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Chatting with Joseph Altuzarra about food trucks, fashion

By Booth Moore

Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

7:14 PM EDT, September 18, 2013

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New York-based designer Joseph Altuzarra has taken the spotlight in L.A. this week, co-hosting an Emmys kick-off party, and designing the interior of the green room where stars will hang out backstage during the awards show Sunday night.

It’s the latest in a series of exciting developments for Altuzarra, 30, whose signature, sexy slit skirts and dresses have been worn by Kate Upton, Nicole Kidman, Carine Roitfeld and others.

PHOTOS: Joseph Altuzarra collection at New York Fashion Week spring 2104

It was recently announced that Kering, the European luxury conglomerate that owns Gucci Group and built Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen into global brands, bought a minority stake in his company. Then, his spring-summer 2014 collection, inspired by Japanese boro workwear, emerged as the hit of New York Fashion Week.

Altuzarra grew up in Paris, and launched his line in New York in 2008, after stints working at Marc Jacobs, Proenza Schouler and at Givenchy, as Riccardo Tisci’s first assistant.

I sat down with him for breakfast in L.A. on Tuesday to talk about his love of food trucks, television, and his design process.

Have you spent a lot of time in L.A.?

I went to Swarthmore but took a semester off and went to Pomona. So I was here for six months as a college student. It was because I was from France and was going to school in the U.S. already, so I was sort of abroad. I had never lived on the West Coast before, so I decided to do that. And I loved it so much, I actually tried to transfer. I also have a lot of family in San Francisco.

What was your first fashion memory?

My early relationship with fashion was very personal. I was a very awkward teenager, and I felt there was a Pygmalion quality to clothing and fashion. I really felt if I could have the right clothes, I would be popular. It wasn’t until later in my teens that I became interested in fashion with a capital “F.”

Do you still feel that way about fashion, that it has a Pygmalion quality?

Even though you do grow out of that phase where you feel wearing a certain thing is going to make you look cool, clothing can still make you feel good. But as much as it’s about the cut, fabric or style, it’s also about the attitude with which you wear something. You can wear a white T-shirt and jeans and be the sexiest person alive if you have the attitude.

How did this partnership with Audi at the Emmys come about? And I hope you got a car out of the deal!

We got a loaner. I don’t know how to drive, but I’m learning. They’ve been really great partners. They approached us and we really loved the idea. It’s not something we’ve ever done before, so it’s was a creative challenge. I also love television, so of course I was interested in doing something for the Emmys.

What are your favorite shows?

I watch everything.

Did you watch 'The Killing?'

Yes!

It’s been canceled.

No, it was canceled before.

It’s been canceled again.

Oh no, I love Mareille Enos. We also watch ‘Breaking Bad.’ It took me a long time to get on board, because it’s very violent. We love ‘Homeland,’ too.

What did you do with the green room?

It’s very much a reflection of our brand. There’s a French side and an American side, and they meet in the middle. There were a lot of things we had to think about, like women in ball gowns not being able to sit down low, so having variations of seating height, and knowing where to put mirrors so the performers can check themselves before they go onstage. We tried to be intelligent about how things were made, like putting USB jacks in sofas so people can charge their phones. We used a lot of fabrics I like, including velvet and suede. And the colors are dark grays and botanical greens.

Are you dressing anyone?

We’re working on it. As a brand, we don’t do a lot of awards stuff, because we don’t do a lot of long dresses. The clothing I like to design is much more the clothing you would wear on the street. It’s also so much about money. We can’t compete with a Chanel or Dior. And I don’t think it’s a great allocation of our resources. It’s also aesthetic. Actresses, and I understand, they want one kind of dress, something very corseted, where they feel super held in, or something that’s got a pouf. There’s a style of dress and it’s not one that feels very me. It’s about knowing what you stand for. We do have celebrities who buy our clothes. At the Met Ball, I met Julianne Moore, who told me she bought our peacoat and lived in it all winter. That was very sincere and felt special. 

Be careful, Tom Ford will get jealous!

He has nothing to worry about. He’s been so supportive of me anyway. Growing up, he was very much a matinee idol to me. He was the Gianni Versace of my generation, who represented everything escapist, glamorous and fantastical about fashion in his persona, the way that he showed, the ad campaigns with their idea of overt sexuality. To an awkward gay teenager, it was all incredibly alluring. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve also come to appreciate him as a master brand crafter.

Back to L.A., have you been to any great restaurants?

