Joseph Altuzarra is really having a moment.
He unveiled a new collection to rave reviews…
Dressed up for the Met Gala…
And is, frankly, feeling very emotional.
He’s a father now and that’s changed him -- not just as a person (he’s changing diapers now), but as a designer, too.
The self-described “weird kid” is done playing it safe.
Joseph Altuzarra is feeling fearless.
And that’s just great for fashion.
ALINA CHO: You were born [and raised] in Paris. Your father is French. Your mother is Chinese American.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I grew up in a very multicultural household. I was basically the only non-white kid at my school. I was a kind-of weird kid. I loved fashion and I loved ballet.
ALINA CHO: You studied ballet for eight years?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: Yeah, I started when I was six years old. In France, ballet is such an institution and our class, in first grade, we went to the French Opera House. I remember going to the costume shop and picking up a little bit of tulle from the tutus that was on the floor. I still have it.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I did three to four hours of ballet a day. My mom installed a curtain rod in my bedroom that was ballet height, a ballet bar.
ALINA CHO: Did you fancy yourself a mini-Baryshnikov?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I thought I was going to be a ballet dancer. For most of my childhood, that's what I wanted. But, by the time I was 14, 15, I sort-of realized what it would mean to become a ballet dancer full time.
ALINA CHO: What do you mean by that?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I knew I was never going to be tall. My teachers were very pragmatic about what my career would look like. And so, it kind-of became, well, I could continue doing ballet as a hobby, but it's very me -- this is a very “Joseph” thing -- that once it was just a hobby, I wasn't interested anymore.
ALINA CHO: You and I are alike that way. It's almost that realization of, oh, okay -- if I don't have a shot at being the best at something, then I'm not going to do it.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: Exactly. My parents joke about this a lot, because I cannot do anything unless I know I have a shot at being the best.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: When I was a senior at [Swarthmore College], I sent my resume out to basically everyone in New York: Michael Kors and Vera Wang and Marc Jacobs. I've since learned that Marc had asked an intern to alphabetize all the resumes, and Altuzarra, starting with “A,” was at the top. And so, I was the first person they called.
ALINA CHO: What did you learn from Marc?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: What I learned from Marc was the singularity of vision that you need to have as a designer. He was so set and uncompromising when he would work on a collection. And that was very inspiring for someone like me. I remember the first day I was there, they asked me to get grosgrain, and I had no idea what grosgrain ribbon was.
ALINA CHO: And then you went to work for Proenza Schouler.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: That was an incredibly formative experience because I realized how much I loved entrepreneurship. And I thought having a small company like that and owning a company was so special.
ALINA CHO: [But] you took a detour, you went back to Paris and worked as Riccardo Tisci's first assistant at Givenchy [Tisci is now Chief Creative Officer at Burberry].
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I think I'm probably the most indebted to Riccardo in a lot of ways, because I was really young when I started working for him, and he gave me a lot more responsibility than, honestly, I probably deserved.
ALINA CHO: What does it mean to be a first assistant?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: Well, you're in every fitting, you help execute the vision, we did a lot of drawing for the collection. You do a lot of fabric research. You’re like a right-hand person in a sense.
ALINA CHO: That seems like a full-on bootcamp.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: What was so amazing about Riccardo is that he really took me under his wing. And it was also exciting because it was just at the beginning of Givenchy when people were really starting to get what he was doing and what he was about. People forget that Riccardo at the beginning was not Riccardo now.
ALINA CHO: People didn’t know who he was.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: And people didn't love what he was doing. And he really stuck to his guns — this street meets couture, which no one was doing at the time. I really have a lot of admiration for him, because he — regardless of what people thought he should do and what people thought Givenchy should be — he was always on a path, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
ALINA CHO: He stuck to his vision, and that's an important lesson.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: It really is. It's a very important lesson.
ALINA CHO: So, in 2008, you launched your own brand.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I was very young and there was definitely a part of me that felt like if I didn't do it now, I probably would never do it. So that was the first thing. [Also], I was seeing women like [legendary French editor] Carine [Roitfeld] and my mom or my mom's friends who loved fashion, but also needed clothes that were pragmatic and polished and fit into their lives.
ALINA CHO: Right.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: And I also felt like fashion at the time was speaking to a really young audience. Everything was super tight, super mini. And there was something interesting about the idea, for me, of speaking to a customer who was in their forties or fifties. It used to be that if you were fifty, then you were wearing your Chanel tweed suit.
ALINA CHO: And you looked old.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: You looked old, and you weren't really having sex anymore. But now, women want to show off their figures. And I just felt like there were not a lot of brands speaking to that customer.
ALINA CHO: Let’s talk about how it felt to be back to doing a show again.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: It was incredibly emotional. I mean, I was crying backstage. And a lot of my team was crying backstage.
ALINA CHO: What do you think it was?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: Listen, I think truthfully, it's been a very, very hard year. There were definitely times when I didn't know whether we were going to make it. It was very scary.
ALINA CHO: You mean as a business?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: Yeah, the business. We didn’t know how long it was going to last.
ALINA CHO: Nobody knew.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: It was very scary. And I think our business has really, really boomed since basically February, March. It's come back in a really crazy way.
ALINA CHO: Oh, try buying a dress.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: It also didn't hurt that when I came out [after the show] … you know, the audience…
ALINA CHO: Oh, there was an audible roar.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: And I think you could feel it in the room.
ALINA CHO: 100%.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: It's honestly the most special show that I've ever done because it was so meaningful on so many levels.
ALINA CHO: I can't let you go without talking about a big change in your personal life. You [and your husband, Seth] now have a beautiful little girl named Emma.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: Yeah. She's almost two.
ALINA CHO: How has that changed your life, both on a personal level and has it opened your eyes in a different way with respect to your work?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I'm now changing diapers instead of being at work all the time. So that's a big change, but it does obviously put things into perspective and especially during COVID, which was obviously a very dark time, it was this incredible beacon of light and reminder that there are things beyond my job that are fulfilling and make me happy.
ALINA CHO: Totally.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I think in terms of how I approach my work, it's made me more uninhibited creatively.
ALINA CHO: In what way?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I used to be so afraid of what people would think about a collection. And I would censor myself. I would be like, "Ooh, this is too much." Or "This is not going to feel like Altuzarra.” A little bit to the detriment of the collection. Since having Emma, I'm much more emotional about my work.
ALINA CHO: It shows.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I really feel like, you know what, if I believe in it and I really want to do it and I'm proud of it, then just do it.
ALINA CHO: Absolutely.
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: I don't have the same fear that I did.
ALINA CHO: That makes perfect sense. It's almost like I have so much joy in my life outside of my work, what have I got to lose?
JOSEPH ALTUZARRA: Exactly. I was so scared all the time of losing ground with Altuzarra that I would stay really safe just because I knew I wasn't going to make a mistake. But now that I have so much joy in my life, I don't want to feel safe in my work. I want to be fearless.