Joseph Altuzarra Interview

Monday, January 29, 2018

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By: Stevie Dance

POP32_ALTUZARRA2

A discussion in late December of 2014 with the young French/American talent Joseph Altuzarra on: Sex & Seduction, the process of designing for the female form, and how age shouldn’t matter. From Carine Roitfeld to The Slit! – and on the eve of a full moon no less – the New York-based creative being touted for the next Big Job on what defines desirability to him.

Stevie Dance: Can you tell me where you find yourself as we wrap this year and head into a new one?

Joseph Altuzarra: Pretty happy, it’s been a really good year. I just got married.

SD: Congratulations! Tell us more!

JA: I got married about a month ago, but I’ve known him for almost ten years. We have been dating officially for about four years, though…

SD: So you guys are as steady as…

JA: We are steady!

SD: Did you find that heightened romantic aspect of your life has affected your work?

JA: Yes.

SD: How so?

JA: This last spring collection was more romantic because I just felt very in love. Romance has given me a lot of balance. When I started the company I was single, I would work all the time, and I think I was too focused on work. I think having a personal life has made me a more balanced person but I think when I am at work I am now a more focused person.

SD: I remember once reading this interview with Francis Ford Coppola where he said that he could put his success down to one simple point. He said he got married very young so he could stop chasing tail, which enabled him to be extremely focused on evolving creatively. I’m adlibbing but it went on about how if you can find a way to build a clan around yourself then you have more luck at achieving success at work than you would when blindly chasing at it all at once.

JA: You know another thing, I think partly it’s subconscious but I do think if your entire happiness doesn’t revolve around your work life, I find that I can take more risks.

SD: I read in an interview once that you started your own business because you had something you knew you wanted to say. I am interested in hearing what that message was.

JA: So the basis of it was sex. Sexuality. Desirability.
I think when I started the brand I felt that a lot of the audience that luxury brands were talking to were really like girls. I think there were fewer designers who were really talking to women.
I felt there was sort of this sentiment that women were aging differently and they were giving into their bodies differently. Forty years ago, it was sort of inappropriate to be sexy, you had to wear your twinset and your tweed suit and that’s what you had to wear for the rest of your life. I think despite ones age women still want to be desirable. I think that they still want to feel sexy. So that was sort of my idea at the beginning. And then I also wanted to mix this very American side of my upbringing, which translates into more pragmatism and more ease with something that was much more European from my French side, my upbringing that was a bit more sophisticated or tailored or seductive in that way.

SD: I think it’s harder to be indulgent or seductive with the way you present yourself in this city, because you become so practical here in New York. Your sweater, it is such an afterthought. Where you place it, or how it falls just so, that attention to detail doesn’t really happen here.

JA: I think the interesting thing about my generation of designers which are mainly I would say Anglo-Saxon, that are American or British, is this general move toward this melding of practicality.

SD: Techy fabrications for active lifestyles…

JA: Right, I think there is a real shift going on there. I think the whole industry is moving in that direction, I think this era of the clothes that are only for the runway and don’t actually have a life beyond the runway is beginning to fade away. I think designers are understanding that their clothing needs to have an end use. It needs to be wearable and, of course, most people wear like a sweater and a pair of jeans.
People are a bit more pragmatic about their clothes. I think that is a very interesting aspect about the time we live in.

SD: So how does Altuzarra encourage desirability and seduction in such so-called pragmatic times? Is it your slits? They are higher than everybody else’s. Is the leg your favourite part of the body?

JA: That’s definitely part of it. But I think some of it comes from talking to women and customers early on. You know a lot of women feel comfortable about their legs, more comfortable showing their legs than showing their arms… and I think that’s a big part of it, you sort of have to get into it, the slit thing! I mean I am a man, I don’t wear slit skirts but I sort of get that yeah, if I was a woman I’d feel good about my legs, I can imagine it would be sort of fun to cross my legs and have a bit of my upper thigh showing and I’d enjoy a bit of play.

SD: Irrespective of your age as well I think…

JA: Yes, exactly. But I think a lot of the desirability we try to bring… [pointed pause] It is a good question…

SD: Do you have a formula for melding it all? This American element with this European sex vibe.

