Fashion designer Joseph Altuzarra sublimates his sexual desires

Born and raised in Paris, Joseph Altuzarra relocated to the U.S. when he was 18 to further his fashion education. He worked for Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler, and Riccardo Tisci, before launching his own label in New York for Fall 2009. This season sees Altuzarra going back to the source as he shows in Paris for the first time. There’s the purest inevitability to the move, so steeped in fashion culture is he. But there is so much more. His father is French Basque, his mother is Chinese American, and that elusive, exotic mix has lent Altuzarra a wide-ranging and enchantingly arcane outlook on life. It sheltered him through what were, by his own account, difficult early years. And it definitely seeps into the clothes he designs; the combination of rigorous couture-level craft and sensual, decadent detail conjures up a sorority of female libertines.

Altuzarra insists you’ll find these women in the real world, but they’re also the kind of characters you’d read about in books. And he loves books. He occasionally sends me one. His choice is always so curious but so apposite. I don’t know how he does that. Takes one arcanologist to recognize another, I guess. This year, while he was summering in the Hamptons, Altuzarra read André Aciman’s “Call Me by Your Name,” which Luca Guadagnino has just turned into a movie. The impact it had hinted at the way the world works on him when he’s doing his thing.

Joseph Altuzarra—The book is so breathtaking and heartbreaking. It’s not sad, but it is incredibly touching and it is so much about love and passion. Not in the way you would expect it to be. It’s quite graphic, but a lot of it is about intimacy.

Tim Blanks—When you finish a book like that, does the feeling it leaves you with ever tip over into your work?

Joseph—Totally. It takes over so much of my life and I can’t stop thinking about it. Like with this book—I kept reading and rereading passages. I started researching where they were in Italy, and I became pretty obsessed with what they were wearing and what music they were listening to, because one of the characters, the young boy, is a music transcriber. The obsessiveness definitely tips into my work.

Tim—I’ve always thought that adds a rather “adult” quality to what you do. Almost like an old-world notion of sexuality—a little bit transgressive.

Joseph—I think about sexuality a lot. Definitely as it relates to me, but also as it relates to other people. It’s sort of this taboo subject that I find the most inspiring to jump off of when I am working. The things I am drawn to usually deal with sexuality in some form or another.

Tim—What exactly do you mean by how it relates to you?

Joseph—I felt undesired as a teenager and I had a fascination with being loved and desired. I was really nerdy and didn’t have a lot of friends and I wasn’t attractive—not that I’m saying I am attractive now. As I have grown and matured it is something I have thought about a lot. Certainly, as I became an adult and I started having sex and started feeling like I was desired, it was something that I didn’t take for granted.

Tim—Sex is a fantasy for most people, but do you think it was even more intense for you because it seemed like being loved or desired was something that was never going to happen for you?

Joseph—Yeah, definitely. I actually think that the person I created at Altuzarra is the woman I wanted to be as a teenager. She is super confident, super seductive; a sexual animal, sort of decadent in a way. She really doesn’t care what people think about her. She is very consistent, because she is someone who has lived inside of me for a long time.

Tim—Is she your alter ego?

Joseph—For sure. It’s funny because when I went back to Paris, I looked through my old notebooks and drawings and it was always this kind of woman. I was into her because she was the complete opposite of who I was.

Tim—How old were you?

Joseph—I really started when I was 13. I created a company called Ecce, and I would draw these fake perfume ads and underwear ads and cosmetic ads, and I would write hilarious reviews of my own collection. It would be like: “Joseph’s friend Calvin Klein came to the show.” But it’s interesting how consistent it was with what I do now.

Tim—What was feeding the fantasy at that point? Twenty years ago it was the glory days of Tom Ford at Gucci.

Joseph—A lot of it was definitely fueled by the idea that sex sells. The whole Tom Ford period was really formative for me. And part of it was that he embodied a lot of what I really was not: comfortable with his sexuality, attractive, sexually fluid, confident—everything I aspired to. You know when you are dieting, all you think and talk about is food? I was like that about sex. The fact that I didn’t feel desired and I wasn’t having any was what made me so fascinated by it.

Tim—Were you consciously creating collections of clothing at this point?

Joseph—Yeah, I was drawing dresses. And I would draw for other labels, too. I would draw a collection for Chanel or a collection for Saint Laurent. It would be like 30 looks, and I would draw them in these very thick notebooks and write little reviews. No one saw them until recently. I showed them to my team because I thought they were pretty funny. They thought I was really weird. I guess it is a weird thing to do when you’re 14 years old.

