“There’s something obscene about the way the industry looks now,” said Joseph Altuzarra, referring to the famous circus surrounding today’s super-luxury brand fashion shows. “I feel like I’m giving up.”
For the designer’s 15th anniversary New York Fashion Week show on Sunday at his studio, he’s going back to something timeless and exclusive, with 70 people who have been part of his life and career from Day One.
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He remembers well his first show, in February 2009 at a small art gallery, which he got for free in exchange for donating clothes to the gallery’s staff. “I remember going to the ATM and withdrawing $650 to pay for the hair and makeup,” he said during an early morning visit to his studio this week. “My mom baked cookies, we had a boom box on the floor and I literally pressed play when the show started.”
The ingredients of his brand were there from the beginning – sensuality and craftsmanship, which sometimes had a bohemian bent. In the fall of 2012, he established his take on tailoring, showcasing the split skirts that became his signature and pea coats that customers still flock to today.
His first of many, many shirt dresses, flirty in blue gingham, came down the runway for spring 2015, both editorial and pragmatic style.
And by spring 2016, a green tie shirt was such a commercial success, it established a blueprint for the dress of the season, as well as banishing shibori color as a recurring collection motif.
After decamping to Paris for four years, when his clothes outgrew him, Altuzarra settled back in New York in 2021, and is now more sure than ever of what he stands for.
Last year he opened his second store after the New York flagship, in Palm Beach, Fla. He has switched from a majority wholesale model to 50/50 wholesale to dtc, and business is growing 30 percent year over year .
“This is the biggest year in our history, and what’s exciting is that the product is really resonating. I think we really understand [better] who is our customer and it has changed how I think. The culmination of my creative process was the show. And now the most important thing is the customer’s clothes.”
As a result smaller collections are not driven by themes. “For fall, I was really interested in this collection in the idea that things would feel a lot more collected over time,” he said during a preview. “I don’t think people are going into a store and buying into a story now. They’re buying the great item, the Celine jacket and the great Phoebe Philo pant and the great Saint Laurent blazer and picking and choosing.”
Previously, if he had designed a black-and-white Harlequin hero dress like the one in his fall collection, it would likely have been part of a story with a pleated skirt, and a button-down sweater—a highly merchandized proposition, he said.
“Instead there is this one unique item that lives completely independently of the rest of the collection, which was definitely a new challenge. The collection has already been bought by retailers and we were very confident about how they were going to react to this. And I think they really liked it. It’s much more like they’re buying goods.”
It’s an approach that many other designers have leaned into in recent seasons, from Alessandro Michele when he was at Gucci, to Tory Burch.
The overarching idea for fall 2024 is a “dressed look,” he said, using inspiration from equestrian clothing (Altuzarra kills horses competitively in the Hamptons), to the glamor of Tamara de Lempicka’s portraits, for Princess Diana.
Add to that an interest in theater and performance, said name-check designer Rudolf Nureyev, a personal hero since Altuzarra seriously considered pursuing professional ballet as a career while a student in Paris.
The season’s dress is a sleeveless scarf print style in an abstract equestrian brush print inspired by vintage scarves found in Paris. Double faced cashmere trench coats; peacocks; lush tailoring; dresses with silk bias and shell tops in various shades of ivory; harlequin tops; Burlesque-style jet dresses allover beaded, and tuxedo shirts round out the offerings. And in a very strange area there are heavy metal horse-shaped bracelets, inspired by Altuzarra’s teething toy for children.
“I would be very happy if we had Dries in 15 years [Van Noten] business. I think that’s the kind of trajectory. And what makes Altuzarra special – and of course, I’m biased but I think it’s also made us stand out from our peers – is that we’ve always sold clothes to real people. I have never been a brand or a person in pursuit of cool; I don’t know if that’s my personality. I don’t care about being cool.
“Our real strength is making clothes, which is the mainstay of our business, and I think there’s a lot of potential for growth. And what’s been interesting is doing things like the West Elm collaboration, and more projects coming out, is the brand really resonates within my community,” he said.
After New York and Palm Beach, LA is the next market he’s looking for a store. He has also seen success doing charity shows in other cities, such as Charlotte, NC, and St. Louis. “Women are very hungry for fashion.”
Although Altuzarra had a minority investment from Kering in 2013, they parted amicably in 2020 and the brand has been self-funded ever since. “I still talk to them, they help almost like these father figures,” he said. “So I have very good experience working with groups. And it’s definitely something I’m happy to do again.”
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