The fashion leader on his most personal collections.
Joseph Altuzarra dresses women whose names appear in the news. Not in sensationalized headlines but in stories about their efforts to lead contemporary society to be better, smarter and more open. From behind the scenes at his brand, and also in front of the TV camera, Altuzarra is catalyzing change, too. Platform’s GM, Bettina Huang, grabbed a Zoom coffee with Altuzarra to talk about democratization in art and fashion, the need for Asian Americans to have a seat at the table, and very specific ASMR triggers.
Do you consider yourself a designer, or do you feel like it's something else that you do?
I think the role of a designer has changed a lot since I became one myself. When I became a designer, I thought that it was about being a really good technician, about having the knowledge that you needed to be able to construct garments, about creation and design. But as the world has evolved, designers have become public figures, and as a designer, you're almost subsumed into the entertainment industry. I never imagined, for instance, that I would do a TV show, but that kind of visibility helps tell the story of the brand and of myself, and I really enjoy that. Now it’s about content creation and storytelling, cross-pollination between different industries . . . But at the core, I’m still my happiest when I'm drawing a collection.
It’s true that fashion has evolved such that even when customers are priced out, those same people still covet the brands and feel really connected to what the brands stand for.
Maybe 10 years ago, there was still a notion that to be luxury, you needed to be super exclusive and untouchable because that would give your product cache. I think this is similar to where art is today, but maybe more extreme. But you know, I don’t know the art world.
You’re more connected to art than the average culturally savvy person, but even you don’t feel like you understand the art world.
Yeah, totally. When my husband and I started wanting to buy art, it was very intimidating. You don't really know who to talk to, you don't know what's available. You feel like you have to be invited to the club, and you don't exactly know who's in the club.
But that’s changing! Or at least, we’re trying to change it!
Yeah, I don’t think luxury in fashion or in art means that things have to be super exclusive or super expensive. Anyone can be a part of an aspirational world, they just need to buy what they care about. It could be something made in small batches, it could be from a more sustainable brand. There are lots of more democratic ways to buy, it’s just about making really thoughtful choices that are personal to you.
How did you and your husband decide to start buying art?
We started buying art more seriously about two years ago, and we did a lot of research. I mean, we would go to fairs, we met some art consultants. And I look at art a lot for inspiration. But it was a lot of work.
When we buy, it comes down to: what do I really like, and what do I feel? Our art buying has been really focused on photography. We have a good amount of queer photography, though I've always loved Tom of Finland, who isn’t a photographer, and we have a really beautiful work by him. But we also love Robert Mapplethorpe. We have some really beautiful Wolfgang Tillmans. We love portraiture, so we bought a couple of works by Sally Mann. Tina Barney! That was the last thing we bought actually.
Photography of architecture is the other branch. We bought a couple of Candida Höfer photographs.
And we just bought our first painting. I was reading a magazine maybe a year ago, and there was an article about a painter who was self-taught. She was an Asian woman who painted mostly her friends and her community. I was really touched by the story, by her background, by her. Her name is Jiab Prachakul. It was probably the most personal purchase because it came from a story. And she also kind of looks like my mom.
Is being Asian American an important part of the way you think about yourself? It wasn’t always for me . . . but it has been a lot more important to me over the last 10 or so years.
It's a conversation I've had with a lot of other Asian Americans recently for good and bad reasons. There's obviously a kind of Asian American reckoning going on, which I think is really positive. Right now, there’s an awareness of Asian American culture that needs to grow in order for us to have more visibility. And similarly, I grew up in Paris and I didn't even really think of myself as Asian until I moved to the states. Even then, it wasn’t until the last seven or eight years when I really started thinking more about my heritage and what it really means.
You know, I came up during a generation of young designers 10 or 15 years ago where a lot of my peers were Asian American, like Alex Wang, Phillip Lim and Derek Lam. And I think that's why I started thinking about that part of my identity more. I love meeting other Asian creatives, and I’ve been lucky to befriend Asian actors and musicians who are working a lot today. And it’s been important to be in front of the camera and be visible, and to show how dynamic of a community it is, and to break stereotypes.
Yeah! And I think it’s so productive there’s a little more political visibility for Asian-Americans recently, with Presidential candidates like Andrew Yang. And because of terrible things like the violence against the community.
There's the idea that Asian Americans are meek and discreet and don't make noise. And because of all of the anti-Asian violence that's been happening, there’s the need to demand justice. The response from the community is so passionate and so angry, and so that gives us a seat at the table.
Back to lighter fare. You’re a person who makes beautiful things. What other things do you collect?
I have a collection of little owl figurines. It’s random but a tradition. I actually don't buy them myself. When I first started the company, my mom gave me an owl and she subsequently gave me a different owl figurine for every single collection that I did. I have them all displayed in my office and they're from everywhere.
I asked her why she gave me an owl and she told me it was because I remind her of an owl. I'm a little more reserved, and I like to observe. She said I'd always been like that since I was a kid.
Is that the animal that you pick for yourself?
I think I probably would pick a cat, and I don't even own a cat. I have a Schnauzer. She is 13 years old. But I relate to cats. I'm a total homebody, and I need alone time. I can be super independent.
You’re a homebody. Does that mean you spend a lot of time on the internet?
I do, and I spend an insane amount of time on Youtube.
Oh, really? What do you watch?
I watch a lot of makeup videos. I’ve always been into them. It’s such an interesting subculture on YouTube.
I also used to really be into ASMR videos. It’s hard to trigger ASMR in me; it has to be a very very specific thing. Like, I get it on the subway when I see someone reading a book for instance. But the subway has to be kind of quiet, so that I can hear the sound of the turning pages. Like I can almost feel it right now. Actually, it’s a little bit how I got into the beauty videos. If I watch someone do their makeup, the sound of brushes on their face triggers it. Super weird is that it happens sometimes if someone takes a picture of me – but there has to be no music, and they have to be very serious.
Watch the livestream of Altuzarra's Spring/Summer 2022 runway collection debut starting at 3:00PM EST on Sunday, September 12, 2021.