Tim—You reckon? To be sublimating all those raging teenage hormones in dress design?

Joseph—I still do it. I live out some of my sexual fantasies in my work. Or the fantasies of my alter ego. I do it pretty consciously as well.

“This feeling of not belonging or being undesired is so deeply rooted in me wanting to find a place of power and confidence and a sort of sexual freedom that I am always going to be engaged by it.”—Joseph Altuzarra”

Tim—Well, obviously she can do things that you can’t do. It’s like a superhero: an ordinary individual who can transform into someone superhuman. Do you think that’s what your relation with fashion is in a way?

Joseph—Yeah I think so. I was really fascinated as a teenager with [George Bernard Shaw’s play] “Pygmalion,” and the idea of transforming from an unattractive creature into a goddess—how clothes and some tweaking could somehow do that. It’s something I am still really inspired by.

Tim—It comes from a place of obsession I guess, and obsession can be incredibly convincing in fashion.

Joseph—It definitely comes from a place of obsession. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately because we are nearing our 10-year mark. I’ve been looking at all my past collections, and pulling looks, and I realized how consistent it’s all been. Even though the themes and the colors and the stories might change, the silhouette is consistent, the woman is consistent. That has triggered trying to figure out why. And I believe the fact that it does come from the primal place of being an insecure teenager, who created the person he wanted to be, is really at the root of that consistency.

Tim—Do you ever reach the end of the quest to transform yourself, to become this ideal creature? Or do you spend the rest of your life trying to reconcile the reality and the ideal?

Joseph—I don’t think that the quest ever ends. This feeling of not belonging or being undesired is so deeply rooted in me wanting to find a place of power and confidence and a sort of sexual freedom that I am always going to be engaged by it. Or at least the ideal of it.

Tim—So why would you put yourself in New York, where it would seem that kind of challenge would be so much more intense than it would be in Europe?

Joseph—One thing that was specifically challenging for me in Paris was my multicultural heritage. I mean, I was basically the only non-white kid in my school growing up. The idea of French cultural identity is something that I think about a lot, and it’s a hard conversation to have in France. Frankly, there were also pragmatic concerns. Starting a company in France was really hard at the time, and even with Carine [Roitfeld] and the people I knew, there wasn’t the same interest in young designers in Paris that there is today. There wasn’t much support in terms of competitions or prizes, and there wasn’t that much room on the calendar. It really was all about the big houses. That wasn’t the case in New York. There was a real community of younger designers who had started their own companies. Jack [McCollough] and Lazaro [Hernandez] had already started Proenza Schouler, and Alex [Wang] started a couple years before me. It seemed that New York was going to be an easier place to launch a company.

Tim—So you’re saying that because of your situation in France, you felt you were more of an outsider in Paris than you did in New York?

Joseph—I think so. While I agree with you that there is this incredible, very rigid pressure to be the best in the U.S., there is also the freedom to be yourself, which lets you experiment a little bit. That’s how I felt, certainly. I also never felt New York was going to be such a permanent choice. My identity is pretty fluid—especially between the U.S. and France—and I assumed it would stay that way. But once you set up in one place, people will assume that’s who you are, that you’re this one thing. That’s a hard lesson to learn because I am not that one thing. Many things make up who I am, and also what the brand is. Which is in large part why moving the show to Paris was really important to me.

Tim—Because it allows you to be the many things that you are?


Tim—So what do you feel you’ve gained and what do you feel you’ve lost by spending ten years in New York?

Joseph—Whether it’s true or not, I think that people in the larger international community see American luxury as sub-par in terms of design or quality. The reality is we produce everything—especially because we’re part of Kering now [in 2013 the luxury group took a minority stake in Altuzarra’s business]—in the same Italian factories as Gucci and Saint Laurent. But because we show in New York, my experience has been that there’s this assumption that it’s not the same quality you’d get in Milan or Paris or in London. It’s going to be really interesting to see how moving the show to Paris, and not really changing much else, is going to change the lens through which people see the brand.

Tim—I remember years ago, when you arrived in New York, the advance word was that Carine thought you could be the next Claude Montana. I thought, “If he’s the new Montana, what the hell is he showing in New York for?” But it worked because there was no one like you, and it’s always good to stand out.

