With a new fall collection, Joseph Altuzarra is leaning into the brave new world that looks nothing like the place where he got his fashion start years ago. We caught up with the designer, who is forging the future without forgetting his roots.
Let’s start with your decision to open a store in East Hampton. How did that come about?
It was sort of like a two-pronged decision. We built a house here, having the personal connection that I do with the Hamptons, and realizing that a lot of my friends were here; there was a real desire to see fresh, new things. I decided that I would love to open a store here. From a more pragmatic, business point of view, there is a real opportunity now in the Hamptons to build a brand and speak to new customers about who we are and to reach a new audience. I think those two things sort of came together and made it a very easy decision. Usually decisions that come easily tend to be the most successful ones.
How do you align yourself with a growing retail footprint in today’s world where many are advocating conscious consumerism?
That’s a really great question. For us it’s really about building community and also about storytelling. The more I go through this crisis, through this sort of transition in our industry, the more I realize how important it is to convey what our process is as a team. To be transparent about how we make things, why we make things. I think in a lot of ways what differentiates us outside of what the clothes look like is the process and point of view. We have a lot of sustainable initiatives in place, and how those affect the clothing, the things that are actually on the racks, that goes directly to storytelling. I have been on a lot of really interesting Zoom calls with other American designers or other designers globally in the luxury sector. What has been really interesting to hear is how we are all aligned around this idea that we have to be more responsible and accountable and we have to think about the changing habits of consumers. I think, as you astutely referenced, there is a growing concern for the environment and being a conscious consumer. I am really trying to be an industry player and be at the forefront of this idea of being way more transparent of how things are made and why we make things.
You are involved in A Common Thread, the fashion fund for COVID-19 relief. What are your thoughts about the evolution of your industry challenged by the crisis?
For me it has always been clear from the beginning of the pandemic that things should not go back to normal. This is obviously devastating, but it allows us to make a real change in the industry that has really been needed for a really long time around how we conduct business and how we make things. That is really a top-to-bottom conversation, from manufacturing and sourcing down to discounting. There is definitely resistance—the heart of these initiatives is coming from independent designers, who are owner-operators of their own businesses, who have felt the repercussion of this pandemic and feel responsible for the effects that we are having on the industry. I think where we have seen more resistance is frankly bigger groups or bigger companies, who will have to come to terms with how to move with the industry. I feel like my role as an ambassador of sorts of these initiatives is to educate and be open to conversation.
Would your alliance with Etsy be part of that undertaking?
Etsy collaboration actually started a year ago. Part of that came from my real interest in craft—I am myself a crafter. I was really interested in working with a company that was supporting small business. Throughout the years of being on Etsy, I discovered so many incredible craftsmen. We actually approached Etsy with this idea of collaborating with some of their sellers, and it was such an incredible experience to use my platform to highlight their work. It came out at such an important time, at the beginning of the pandemic, when small business was really feeling the effect as much, if not more, than some of the other businesses. To be a platform for them was super inspiring and gave me a lot of joy.
How does your creative process work now?
I have an incredible team that I work very closely with. When we first left the city and closed the office about four and a half months ago, I was really like, ‘I don’t know how we can continue. How are we going to have fittings? How are we going to be able to collaborate on drawings or prints?’ Because so much of that was in person. We have been able to find new ways of being creative. In a really strange way, it has allowed me to be more creative. I actually had to go back to doing things by hand again. It sounds sort of silly, but I have had this business for 12 years, and after 12 years you lose that sense of getting your hands dirty. I have rediscovered the joy of making things myself.
How does your multicultural background fit in this picture?
That is probably the most important thing in my creative process. I feel like I have always struggled with identity. Growing up in Paris I was half Chinese, part American; I felt like I never fit in. I don’t think I was aware of it initially, but now I am much more aware of what identity means, how people use clothing to express it. I was initially interested in what it means to be French, what it meant to be American outside of the conventional parameters. In my collections I always look at things from my heritage and make them into a fetishistic idea of what is French or what is American to create something altogether new. With September around the corner, tell us about your fall collection. Ideally, we would like to do some sort of a show. We are still working on the collection itself. I wanted it to feel very poetic; I wanted there to be a very strong tension between these two opposing feelings everyone is feeling... alienation versus community, fear versus happiness... I am very excited about it, actually. I don’t know what will happen in September, but I am very excited about it nonetheless.
Altuzarra, 52 Main St., East Hampton.