Why Joseph Altuzarra Is Opting Out of the Fashion Circus

“There’s something kind of obscene about what the industry looks like now,” said Joseph Altuzarra, referring to the celebrity circus around today’s luxury superbrand fashion shows. “I do sort of feel like I’m opting out.”

For the designer’s 15th anniversary New York Fashion Week show happening Sunday at his studio, he is going back to something pared back and exclusive, with 70 people who have been part of his life and career since Day One.

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He remembers his first show well, in February 2009 at a small art gallery, which he got for free in exchange for gifting clothes to the gallery staff. “I remember going the ATM and pulling $650 to pay the hair and makeup,” he said during an early-morning visit to his studio this week. “My mom baked cookies, we had a boombox on the floor and I literally pressed play when the show started.”

Altuzarra fall 2009
Altuzarra fall 2009

The ingredients of his brand were there from the beginning — sensuality and craft, which has at times had a bohemian bent. In fall 2012, he established his take on tailoring, showing slit skirts that became a signature and pea coats that customers still come to him for today.

His first of many, many shirtdresses, flirty in blue gingham, came down the runway for spring 2015, an alluring style that was both editorial and pragmatic.

Altuzarra spring 2016
Altuzarra spring 2016

And by spring 2016, a green tie-dye shirtdress was such a commercial success, it established a blueprint for having a dress of the season, as well as debuting shibori dye as a recurring collection motif.

After decamping to Paris for four years, when his clothes took a more frou frou turn, Altuzarra settled back in New York in 2021, and is now surer than ever about what he stands for.

Altuzarra fall 2012
Altuzarra fall 2012

Last year he opened his second store after the New York flagship, in Palm Beach, Fla. He’s transitioned from a majority wholesale model to 50/50 wholesale to d-t-c, and business is growing 30 percent year over year.

“This is our biggest year in our history, and what is exciting is that the product is really resonating. I think we really understand [better] who our customer is and it’s changed how I design. It used to be that the end-all, be-all of my creative process was the show. And now the end-all, be-all is clothes on the customer.”

That’s resulted in collections less driven by themes. “For fall, I was really interested with this collection in the idea of things feeling much 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 jacket from Celine and the great pant from Phoebe Philo and the great blazer from Saint Laurent and picking and choosing.”

Altuzarra Pre-Fall 2018
Altuzarra pre-fall 2018

Previously, if he’d designed a black-and-white Harlequin hero dress like the one in his fall collection, it probably would have been part of a story with a pleated skirt, and a button down sweater version — a very merchandised offering, he said.

“Instead there’s this one unique item that lives completely independently of the rest of the collection, which was definitely a new challenge. Retailers have already bought the collection and we were very unsure how they were going to react to this. And I think they really loved it. It’s much more like they’re buying items.”

It’s an approach that plenty of other designers have leaned into in recent seasons, from Alessandro Michele when he was at Gucci, to Tory Burch.

Backstage at Altuzarra RTW Spring 2019
Backstage at Altuzarra spring 2019

The overarching idea for fall 2024 is “looking dressed,” he said, using inspiration from equestrian clothing (Altuzarra rides horses competitively in The Hamptons), to the glamour of Tamara de Lempicka portraits, to Princess Diana.

Add to that an interest in theater and performance, said the designer, name-checking Rudolf Nureyev, a personal hero since Altuzarra thought seriously about pursuing professional ballet as a career while he was a student in Paris.

The dress of the season is a sleeveless scarf print style in an abstract equestrian brushstroke print inspired by vintage scarves found in Paris. Double-face cashmere trenchcoats; peacoats; lush tailoring; silk bias-cut dresses and shell tops in different shades of ivory; harlequin tops; allover jet beaded burlesque-style dresses, and tuxedo shirts round out the offerings. And in the realm of wonderfully weird are bold metal horse-shaped cuff bracelets, inspired by Altuzarra’s childrens’ teething toy.

“I would be overjoyed if in 15 years we had a Dries [Van Noten] business. I think that’s sort of the trajectory. And what makes Altuzarra special — and obviously, 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 was never a brand or a person chasing cool; I just don’t know if that’s my personality. I don’t really care to be cool.

Altuzarra RTW Spring 2022
Altuzarra spring 2022

“Our strength is really in making clothes, which has anchored our business, and I think there’s an enormous amount of growth potential in that. And what’s been interesting doing things like the West Elm collaboration, and we have more projects coming out, is there is a real resonance of the brand within my community,” he said.

After New York and Palm Beach, L.A. is the next market he’s looking into for a store. He’s also been seeing success doing trunk shows in second cities, like Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis. “Women are really hungry for fashion.”

While Altuzarra had a minority investment from Kering in 2013, they separated amicably in 2020 and the brand has been self funded ever since. “I still talk to them, they help out almost like these paternal figures,” he said. “So I have a very good experience working with groups. And it’s definitely something that I’m open to do again.”

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