Joseph Altuzarra, sat behind the desk of his white and bare-walled New York office, “is that I feel really lucky to have been able to communicate with a lot of other designers and business owners who I wouldn’t normally have spoken with. To be able to have conversations about the challenges that we’re going through and how they’re tackling it.”

Altuzarra is talking about how he’s been coping during the pandemic. The designer only moved back into the city at the end of September having been residing in the Hamptons – he recently opened a new store on East Hampton’s Maine street – since March.

“These last few months have really helped me focus on who we’re talking to and what the purpose of what we’re doing really is,” he says.

It’s been 12 years since Altuzarra launched his namesake label, in 2008, amid the recession. The former first assistant to Riccardo Tisci - during his Givenchy days - says this has kept him “fiscally responsible” ever since.

In that time, Altuzarra has scooped numerous industry accolades, winning the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund in 2011 and being named the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Womenswear Designer of the Year in 2014. In 2013, the luxury conglomerate Kering took a minority stake in the business. And the brand swapped the runways of New York Fashion Week for Paris Fashion Week back in 2017. The following year, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, would be applauded for wearing looks from the designer who, unlike many of his contemporaries, managed to weather fashion’s various storms along the way.

Making the cut

“The fashion landscape has changed so dramatically,” says Altuzarra who, from the Zoom lens up, is casually dressed in a sweater and jewelled with rings and a necklace.

He considers his own experience of launching a brand to be, in some ways, quite straightforward. “I’m not saying it was an easy entry into fashion but there were clear gatekeepers and there was a clear way of entering the industry.” It involved showing editors and buyers cyclically-based presentations or shows, staged in one of the world’s fashion capitals.

“It’s been really interesting to see how that model basically exploded. There’s been this opening-up of how talent is coming to the surface and I think that’s been a really wonderful thing to see - that you can post images on Instagram and build a business that way.”

He experienced it first hand in his role as a judge on Amazon Prime Video’s Making The Cut, alongside Naomi Campbell, Carine Roitfeld and Nicole Richie. In the show, which premiered earlier this year, hosts Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum lead 12 designers and entrepreneurs in a competition to win $1m (£750,475) and the chance to turn their business into a real brand.

“Seeing that Amazon Prime customers who were watching the show and watching these designers create these pieces would then also go on Amazon and buy the pieces because they felt so connected,” he says. “[It] was really kind of like this lightbulb moment for me.” Both in terms of business strategy and in exploring entertainment as an avenue - he surprised himself at just how much he enjoyed the latter.

Everything is branded

Being out of the fashion cycle during the pandemic has, he says, freed him up in terms of creativity, which is something he thinks is lacking in the way the fashion world works today. “I feel like when I started out a lot of the designers that were being lauded of my generation, were designers who were chameleons in a lot of ways. Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquière to a certain degree. And a lot of designers from season to season would change their aesthetic, change their points of view.”

Today, he feels like everything is branded. “I mean that in the literal sense, like everything has a brand name on it. In 2008, there was a lot more fluidity in fashion. Designers, they were much more free to explore the boundaries of their creativity, whereas today if you’re streetwear, you’re streetwear.” Notably Altuzarra, the brand – known for its sensuality, femininity and dressed-up, polished sensibility – is definitely not. “We don’t do sweatshirts,” he says, but has taken on board the current mood for a more relaxed way of dressing.

“Really, for me, the brand is this Venn diagram: it’s multicultural in the sense that I’m multicultural.” Altuzarra was born in Paris and had a French, American and Chinese upbringing. “It has a very curious outlook,” he says and also notes artisanal craft as an inspiration.

For spring/summer 2021, like most designers, he chose to show via film format in lieu of a physical show. A short documentary captured him designing in the studio and explaining his fascination with the season’s light plaid fabrics and voluminous silhouettes before models walked through a warehouse space.

“I thought it was so fascinating to watch what everyone did, some of them were so clever,” he says, namechecking Jeremy Scott’s Moschino and Maison Margiela.

Though, he is a little nostalgic for that, too. Pre-social media, his first – and now favourite – show took place at a Manhattan gallery space, which he managed to wangle via someone he knew, who knew the owner, in exchange for jackets for all the staff. “I had to walk with my dad to an ATM to get $600 for the hair and makeup assistants and we had, I think 15 models and 20-something looks and we only had eight pairs of shoes.” All of which required a shoe-swapping chart, complete with notes on insole inserts, to be made backstage. He found it surreal and thrilling.

“I think I’m also looking at it through this lens now of fashion week will never look the same as it did in 2008, and shows won’t look the same and so I think I have this nostalgia for what I knew and loved, which I know won’t probably exist again in that way.” 

But he’s also excited for the future. Last year he discovered he was a huge fan of Etsy, the e-commerce website that specialises in handmade crafts, and pitched them the idea to collaborate. A home collection launched during lockdown. “That’s a space I’m also really interested in,” he says. And assures, teasingly, there’s more to come on the entertainment front. “I’ll keep you posted on what happens.”

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