Joseph Altuzarra warily examines the cakes, pastries and crustless sandwiches arranged on a triple-tiered platter placed in front of him for high tea at Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel. It’s a Sunday afternoon in November, and he’s been in town since Friday visiting friends with his fiancé, New York real estate developer Seth Weissman.
The way he tells it, the designer has been eating his way through the city: He spent Friday evening at Financial District hot spot The Chase, and Saturday involved poutine at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (“It felt like the ultimate Canadian experience”) followed by cheeseburgers and fries at The Burger’s Priest. “For dinner last night we had four pizzas and three pastas,” Altuzarra laughs, hand hovering over a scone. “I think I just have to embrace it at this point.”
Tomorrow his vacation indulgences end and Altuzarra will dive back into the business that has made his name one of the hottest in fashion. He’s the guest of honour at the third annual Lunch With Margaret & George, an event thrown by style-driving Toronto shop owners Lisa and George Corbo to raise money for the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation. He’ll present his spring 2014 ready-to-wear collection to the city’s social fixtures and power-brokers in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s light-filled Galleria Italia.
It’s a stunning collection—one that was, back in September, a highlight of New York Fashion Week. Shot through with Altuzarra’s signature smooth sexiness and commanding wearability, the clothes possess the easy glamour that shines when the designer is at his best. This attitude contradicts the man sitting next to me on the pillow-stuffed couch. In his T-shirt, half-zip pullover, straight-cut jeans and walking boots, he looks and acts like any other unassuming weekending professional, not the man who dresses Lauren Santo Domingo and Julianne Moore.
As a high-schooler in Paris—his Chinese-American mother and French father were bankers—Altuzarra was unpopular and shy. “I had this sense that if I had a cool pair of jeans they would somehow make me popular,” he says. “I grew very attached to this idea that fashion can have a transformative effect on your life.” He fantasized about a career avenue through which he could articulate his identity. “I knew I was gay,” he explains. “I looked up to people like Tom Ford who were just super fabulous. There was an escapism in knowing there was a world that was very accepting and very open.”
But when Altuzarra left Paris at the end of high school to attend Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, he studied art history. “I don’t think I ever thought that fashion could be an actual job,” he says. “At 18 years old , you think clothes are just willed into being.”
After he graduated, though, he landed an internship in Marc Jacobs’ design department and recognized his calling, motivating him to learn the trade on the fly in successive work placements: first with a Frenchman who served as Proenza Schouler’s pattern maker and then as Riccardo Tisci’s assistant at Givenchy. “Every designer has very, very different ways of working,” he says of his unconventional, informal training. “For me, it was more a question of figuring out the technical side of it, but I always knew how to draw.”
To this day, he begins each collection by feverishly sketching an idea into fruition. Often, he’ll start with 70 drawings and whittle it down from there. “It’s really about getting me as close to the drawing, to the idea as possible,” he says, adding that there’s much more room for experimentation when you put pencil to paper.
“I never try to lose sight of what is going to be desirable and wearable,” Altuzarra says. “That’s really important.”
It’s that mindset that helped him find almost immediate success upon launching his label in 2008, at the age of 25, as the economy simultaneously ground to a halt. “When I think about it now,” he laughs, “we really had nowhere to go but up.”
His 15-look debut that February garnered one very special supporter: Carine Roitfeld, then the editor-in-chief at French Vogue, who was spotted all over Paris Fashion Week wearing his snow-white fur-trimmed overcoat. It was a delicious twist of fate that Roitfeld, the image maker who helped hone Tom Ford’s infamous “porno chic” aesthetic in that designer’s Gucci heyday, should fall for Altuzarra. Suddenly, his shows were not to be missed.
Then, last September, the day before his spring runway show, the hype reached its peak when Kering announced it would be making a minority investment in the company. The luxury conglomerate’s holdings include Gucci, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney. Following Kering’s decision to acquire a stake in Christopher Kane last year, its backing of Altuzarra is the latest in a string of investments supporting the young vanguard of fashion, offering much-needed capital and industry expertise.
While Roitfeld’s early support was a coup for the designer, to Altuzarra it made sense. The French editor exemplifies his ideal: a sexy, in-control power- house with plenty of life experience. “She’s self-assured, she’s very confident, and she’s someone who is not necessarily 25. When I think of the Altuzarra woman, she could be 55,” he says.
“There’s an economic reality that the women who are buying clothes are probably older,” he continues. “Twenty years ago, when you were 55, you were expected to dress like a grandmother. Today, when you’re that age, you still want to have a sex life. It became about this mindset of how women think about their bodies, whether they’re 30 or 60.”
For her part, Lisa Corbo thinks that Altuzarra’s mother, Karen, who was the founding CEO of her son’s company (she has since become chair of the board), perfectly epitomizes the woman the designer creates for. “She’s an incredible dresser. She’s an intellectual, she’s natural—no fake boobs, no face lifts. She’s got that understated Parisian flair.”
Altuzarra readily admits to constantly looking to French women for inspiration. Melanie Huynh, for example, a 37-year-old former French Vogue editor who acts as the designer’s muse and collaborator (Huynh and stylist Vanessa Traina help assemble his collection every season), is the personification of effortless style that only gets better with time. The two met in Paris while he was at Givenchy and have been inseparable ever since. “I grew up with the French mentality on aging,” he explains. “Aging isn’t necessarily a negative thing; it’s something your body grows into, that you grow into sexually. There’s a sense that through the maturing process you can become better, more confident, more beautiful.”
Certainly, maturity is the driving force behind the Altuzarra signature, whether it’s the knife-sharp interpretations of rail-road fabric in his spring 2013 blazers or, as in his current season, the elevation of the patchwork Japanese boro jacket and striped Turkish bath textiles by way of languid, slinky skirts and blouses.
He’s not unlike those he ardently admires and subsequently dresses: wise at heart, imbued with an unshakable confidence and boundless energy. That stamina will come in handy as he heads to the AGO, where he needs to prepare his samples for tomorrow’s show. But not before fuelling up. He smiles: “I’m so glad I had the scones.”