We were trying to find the Komodo food truck, but we found the actual restaurant. It’s across from a place called MexiKosher. Komodo is basically Asian burritos and it was packed. And incredible. I actually watch a lot of Food Network -- that’s my default channel -- and it has a lot of stuff about food trucks.

How about stores?

We went to The Way We Wore, and they opened up their archives. I had no idea there were so many textiles, which were awesome. So I was there for a while. We also went to H.D. Buttercup because I watch “Interior Therapy” on Bravo. I wanted to see Silver Lake, so we drove around there. I know it sounds so designer-y, but I feel very inspired by L.A. There’s something about the car culture I find intriguing. I’ve never lived in a place that has car culture. Paris and New York are not like that at all.

Speaking of being inspired, what I find inspiring about your work is that it has a utilitarian quality elevated to luxury,  which is something that definitely resonates with L.A. style.

Yeah, a lot of my work plays on things that are intrinsically American. There is always a sense of ease and taking the American attitude toward clothing, or iconic American garments, and twisting them. There’s always the French side of me that seeps in. For spring/summer 2013, we worked with a lot of engineered stripes, which were based on railroad stripes.

You’ve become known for this really sexy, slit skirt silhouette. Did you consciously develop that silhouette, or did it just evolve?

Consciously, I developed the identity of a woman. The silhouette came from that woman, but it also came from what our customers responded to. There’s a pragmatic aspect to it. As I developed my style, I realized what is important today, especially for young designers, is to own something. To be differentiated in some way, either by your use of fabrics or the silhouettes you work with, or the vocabulary you always use. It’s becoming more interesting to me as a designer to refine that.

You just got this investment from Kering, a minority stake in your business. How did that come about?

They reached out to us a year and a half ago. I had always had a lot of admiration and respect not only for the brands they have in their roster, but how they’ve developed the brands they went in on the ground level with, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney specifically. It was such a smart, considered approach. I met with [Kering CEO] Francois Henri Pinault a couple of times, and he’s so respectful of creativity and vision. I thought that was a rare and incredible thing.

What will this allow you to do?

A pre-fall collection is the first step, and then starting to do accessories and really developing the ready-to-wear line in a way we haven’t had resources to do before. Obviously financial support is important to grow any brand, but what was so great about this deal was that they also have an infrastructure and expertise that’s invaluable.

So have you started sketching bags yet?

I have a humongous folder of bag research.

Let’s talk about the spring 2014 collection you just showed in New York.

The whole concept came from this type of Japanese technique for clothing called boro, which I had been thinking about for a long time, because I love the idea of beauty and humility, which is close to a Japanese philosophy called wabi sabi. Japanese fisherman would have one piece of cotton clothing over their lives that would be mended, and that the mending would become ornamentation, but not purposefully. Over the span of a lifetime, you’d get garments that were stitched and patched beautifully. The garments are very difficult to find, at least in the U.S. But we found one from the early 19th century, which we then used for print development. We sent it to get hi-def photographed, then pieced all the photos together digitally to make the print. It’s silk but it reads as a luxe alternative to denim.

What about the looks that look like liquid gold?

There’s actually metal thread in that fabric, and it’s based on a vintage 1930s dress. There’s one factory in Italy that has a machine to weave it. And it has amazing drape and reflection of light.

I loved your take on le smoking, too.

The silhouette of the tuxedo jacket is a little more masculine, so we wanted to add something that felt feminine in a subtle way. We had fine satin ribbons embroidered, and used them as closures on jackets.

Who are your mentors?

Anna Wintour has been a fairy godmother from the very beginning. When I started, I didn’t even have a formal presentation, I just sent emails to people to come and see the collection. I think I sent the ones to Vogue at 1 a.m., and by 1:30 a.m. they had already responded. They have this incredible curiosity about new talent in New York, which is a large part of why I moved there in the first place. I’ve always felt that’s a real strength of American fashion. In Italy or France, there’s a rejection or fear of youth. But the U.S. has learned to embrace it and grow strong businesses from the ground up, like Rag & Bone or Proenza Schouler. Carine has been incredibly influential and our retailers, too. Barneys bought our first collection. In a lot of ways, retailers will give you the tough love that editors won't, and it helps you grow.

ALSO:

New York Fashion Week Spring 2014: Joseph Altuzarra review

Proenza Schouler expanding with new products, New York store

British-born designers behind Rag & Bone make their mark on Melrose

booth.moore@latimes.com