JA: I’m really into something sort of functional. Like I’m really into Barbour, the hunting jackets. So I will think, how do I make that feel sexy? How do I make it feel like something, which is not so shapeless or formless? The American side a lot of times is almost fetishizing American culture.
I think the sexiness thing is an interesting thing because I don’t think women, or at least the Altuzarra woman, wants to be overtly sexy. I don’t think she necessarily wants to wear like an Herve Leger dress. Some of our customers might, I’m sure there is cross over, but a lot of the time I think it’s like you wear your button-down shirt, but like really unbuttoned, or you wear your hunting jacket with just a slip top or slip dress underneath. I think a lot of it has to do with your attitude to what is underneath your clothes.

SD: We see this in the styling of your shows – there is always a prudence or conservatism within the tailoring and the structure, and obviously the heritage of your tailoring or whatever, but there is something a little sinister or undone about it all… which I love.

JA: The undoneness is a big part of it, you’re exactly right.

SD: To brew that sexuality… ?

JA: Every season there is always something that feels like a bit undone or a bit hanging down, like a tie that’s untied or a button that’s unbuttoned.

SD: That feels very French to me.

JA: That is very French.

SD: You know whenever I see a woman’s style whom I admire, just on the street or wherever, there is always a bit of it that feels considered or traditional but worn in a way where it’s a bit falling off. That’s what I think is lovely.

JA: And you know I think that’s very much a very subtle way of showing seductiveness and sexiness.

SD: So in line with talking about fetishizing American culture: you have mentioned that Rosemary’s Baby was an influence on your recent S/S 15 collection. All that gingham particularly seems just right – it was so posh and pure and then so not at the same time.

JA: Well the gingham did come from a very fetishistic place, sort of fetishizing American culture. It was also fetishizing things that were very sweet. A lot of the collections start with movies and it starts with a sort of feeling or a specific storyline or mood. And what I love about Rosemary’s Baby is how childlike she is but at the same time how sexually perverse the whole scenario is.

SD: I know it’s wild. When you rewatch it as well. The first time I watched it I was a teenager and then I rewatched it in my thirties… you pick up on so much more subtext.

JA: You really realise what a twisted movie and story it is. I thought that was an interesting premise because it was so… sexual. I don’t know why I am so into the sexual part of it. I don’t know why I find that so interesting. The way that we styled the pieces was about undoing that sweetness.

SD: They were my favourite pieces of the collection and the ones I really wanted to showcase in this issue.

JA: Thank you. You know sometimes the collections start with things that I have trouble with stylistically. You know, how do I work with something like gingham, which doesn’t feel like it is our brand, which I feel uncomfortable with, how do I make it feel Altuzarra? A lot of the times with the collections I am most proud of there is always this moment or this tension that I don’t feel totally comfortable with. And I work through that purposefully and make it feel right.

SD: So who do you imagine when you are designing? I mean I have seen lots of videos of you drawing, so much that it seems that you draw for weeks on end.

JA: I do, I draw a crazy amount.

SD: And who are you in your mind when drawing? Is there a face, do you see them?

JA: A lot of times it is Carine [Roitfeld]. It’s like a lot of times I have to picture this one person wearing the clothes. It is not necessarily Carine now; it is the spectrum of Carine.

SD: Is it what she stands for then?

JA: Yes I do think it is what she stands for because it is not necessarily Carine at 60. It could be Carine at thirty or whatever. It is in a lot of ways much more who she stands for than actually her. That looseness and undoneness.

SD: I also love that there is grandeur in her sexuality that you know has only come with her age. The French understand the value of age and beauty. I think there is something so empowering about what Carine takes from her age and years.

JA: Yes totally, it is very empowering. I feel like American women and American culture is all culture of Correction. You are always in the gym, getting a lot of plastic surgery, you are wearing like a lot of make-up and your hair is always perfect. In France I feel it as much more about embracing who you are, of your assets but also your flaws and not being so hung up on your sexuality. I think that is something I really, really like. One of the things about Carine that I love is that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. And there are elements to her and her style that are not so controlled, as control takes a lot of the fun out of it.

