Joseph Altuzarra Reflects On 10 Years in Business, His Expanded Presence In Chicago And Spring/Summer ’18

Altuzarra Chicago 1Photo Credit: Sean Su Photography

This year marks a big milestone in the life of designer Joseph Altuzarra: At just 34 years old, he’s celebrating the 10th anniversary  of his much-adored brand, a run that’s included a CFDA awards, a spot on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list, and acclaimed runway shows in both New York and Paris.

Also on the ledger for 2018? A new shop inside Neiman Marcus Michigan Avenue — the second of its kind in the U.S. We caught up with the designer at the shop’s opening earlier this week to talk about his expanded presence in the city, his S/S ’18 collection, his first decade in business, and more.

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The new space in Neiman Marcus Michigan Avenue is your second dedicated “shop-in-shop” in the country. Why did you choose Chicago next?

It was partially due to an opportunity that arose, but it’s also because Chicago has always been a really supportive market. I’ve come to visit throughout the 10 years I’ve had Altuzarra, and it’s always been a place that I really enjoy. Neiman Marcus has also been so great for us in Chicago, so I was really excited about opening it here.

You actually designed the new shop. What did you want to achieve with it? 

When I was coming up with the idea for the space, I wanted it to feel really very personal because in the end a lot of the brand comes from me and my memories. There were three components to it. First, there’s a very multicultural element, because I’m half French and half Chinese-American, and I grew up in Paris, so I wanted there to be this feeling of different cultures clashing in one space. And then there was this idea of things that felt very French, so there’s a ‘60s Pierre Paulin chair, for example. Then finally, I wanted to include things that felt very handmade, so I actually designed the chair that I’m sitting on, and we had it made from scratch. It was really about mixing a lot of things together. In the end I wanted it to feel a little bit like an apartment.

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You certainly achieved that. You even put in a glass block wall! 

Yes! The tempered glass, which is something I know that not everyone is into. But, when I was growing up my school had this, and parts of my apartment had it, so I’ve always had this bizarre fondness for it. It’s super nostalgic to me. In Paris, there’s also a very beautiful building, which, when translated, is called The House of Glass, and it’s completely made up of glass blocks. It’s a very beautiful piece of early 20th century architecture. And so it was partially inspired by that as well.

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The first collection you’re showing in this new space is Spring/Summer 2018. What inspired the pieces? 

The collection was inspired by a bunch of things. Some of the initial ideas were from the movie Princess Mononoke, and then it was partially inspired by the idea of nature versus industry, and the kind of duality and tension between the two. So a lot of the collection was about exploring the ideas of what nature means and the idea of nature as something that’s kind of savage and raw in a way. Then on the flip side the idea of industry which is much cleaner and slicker, and those two things kind of coexist of the collection. A lot fabrics look handwoven, and some of the pieces have grosgrain ribbon closures or pom poms on the edges. But then there are elements that are much cleaner, like leather trim.

There’s also a very free quality to the way things were designed. I don’t think we put a lot of boundaries on ourselves, my team and I, when we were working on this. We wanted it to feel very free and handmade.

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You grew up in Paris and now live in New York. Do you find that where you live influences the way you dress or your designs at all? 

It’s really interesting because now, with the way that we live, people travel so much, retail is global, and everyone is on social media, so I actually think that there’s much less specificity about how people dress in a certain place. A few decades ago I’m sure there was much more of a geographic division or local flavor, but I don’t know that I feel like that really exists anymore. You used to only be able to buy Saint James striped sweaters in Paris, for example, and now you can buy them in New York or anywhere. Not that local flavor has completely disappeared, but I don’t know how specific it is anymore.

Do you find that when you’re choosing an assortment for your different stores then, that there’s really even a difference anymore?

There is a difference. Some cities are much dressier than others, I do find that there’s still a little bit of that. But people, wherever they live, are looking for fashion that makes them look good. I think looking good is a universal quality among all of our markets.

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It’s the ten-year anniversary of your brand. If you had to choose, what’s your favorite moment or achievement from the last decade? 

The first thing that I think about is that I am really proud of the team that I’ve built and the culture we’ve built at the company. We have pretty low turnover and people who have been with us for a very long time. We all get along and I think we have a team of people who feel really invested in the brand. It’s not a winner-takes-all company; we’re all in it together and we all play a role. Obviously I’m very proud of the output and clothes and the collection–we’ve certainly improved over the last 10 years–but the team is what I’m most proud it.

How big is your team now?

We’re actually pretty small still. We have a team in New York and a team in Italy, but I’d say altogether we’re around 30, maybe a little less. 

Is there anything you’re hoping achieve in the next 10 years? 

Right now I really feel like I’m living my dream. But, I’ve been thinking about this a lot hitting the 10 year mark–what I want and what will make me feel fulfilled. I think that being able to create is so important, but I also love being able to work with the people that I work with and having this sense that we can control our destiny. That is something that I really enjoy and that I hope I can keep on doing.