Joseph—Yeah, and that was one of the wonderful things about being here. I think it gave us a platform that we wouldn’t have had that early anywhere else. We stood out enough in New York that Kering took notice and that’s how we began this journey with them. I am really proud of the kind of company I was able to build here. We have a really great work culture, people are super happy to come to work every day. I think it’s harder to create that kind of workplace in France. And I can’t deny that we also benefited from the infrastructure that was put in place for young designers here, whether it was the C.F.D.A. Vogue Fashion Fund, which was a very helpful $300,000 at the time, or the other competitions and prizes, which really do help when you have no budget. The other pluses are personal. Living in New York makes me really happy. I fell in love and got married here.

Tim—Your business has been described as as “a merger of authentic French sophistication and American pragmatism.” Do you think New York has honed your commercial instincts?

Joseph—That’s something I’m actually questioning right now. In the end, I don’t know if I took away anything aesthetic from being here. A lot of my references come from much more personal places and personal obsessions and ideas. And I don’t know how much the idea of American pragmatism actually impacted the collections either. Because I have such a clear picture of the person I am dressing, I think the clothes are always going to be real clothes—a jacket and a shirt and a skirt—to a certain degree. I don’t have a conceptual mind that way.  That can sometimes be conflated with an idea of pragmatism, which is very American, but it actually just comes from dressing this woman in my mind.

Tim—But with such definition in the design, do you have an equally clear idea of what she’s up to when she wears your clothes?

Joseph—Honestly, a lot of times she is walking back into her high school looking amazing and proving everyone wrong.

Tim—Oh, it really is the revenge of the nerd!

Joseph—[Laughing.] It really is. I am not lying when I say I try to imagine her walking through the halls of my high school in my clothes. Which is a very intense thing to think about, but that’s what she’s doing.

Tim—Romy and Michele!

Joseph—All the way! But that should tell you that it all comes from a very primal place. It’s very emotional.

Tim—I don’t think you can look at the clothes of people like Saint Laurent without getting a sense of something similar. The wish fulfillment in those clothes is so intense.

Joseph—I totally agree.

“You know when you are dieting, all you think and talk about is food? I was like that about sex. The fact that I didn’t feel desired and I wasn’t having any was what made me so fascinated by it.”—Joseph Altuzarra

Tim—I’m imagining some kind of spectacular osmosis in Paris.

Joseph—Partially, I am trying to show different facets of the brand and of who I am. I do think—especially because so much of where I design comes from growing up in Paris and being a teenager and having these feelings there—that it’s inviting people into a very personal narrative. That’s a story I really want to be able to tell through the collections and by being there. I realize for sure that I am not going to be a big fish in the way I am in New York, but that is okay too. I am very happy going there and establishing myself again in a new city.

Tim—Do you feel like it’s coming home?

Joseph—Yes, for sure. It’s weird because I went to Paris a few months ago to do some location scouting, and I was really weirdly emotional going to these places that I had been to as a kid. The idea that I was going to be able to show there was really moving to me. I didn’t really expect that I would feel that way, but it is a really nice feeling. It is a feeling of coming home.

Tim—It’s become a thing for New Yorkers to show in Paris, but it represents something very different for you.

Joseph—Yeah. For Jack and Lazaro, a lot of it is also a business consideration, which I completely respect and understand, but I think for me a lot was personal. It really is where I am from and where I grew up, and it comes at a time when there is a lot of discussion about how you show and when you show and where you show. People are experimenting, and for me, as we were having a lot of these discussions, it came down to really making personal choices that didn’t necessarily have to do with the business, but had to do with where a lot of the inspiration comes from and who I am as a person and how to tell that story.

Tim—It would be a big switch for any designer, to build a business for almost 10 years in one city and then make a calculated risk to move to another city, but what makes it more intriguing to me is that you’ve already been doing this for just under a decade and you’re still only 34, so the risk is kind of less calculated because time is on your side and you’re able to make such a personal move, and flex your obsessions.

Joseph—My C.E.O. is asking me, “How are you going to define success in Paris?” In a way, just by virtue of moving there and feeling like I am being really true to who I am as a person is successful. For me, success isn’t moving to Paris and growing the business by 20 percent. I am not trying to get to a number. This is about emotion, and I do think that’s the place where a lot of the decisions for the brand come from. I hope that is what makes it feel consistent and organic and authentic.

Tim—Where do you feel you belong?

Joseph—Oh my god…That’s a really good question, and one that I have been asking myself since I was 13 years old. I don’t know. I think I belong where I am loved.