SD: And I think it removes the sense of intuition because it literally becomes so formulaic, the way people put their looks together or the way designers or the high street encourage people to put their looks together.

JA: Totally.

SD: It removes all sense of intuition and sexuality, you know everything is a formula to be Trendy. And if you let your skin breathe a bit, maybe something actually might happen.

JA: That’s more exciting.

SD: What do you find to be the biggest constraints of the industry?

JA: That’s a good question. I think there is a big problem with the seasons. I think the relationship between the way collections are shown and when they are shown and when they arrive in stores is a really shifting and unclear territory. I think pre-fall is an interesting season. Pre-fall sounds like it’s a fall collection, it should be things you want to buy for winter. But really pre-fall arrives in the middle of the summer. Maybe there used to be a customer who would want to buy their summer clothes in July, so now your pre-fall needs to be things that you can wear in the summer, but it can’t look like summer because the summer clothes are on sale, so you don’t want your customer to be confused. I think there’s a lot of different customers who are buying very differently and have a lot of different needs. I think that’s a constraint, the seasons, it becomes almost a design constraint, it affects it because to a certain degree I want my clothes to be worn and obviously desirable and not knowing, having that unclear territory is a very confusing thing, as a designer, because parameters have always been really important to me. I think that there are vastly different expectations between editors and buyers, and of what they want to see, and that can be challenging too.

SD: When you say that you like to design within parameters, why is that?

JA: I think because I am a better designer when I am trying to find solutions to a problem. If I design in a vacuum and I don’t know why or what I am designing it for, I don’t think it is going to be as impactful. I need to know the problem.

SD: So what do you consider to be your greatest luxury?

JA: Well there are a lot of luxuries now I am very happy with… I would say one of the greatest luxuries is having the peace of mind because I work with a very enthusiastic, talented team who are very skilled and know what they are doing. I also think that is pretty rare.

SD: It is pretty rare I agree, but it is a huge luxury and it’s one you’ve created right? Your team and their morale…

JA: Right! Their morale! The spirit of the company is key. That was something which was really important to me. And when I talk about my vision for the brand, obviously 80% of it is the clothing but 20% is like what I’d envision inside of the company and how the company is run. You know I worked at three big companies before starting my own and I learned a lot in those places, a lot of wonderful things and also what I didn’t like. I hated this whole idea that if you had a one-hour lunch or a one-and-a-half hour lunch someone was going to yell at you, or if you wanted to take your Friday afternoon off somebody was going to look at you weird. I think the wellbeing and happiness of everyone in the company is paramount for them as individuals but I also think selfishly it makes them much more creative, productive, happy to be here when they are here and I don’t want my job as a creative director or manager to be clocking in hours.

SD: Because we all give far too many hours in our own way.

JA: It is sort of a wonderful thing about this industry. It’s not just a 9 to 5 industry. If someone wants to take fours days off on a trip but they get all of their work done or they are still following-up, I am not going to check in. I do not care. I also want the luxury to be able to go on a trip and not feel like my team is hating me or running amuck and I think that is one of the things I am most proud of. Maybe I am totally deluded.

SD: No I love that.

JA: I think most people here are very happy. We have a very low turnover in our staff. We are building it; it’s not like a family, because I think people should have their space…

SD: I was going to ask you that. Altuzarra is effectively a family run business because your mother is your CEO right?

JA: Not any more, she is the chairman of the board.

SD: Chairman of the board. How has that all been, working with your mum?

JA: Well we started… actually I started the business six years ago. And she came on pretty much right after, and I think it has been a really great ride and really great thing for my family who had nothing to do with fashion. We have had this wonderful growth in many respects. It has allowed people who are not in my family to feel invested too, to feel the growth of the brand and have some ownership of it.

SD: So can we talk about ballet? I know you were a dancer. I was too, 14 years classically trained. I find my training as a dancer still affects what I am attracted to in other people. Does it for you?

