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Joseph Altuzarra On the Similarities Between His and Alexander Wang's Fall 2011 Collections and Having His Mom for a Boss

Joseph Altuzarra On the Similarities Between His and Alexander Wang's Fall 2011 Collections and Having His Mom for a Boss

>> Fresh off the announcement of his CFDA nomination for the second year running in the Swarovski Award for Womenswear category — this time he's up against Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's The Row and Prabal Gurung — Joseph Altuzarra hit up Barneys to host a trunk show for his parka and slinky silk-dress-filled Fall 2011 collection. We grabbed him for a few minutes to chat about how competitive it is among young designers in New York, the fact that he and close friend Alexander Wang turned out Fall 2011 collections with a number of similarities, and who he'd like to collaborate with next.

Congratulations on your CFDA Award nomination! Did you do anything to celebrate?

I didn't, actually. I'm drawing pre-collection, so I drew [afterwards]. I went to the [announcement cocktails] thing, and it was great to be there. I actually didn't go last season — I was in Paris, so I wasn't able to make it. But it was really fun to go [this year], it was a nice atmosphere. And what's fun about the nomination that I got is that it's usually very similar generations. So it doesn't feel as competitive, it feels way friendlier. I mean, obviously, Prabal I know, and we're very friendly. Mary-Kate and Ashley, as well.

It feels like there's this whole group of young burgeoning designers rising up together in New York right now — for the most part, the big classic American designers were shut out from the nominations this year.

No it's true, there is I think this kind of mass effect of young designers. And I think we genuinely don't feel all that competitive. Of course you have the, "Why was he featured and I wasn't?" type of things, but overall, I think we're all really friendly — like we talk to each other about business and about what we're doing. It's very open — which is nice, I think it's how it should be.

Speaking of, do you and Alexander Wang ever talk about your collections together? Because for Fall 2011, you had a lot of similarities — you guys both played the same Prodigy song during your shows, and you had a similar quilted poncho cape that Cathy Horyn pointed out.

We hadn't, actually. And this is really the truth — when I saw his show [which happened a few hours before Altuzarra's], I was like, "Oh my God, we're going to get panned." But I think also what people discount is that we're the same age, and we hang out a lot, and even if we don't talk about our collections, we see similar things. I mean, we also have very similar reference points in time, because we're the same age. So, honestly, I think it's more funny than anything. But it's true, there were similarities — the fur shoes . . . I mean, it's kind of crazy when you think about how much — the Prodigy, and that cape thing, and it was kind of '90s, also . . . It was really, really eerie. But funny. And I hope people see it as more funny than anything.

Did you guys talk about it afterwards?

Yeah, I think he sent me a text. He came to my show and he sent me a text like, "That is ridiculous," or something. Or I think he said like, "I think we need to stop hanging out so much." I was like, "Yeah."

But you guys are still obviously hanging out.

Yeah, yeah, it's not like . . . I think we think it's more funny.

Last year you turned a profit for the first time. What do you credit with being able to achieve that?

I think starting during a recession has made a really big difference in the way we run the company — we thought we were going to grow the structure a lot faster than we decided to. And we've really kept it bare bones. I think most people would be shocked to know how small it still is. Our overhead costs and cost of running the company are fairly low because we're just not a lot of people and still in a fairly small space. Also, the great thing about being in New York is that you have so many of these amazing sponsorship programs — MAC at Milk, also the Tents with Maybelline — which really doesn't exist anywhere else at this level. So I do credit it in part to that. And also, I am the designer, but I'm also very aware of the business. I know how much things cost, so I know I'm shooting myself in the foot if I use a lot of crocodile or very expensive embroidery. And I know it's just not the time to do it.

So you do think about what sells when you're designing.

Oh yeah, for sure. I'm lucky to have a team around me that keeps me grounded. The bulk of my work is very creative, but there's also a side to it that's just making sure I'm doing something that can actually sell and translate to a retail floor.

What do you find sells well for you, in general, season over season?

Definitely tailoring always does very well, whether it's the Spring's more peak-shouldered jackets or the Fall's parkas. And we're also starting to see a more popular category in pants. And dresses have always sold very, very well for us.

It felt like for Fall 2011 you went more wearable than you have in the past — was that a conscious decision?

It was a conscious decision but it actually wasn't a commercial decision — it was a stylistic decision. I was feeling something that was a lot more day, just in the proportion and in the ease of things. And that kind of stylistic decision helped make the whole thing look a lot easier and more wearable.

And you're still working with both Melanie Huynh and Vanessa Traina?

Yeah, I mean they come in from different perspectives. Calling Vanessa a muse is so cliche and I wish there was another word for it, but I see Vanessa almost every day, so there is this side to our relationship that is very inspiring, just because of the way she is and how she dresses. And she obviously does a lot of consulting as well. And then Melanie definitely does a lot of consulting, but she comes in more towards the show, in terms of the styling.

Vanessa usually walks in your shows, but she didn't for Fall 2011.

She was actually not in town — I would have loved for her to walk, because this collection was very Vanessa, and it really came from how she was dressing at the time that I was drawing. I was really, really inspired by her.

Your mom is the CEO of your company — how does that work?

Yeah, she's my boss. You know, in a way, it's an ideal situation, because she lives in Paris, and it helps to have this kind of two-legged foundation, because everything is produced in Italy. In terms of time difference, it's just easier to have someone who's on that side of the Atlantic. But I obviously trust her implicitly, and we're able to have very honest conversations about business. I think we're both very good at divorcing our personal relationship from the business.

You have a strong history of collaborations — Gianvito Rossi for shoes, Gaia Repossi for jewelry, Current/Elliott for denim — is there anyone else you'd really like to work with?

No, not really. I'm trying to think . . . No, but I really do want to start developing more things under my name, so it might be enough collaborations for a little bit.

So you're trying to go in-house with accessories?

Yeah, I think maybe by next year we'll start developing accessories. I think it's important for us and for the development of the brand. We'll be at four years, which I think is a good time to start introducing more in-house things.

After everything that's happened with John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Christophe Decarnin, there's been a lot of talk that the current pace of the industry is driving designers to unhealthy places. Do you feel that at all?

I think you need a really, really, really good support system, both within your company but also just outside. I'm really lucky that I have the family and friends that I have — a lot of them don't necessarily work in fashion, and that's really helpful for me professionally, and just for my own sanity. I definitely feel it very bodily — like stomachaches. Yes, everything goes really fast, and now it feels like it's going faster even, mainly because of the Internet. And there's this immediacy and access to information and products, which makes everything you do feel old much sooner than it would have before. So you're constantly trying to bring something different and new to the table as fast as you can.

Is there any particular way you're trying to address that need for the new?

Adding collections for sure is the more classic way of doing it, but I think you also have to be very careful about the press that you do, and not be overexposed. The reality today is that there is a customer who will buy a $4,000 jacket because it's in Vogue, but there's also a customer who will not buy it because it's been in Vogue for six months. So you have to find that balance where you're enticing the customer but you're not revealing everything and you're not overselling it.

Final question: Now that the whirlwind of Fashion Month is over and things are calming down a little bit, do you have any plans to relax or vacation? Or are you just going straight into pre-collection?

No, [I'm going] straight into pre-collection . . . we actually started before the [Fall 2011] show. I am going on a long weekend soon, though, which will be nice.

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