Next big thing
THE ASIAN-American generation of fashion designers has a new rising star. French-Chinese Joseph Altuzarra is the latest name in lights, joining the likes of Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim and Jason Wu. Tapped as the next big thing in fashion, Altuzarra's flair for urban, athletic lines and a city woman chic has made him a popular fixture on the New York circuit.
'I'm lucky to have a strong support system within and outside of the company,' he says. 'Most of the pressure that I feel comes within myself actually - if I quiet the voices a little, its kind of actually OK.'
Born and raised in Paris, Altuzarra's background was actually in art history, completing his B.A. with a strong focus on fashion and architecture. He then headed to New York, where he interned on the design team for Marc Jacobs, freelanced for Proenza Schouler, and in October 2006, was recruited by Riccardo Tisci as design assistant for Givenchy in Paris.
'You learn the process and the way of working [with both Jacobs and Tisci],' says Altuzarra. 'What those two had in common was that they were focused on the idea of challenging the standards of beauty and design. They are both always pushing fashion and what it should be.'
It was soon after, that he decided to return to the Big Apple and start his eponymous label, which is touted as a heady mix of sophisticated French culture and the new vibrancy of the New York scene. He gained headway in just a few seasons and in 2011, won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award.
The designer has also had his striking features captured in a variety of fashion magazines. As we meet at his elegant Parisian showroom, Altuzarra is much more compact and gentle in person than how he appears in pictures. 'It felt a little scary,' he says of the sudden success and attention; he even was profiled by famed writer and editor Anna Dello Russo for Interview Magazine.
'Because we're in an industry that has a short attention span, and because of the internet and how fast information travels, people get tired of you very quickly. So I didn't want to be the new big thing and then not amount to anything in the end,' he says, adding that he has as been fairly careful to avoid overexposure and overdoing things. 'What is most important is the work and what you do on the runway.'
His continental upbringing, culturally mixed family and liberal arts education have allowed Altuzarra a less than conventional path into fashion. His community of hip New York designers, as well as the more classical couture training in the Givenchy's Paris studios, have given the designer an interesting aesthetic. He admits that from the art history field, there is an idea of fashion that is a kind of silly, empty, more superficial kettle of fish.
'But once you work more and more,' says Altuzarra. 'You realise that it's not like that, and there is a depth to fashion in its own right. But art history does teach you to view fashion in a broader context.'
There is a slight hardness and strength to his modern designs - 'I guess an intensity to my work and a slight sense of futurism,' he says - which is perhaps not surprising, since he learned to design and drape in a disciplined manner. You won't often see feminine flowing chiffons here, but rather more tailored, precise pieces. And although he is happy with his success, he also recognises that 'there's always a lot to learn; I love developing the technical aspects of the clothes.'
Altuzarra is all about the modern woman with a fast-paced urban lifestyle. In the beginning, his inspirations would often come from movies. He loved to follow the idea of a narrative and design around that story. It could be a Tim Burton movie or a 1970s French film, but the narrative provided a structuring force.
But as the brand evolved and become more defined, inspiration has come more and more from women and muses around him, who define a very 'Altuzarra' look. American style setter and socialite Vanessa Traina is one such muse, as is his stylist Melanie, who is also half-Chinese.
'I take inspiration from their style, the way they dress and what they think about,' he says. 'They work, which is important; there is pragmatism about their wardrobe. They are interested in style and fashion. But maybe most importantly, there is something about them that is unapologetic; they are not skittish dressers, they just wear what they want. That's very attractive to me.'
Altuzarra is spending increasingly more time in New York, which is reflected in his latest collections. 'There is something about New York which is so rare and wonderful right now, because there is new generation of designers,' he says, 'I'm very good friends with a lot of those people in that generation. The camaraderie and support we give each other is really amazing. There's really very, very little competition, which is a really weird thing if you think about it.'
New York inspires Altuzarra design-wise too, and he is not the only one. The rise of the Asian-American designer in New York has become somewhat of a fashion phenomenon. And then there are Asian designers without their own labels who work behind the scenes.
'I have a theory that it's the same thing as the rise of the Italian family business in the early 20th century, the Guccis, Fendis and Pradas, and all those family legacy companies,' says Altuzarra. 'I think that Asians in general are family oriented and the idea of supporting your children's businesses. It's much rarer in Western culture to develop that familial business. In Chinese and Asian cultures in general, there is that tradition.'
Altuzarra works closely with his family (his mother is CEO), and tells us that Alexander Wang, Philip Lim and Richard Chai also have family business connections. Although he started the company by himself, it soon evolved and needed help, so his parents stepped in. 'It was really organic,' says Altuzarra. 'It's a really interesting dynamic. Overall it's been incredible.'
Since Altuzarra's mother was originally from Shanghai, it is a no-brainer for the business to push East, and Altuzarra is eager to learn about the country. As Chinese markets become more sophisticated and open to new labels, once can't help but think that Altuzarra has a bright future there. His ethnic mix of French and Shanghainese, as well as his Western fashions sensibilities, already on paper make him a wonderful representative designer of the new generation.
'Hopefully I'll still be here in 10 to 15 years,' he says. 'A lot of us want the same thing: to be bigger and have a lifestyle brand that means something.' However, if he ever developed the label into a fashion empire, he doesn't want to get too commercial, preferring to aim for something more fashion forward, akin to Prada. 'I like that sense of quality and exclusivity - I don't want to be a mass brand.'
A good sport
Joseph Altazurra's label has gone from strength to strength, with positive reviews and great acclaim for his Spring-Summer 2012 collection. 'SS12 was a really easy season, some seasons you feel that you are labouring, but this one was not so stressed out,' he says. 'A lot of how it started was the idea of sportswear. The first things we worked on were these backpack dresses that were super-urban and sporty, reworking the idea of mesh into these oversized chiffon laser-cut pieces.'
'It really kind of translated into sports-uniform inspired,' he says, taking out a dress with structured shoulders and longer sleeves underneath. 'We worked around that theme, especially in a textural way - for example, with the leather that is laser cut, when you wear it, it almost looks like scales.'
As well as perforated leathers, padding and motocross influences, he mixed in knit weaves. Altuzarra redeveloped the parka using new technologies, and points out that one item - a mix of technical satin, neoprene and leather - has actually become one of the bestsellers of the season.
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