JA: When I was five years old or six years old, I saw Swan Lake in Paris where I grew up and I remember how magical it was. Stevie, it was like…

SD: The most beautiful thing in the world.

JA: Yes. It was with my school and we went backstage and it was like the best day of my life. And I started dancing at the conservatory and I danced there until I was fourteen years old.

SD: Classically?

JA: Yes. I was dancing a lot. I mean you know what it is like…

SD: So, so intense, seven days a week…

JA: I didn’t have great knees and I wasn’t very tall, and I wasn’t ever going to be very tall, and my dream had been to join the national ballet school, and partially its is my temperament that if I don’t think I can be the best at something then I’m not even going to do it. So I stopped ballet.

SD: It is the body though, the body gives in, and it is a genetic lottery being able to be a professional dancer. My feet gave in.

JA: I just knew at a certain point that I didn’t have the body for it.

SD: Did the training; the discipline must clearly have affected your work ethic. But how has it informed your woman?

JA: I always talk about a sense of grace, and I don’t know if that is like something that comes out so overtly in the clothes but my eye is very attracted to things that are very graceful or very symmetrical. I’m not a modern dance person; I am much more of a traditional, classical person. I like very long things, very lean things, my eye just likes that. I don’t know if that is ballet…

SD: I see ballet’s discipline in the silhouette, and the attention to the details in waist and in the shoulders, I see something in it. With Carine as the muse to the brand or her energy, I think she is very balletic.

JA: Yes, she is very balletic!

SD: There is no hiding of your central core at Altuzarra. That is why I love it so much, because it encourages a sense of posture and grace and discipline of the physical form. Which again I think is very balletic.

JA: Someone said to me once that Carine’s style was centred around a certain discomfort, like she doesn’t like like she is comfy and I think that is actually very tied to ballet. You try to make it look easy but it is all very uncomfortable.

SD: Completely uncomfortable and yet in all of it there is something completely seductive about that.

JA: Making discomfort appear so natural.

SD: I want to know what you think women don’t have in their wardrobes. What is next on your list? I have heard you say before that you like to fill these holes. Talk to me about where you are going with accessories.

JA: I think the accessories world is sort of all homogenised now. I think there is a lot of opportunity for different kinds of things, and I am not saying that I am the only one that is going to fill that void but I think there is a way of doing it in an Altuzarra way, which is interesting and exciting.
We are really starting to develop a language here. What is so interesting about building a brand is that 90% of it comes from within the company and comes from me deciding the direction. But then ten per cent or so maybe more comes from having conversation with people like you or other editors or customers who are telling you what you perceive the brand to be, and what they feel like it means to them.

SD: It must be so complicated to be designing for the opposite sex, I always find that so interesting. Like a chef who can’t taste his own food. It’s not like you can put the pants on and be like oooh this feels good over here. It must be very intuitive for you.

JA: I think as male designers you have to have the humility to know your limits, and to ask for other people’s opinions. I am lucky to have a lot of women around me who can sort of look at the things and try them on and be like, “I feel really fat in this” or “I feel really ugly in this” or “this actually makes me feel really skinny” or whatever the comment is. And a lot of times it is not what I thought it would be, it is not the reaction I thought I would get.

SD: I think that is why I am so attracted to what you do, because I find it so interesting that you are making things that people want to wear, rather than something someone thinks I should wear. It feels really like you know what we want, rather than what we should want. It feels very genuine to a feminine spirit.

JA: I think we are moving towards an era where designers are thinking about their customer and commercial is not a bad word. And where I think that editors are appreciating the wearability of a runway show. In a lot of ways that was a shift that started with Céline and that should be remembered and stated. I think that Phoebe Philo’s first Céline show was so powerful to a lot of people because it was ultimately a very wearable collection. Something new started right there and it’s growing still.

JA: I think we are moving towards an era where designers are thinking about their customer and commercial is not a bad word. And where I think that editors are appreciating the wearability of a runway show. In a lot of ways that was a shift that started with Céline and that should be remembered and stated. I think that Phoebe Philo’s first Céline show was so powerful to a lot of people because it was ultimately a very wearable collection. Something new started right there and it’s growing still.

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