Golden boy Joseph Altuzarra wins The Swarovski Award for Womenswear at the CFDA Awards and tells i-D online about teenage kicks and bird watching.
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New York-based, Chinese-American-French-Basque designer Joseph Altuzarra has grown his namesake collection over the past few seasons into a giant global company. His business guidance and corporate instincts are as razor sharp as his designs and he’s on a winning streak. Taking home first prize last November at the CFDA Awards, boy wonder has just updated his trophy, winning the Swarovski Womenswear Award at this weekend’s ceremonies. Altuzarra was listed in Forbes’ ‘30 under 30’, is bezzies with Alexander Wang, has his collection sold in twelve countries and over fifty stores – and is only 28. That said, part of the international success of ALTUZARRA lies with Joseph’s mother and director of the business Karen Altuzarra. It’s hard to imagine her bouncy presence and elfin-voiced charm working in the cut-throat boardrooms of investment banking – but she did – and it seems the alchemic formula of Karen’s financial background and Joseph’s everything else, has really paid off for this mother-son team.
i-D online caught up with Altuzarra after his November win to find out the secrets of his success and how he balances work/ family life.
How did it feel to win the CFDA award? [2011 November Award] It’s such as intense procedure to go through. The first time I really cared about winning but the second time it was more about the process; meeting with Anna Wintour and talking with her about the business, and what she thought we should do, and meeting with Reed Krakoff and Andrew Rosen. Having those conversations is just so rare. I would hear from previous winners “Oh the real prize was the mentorship” and I’d be like “Yeah right!” But it honestly is. The mentorship is priceless.
Is it true that before the winners were announced, Diane Von Furstenburg pinched your cheek and asked you in French if you needed to go for a wee… Yeah, I think she said “Do you need to go to the bathroom, because you should go if you need to”, and I was like “Oh no I’m fine”. I don’t know if she knew that I had won but it was funny.
Where does your surname originate from? It’s Basque, which is a region between France and Spain. It means “old man on the mountain.”
Did you go through a rebellious stage? No. I went through an unhappy phase of being a teenager which might have seemed like a rebellious stage because I wasn’t talking much and I wasn’t very happy. I had trouble making friends and I had trouble being accepted in school, until I was older. Being a teenager is hard enough, without being unpopular and shy, kind of weird and into fashion too.
Do you have any favourite childhood memories? I used to spend my summers in California with my grandparents and I went bird watching – which is not the most fun thing to do – but I went with my grandmother and it was so nice to be with her. I still think about that as a really fond memory. I haven’t re-visited the birds though.
How do you separate your work and family relationships? You have to make a concerted effort to not talk about work during family time. So much little stuff can pop-up in conversation and you have to be really careful. We actually say we’re not going to talk about work which is very, very important. Otherwise you’ll have Christmas with your colleagues.
You have such a close working relationship with your mum, does it ever become too much? There is never really a moment when I’m like “Argh please go away”. There are moments in every working relationship when you feel like you just want to do your thing, be autonomous and not have anyone tell you what to do or tell you the bad stuff. I’m not so great with criticism. I mean I’ll listen and take the criticism but then I’ll mull it over for a really long time.
Have you ever designed something that she really hates? Oh my god all the time. She hates cat suits and I’ve designed quite a few. There are definitely some things she doesn’t like in each season but I still do them. Sometimes she won’t like it in drawing and she’ll like it in person.
Apart from craftsmanship, what did you learn from your time at Marc Jacobs and Givenchy? You learn a lot about how small of a percentage design is in the greater scheme of owning a fashion company. It really is only 15% of what I do. A lot of the time you manage people, you follow factories. You can have the most beautiful designs but if you can’t communicate it to the factory and you can’t work with them and get the fabrics delivered on time and run this whole machine, then it won’t get done.
How do you keep your sense of self in the industry? You have to have a certain amount of humility. I always think that being a nice person is really underrated in fashion so I always make a conscious effort to be nice.
How does it feel to be thrust into the spotlight so intensely? And considered one of America’s most promising designers… In this weird way it feels like your job. It feels like it’s part of what is it to be a designer now but it’s also really important to get out there. We live in an exceptionally communicative time with the Internet and social media and you have to be part of it. You have to engage in it. Otherwise you’re not being a part of your own time.
Text: Lewis Chong
Portrait (bottom left): Jonathan Middleton
Catwalk Photography: Mitchell Sams
Personal pictures courtesy Joseph Altuzarra