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Joseph Altuzarra: Next Big Thing

Bergdorf Goodman Conversation



Joseph AltuzarraJoseph Altuzarra
Photo: Paul Maffi


Is it the pants? Is it the parka? Is it the sexy? With seven seasons behind him, everyone seems to agree that he’s one of the hottest stars in fashion. His friend Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair editor, and Glenn O’Brien chatted with him about design, zippers and the difference between what French and American women want.

GLENN O’BRIEN: How do you know each other?

JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: We both went to Swarthmore College, and so did Cindy Levy from Glamour. The three of us get together for lunch as “Swatties” and talk about Swarthmore.

GOB: What did you call it? “Swabbies”?

AMY FINE COLLINS: Swatties. S-W-A-T-T-I-E. GOB: I guess that’s better than “Swarthies.”

AFC: Actually, all three of us are a bit swarthy. Two Jewish chicks and one exotic mixture. It’s not that the place is tiny, which it is. It is also the most academically intense school in America, which does not usually generate people in the fashion industry, but scholars and academics.

JA: This is the reason we can let our nerd flags fly.

AFC: We’re closet nerds. With maybe an emphasis on the “closet” because of fashion. Fashion people have a reputation for being un-cerebral, but there are marvelous exceptions to that rule. Joseph is a thinking girl’s designer.

JA: [laughs] Thank you.

AFC: I wanted to ask you about your parkas, because I am badly in need of one. I think you have about four or five different designs that you produce?

JA: We do. The parka has really taken off. It’s a seminal piece in my design evolution. It’s functional but also has a bit of an edge. It has shaped how I think about clothes.

AFC: Are you thinking about its utilitarian value?

JA:I think women shop very differently now. I see more emphasis on practicality, the timelessness of a piece, and its durability. They’ll think, Okay, this is $4,000, but I’m going to wear it all winter long for many years. People still buy intuitively, but there are customers who think, Is this something that I am going to be able to keep in my wardrobe for a long time? A parka is the epitome of that winter coat. It’s waterproof. It’s really warm. It has pockets deep enough to really put your hands in there. The hood is detachable, and you can get a fur lining. It’s interesting that such a humble item can be the springboard for so many ideas.

GOB: Are you afraid to change a key piece like that?

JA: It’s always important to think about what’s working and how you bring it forward. So we redid it for our first resort collection in lighter cotton without filling. That was very successful. For spring, we designed other versions, taking that same idea of functionality but tweaking it.

AFC: That’s the way to go, evolving like that. If you just drop it, what meaning did it ever have? Look what Geoffrey Beene did with boleros. He always had boleros in his collections. He was obsessed. It was always, “What else can I do with the boleros?” It was amazing how many variations appeared.

JA: When you’re younger you’re trying to evolve your design language. You have moments, like with the parka for me, where it feels like it has entered a pantheon of iconic pieces, if you will. That sounds dramatic maybe, but you start building pieces that define what your brand is about. That’s a tough thing to do now. Saint Laurent could say this smoking is very Saint Laurent. Today it’s harder for any designer to say, “I’m going to make this mine.” I’m starting with the parka.

GOB: Do you think when that happens it’s because you figured out how to make it fit better than anyone else?

JA: The technical aspect is really important, about cut and fit. You know it when something gels technically. But sometimes it’s timing. It was the right time for the parka, and people responded to it, and no one else was really doing it. That allows you to take ownership of something.

AFC: The brutal winter helped.

JA: The way the parka took off was about how awful the winter was.

AFC: To me, the cold was the hardest part about getting dressed. Ugly puffers or fur were the only options I had in my closet. I was longing for a suitable storm coat. Something beautifully made, and maybe a little eccentric — and you nailed it. With signature items, I don’t think it’s always about fit, it’s also getting the look so right at the right time. I’m thinking of safari with Saint Laurent or Dior with the hourglass femininity.

JA: I’m not saying that the parka is the New Look. I’m not there in terms of ego yet. [laughs] But it felt like a moment where I could anchor myself stylistically.

AFC: That grounding allows a designer to have consistency. Otherwise design doesn’t make sense, like an artist whose style changes so frequently it seems fraudulent. You want to see a designer stand for something.

JA: When you’re young, you end up being more revolutionary because you’re trying to find your footing. It’s hard. It’s a very public arena, and you can make bad choices. You want to take risks and do something really different, and then maybe people don’t like it…but that’s okay. At a certain point you start evolving something that you can stick with. That’s a nice feeling, because you can make it more complex, you can play with it and think about it—which is great. The prototypical example is Azzedine Alaïa. He’s really interested in basically four silhouettes, and now he’s really playing with technical tools. It’s like, “How can I make this seem more interesting? I can pipe it with leather, I can lace it, I can work with knitwear factories…”

AFC: He’s gone deep into his sensibility.

