After a Decade, Designer Joseph Altuzarra Returns to his Roots
By: Maggie Kelly
Joseph Altuzarra’s eponymous brand has mastered the art of sophisticated whimsy. Raised in Paris, there is the unmistakable hand of a Frenchman at work – sharp lines, racy colors, nipped waists – but, after spending a decade in New York, Altuzarra has also captured a playful female essence that is feels celebratory and fun. We spoke with the designer about his recent return home to France, the creative process, and… Princess Mononoké.
After ten years in New York, you returned home this year to show at Paris Fashion Week. How did it feel to return to home soil?
It felt more emotional than I had expected. I have deep roots in Paris, and my family still lives in France and I grew up in France – I have a very strong attachment to the city. Simply waking up and walking across the Seine and getting a croissant in the morning, and then working on the collection made me feel like somehow, it was a pivotal moment in my life.
Next year is the ten-year anniversary of the Altuzarra brand. What kind of emotions does that stir up?
I think it’s a time to really take stock of what you’ve done, even though ten years can sometimes feel like an arbitrary number. I’m incredibly proud of not only what I feel I’ve achieved, but also what the team has achieved. I’m so lucky to still be working with a lot of people since the beginning, and being about to have that communal sense of accomplishment and building something together is very gratifying for me.
Your father is French and your mother is Chinese-American. How has your multicultural upbringing flavored your designs? Is there a particular element from either culture that you keep referencing in your work?
I think that on the French side, being brought up in Paris during my formative years has really had a huge impact on my life – what I like and what my eye naturally finds beautiful or interesting. I think a lot of it has to do with the architecture and history of Paris, but also a certain irreverence and cheekiness of the Parisian woman as well. There’s a freedom about your body and your sexuality that is something I very much associate with growing up in France… not feeling ashamed of being who you love and your sexuality. I think what is more American about my approach is a much more pragmatic, straightforward approach to clothing – I don’t like things that are fussy or tricky; I like clothes that feel like clothes.
You have said that animated film Princess Mononoké and Charles Fréger’s book Wilder Mann both served as reference points for your Spring collection, inspired by nature and our relationship to it. Was there a particular experience that drew to the concept of man and nature?
Being in the countryside more and drawing the collection in a garden and leaving the city had a really big impact on how I found the inspiration for the collection. I was really feeling this tension between the ambition of Big City and serenity, but also the magic of being in nature. Those things really drew me to the collection and that’s a lot of where that came from, which then lead to Princess Mononoké and Wilder Mann.
You actually worked with photographer Charles Fréger recently, when he shot your collection in France. What do you like most about his work? How does it align with the Altuzarra brand?
I feel like Charles’ work is such a strong representation of the Altuzarra universe, and I’ve always felt that way, especially with the Wilder Mann series, which has a very raw energy and raw physicality that I very much associate with who our woman is.
He’s always been interested in documenting and exploring different cultures and points of views, travelling around the world and collecting images of people who have different lives and different stories – that’s something that I’m very much attracted to in my own work.
After a decade away from France living in New York, there’s sure to be a culture shock moving back. What did you miss most about Paris?
I missed the work-life balance. I think there is a line that isn’t confused or blurred between your work and your private life.
Especially in times like these with the explosion of social media and of public becoming private and vice versa, I think that’s something that’s very refreshing.
For some artists, social media is an amazing tool – a tethering to those who engage with your work. For others, it can feel oppressive, intimidating even. What’s your relationship with platforms like Instagram, and how do you use it?
I feel more and more that social media is a great tool to build a narrative around the brand, and to express parts of who I am.
Having said that, I always feel that it is important to protect myself and protect my private life. I’m aware that it’s almost a double-edged sword when you put yourself out there so openly.
What is your greatest fear as a designer?
Altuzarra is known as a celebration of the feminine, with your designs famous for their opulence and sensuality. Do you ever see yourself moving into menswear? Or, with the increasingly blurred lines between gendered fashion, would you love to see men experiment with some of your pieces?
Definitely. I would love to see men experiment with some of our pieces. I’d love to branch out into menswear sometime in the future.
As an artist, we’re sure you need some ‘off ’ time to rest and recharge. What’s your guilty indulgence? Latest Netflix binge?
Call Me by Your Name – both the book and the film – I can’t stop thinking and talking about it!
Who in your life is your trusted touchstone when it comes to bouncing off creative concepts and design ideas? Or do you prefer to bunker down solo, and emerge with a finished product?
My greatest strength, but maybe also my Achilles’ heel, is that I’m a very reflective person. I need a lot of time to think by myself. I go away and think about the collection and draw the collection alone, probably a little too much!
Show notes for your Spring 2018 collection point to “loss of innocence, growing up and embracing fearlessness.” Was this influenced by a particular time in your life?
Yes – I think it was influenced by thinking about Paris and being a teenager there – I’ve been trying to reflect through what I’ve gone through in my life and what I’m feeling at the moment.