GoB: Great designers have customers who know that they are going to make them look good.

JA: Absolutely. That’s how you build a clientele, ultimately. You have to bring back things that work. In the beginning, it might seem to be working, but you’re not quite sure if it’s because it was in magazines and was trendy, or because people really liked the cut. We’ve brought things back that worked really well one season and didn’t necessarily do well the next. But over time, you see what does consistently well. You get feedback. A lot of people come back for our pants, and over the last three or four seasons we’ve brought back the same pant which always does very well, and we tweak the fit so that people are really happy with it.

AFC: You had the plaid one this season.

JA: We actually developed that with a denim factory, a kind of a cigarette pant.

AFC: Does it have a front zip or a side zip?

JA: That’s interesting. We started having a front zip, and we’ve moved it to the side.

AFC: Yay!

JA: Usually women prefer a side zip.

AFC: I don’t know how women’s pants became so ubiquitously fly front, but you’re smart to move it to the side. Even skinny women get a pseudo-belly with a fly front.

JA: Carine [Roitfeld] was wearing this Céline skirt, and she told me that she had asked Phoebe to move the zipper from the front to the side. It was smart because it took the bulk out of the front. afc: Men need the bulk in the front. Not women.

JA: It’s interesting how you learn like that talking to women, what really makes or breaks a piece for them. Things like pockets in dresses…

AFC: I believe in pockets in dresses so much!Amy Fine Collins

JA: Even if you put a really small pocket on the side, it makes a huge difference.

AFC: Evening dresses with pockets, I adore. You don’t have to bring a purse. You have something to do with your hands if you’re not a smoker. And then there’s just the stance, the attitude. It’s posing pockets…

GOB: Posing pockets! I love that.

AFC: Another bête noire of mine is a dress that you cannot put on by yourself. It’s the most unmodern thing. The tiny fasteners, zippers, hooks and eyes that you need another pair of hands to do. That idea may sound sexy, but not when you’re running out the door.

JA: A lot of stores talk to us about where the zipper is and how easy is it to get into and out of the dress by yourself.

AFC: Teeny-tiny hooks and eyes and bows, that’s Parisian, but not American. American fashion is based on speed and motion and a lot of French fashion is based on standing still.

JA: The most important distinction is comfort. American women want to feel comfortable. I don’t think that’s as important in Paris.

AFC: The idea of comfort fascinates me, because I think that comfort is more of a psychological than physical state. Americans would say they’re most comfortable in jeans. Well, if you think about jeans, they’re usually a pretty stiff fabric, not warm enough in winter, and probably too heavy in summer. Often they’re binding. I think it’s the association of freedom and casualness that gives you the idea of comfort.

JA: The biggest difference between American women and French women is the relationship they have with their bodies and with aging. In America, there’s a lot of emphasis on correcting flaws, through plastic surgery, dieting or exercise, and then the clothes that you wear are often things that highlight what you’ve been correcting. French women are usually more comfortable with the idea of aging and aren’t as worried about what their bodies look like.

AFC: They may feel like clothes and personality do whatever “correction” is needed.

JA: I also think they know what looks good on them and what is flattering to their bodies.

AFC: I was so impressed by your mom at your show; she looked so sharp and so smart, and I can only imagine that she must be a big influence.

JA: She is. And having someone who is not twenty-five giving you their take is important. Women in their mid-fifties have very different concerns — and having perspective on that day-to-day makes a huge difference.

AFC: Did you know that you were nominated for the best-dressed list this year?

JA: I was so excited!

AFC: Well, you have a big fan base out there.

JA: I do have a lot of people who have been very supportive, and I’m incredibly grateful.

AFC: I would guess that many of the people buying your clothes don’t recognize you yet.

JA: I didn’t go into this to be a star. I’ve always been interested in making clothes and getting better at it. I still have a lot to learn — and that’s the exciting thing. I’m happiest going to the factories and working on knitwear machines, trying out different stitches, different yarns. It’s really fun.

AFC: That’s the way it ought to be.

GOB: So, as a best-dressed nominee, what do you wear at the factory?

JA: Oh, my God, if you saw me… [laughs] It was vindication! My team makes so much fun of me. I wear the same things over and over again, the same sweater… Comme des Garçons with a little heart. I do wash it! And maybe sweatpants. So, with that nomination, I was able to say that I was right all along.

The Bergdorf Goodman Conversations are conducted and edited by Glenn O’Brien.