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In an industry obsessed with youth and the eternal chase to preserve it, Joseph Altuzarra offers an unexpected counterpoint with refreshing candor.

This story first appeared in the May 29, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I was always really interested, and still am, in this woman who is not 25 years old,” the designer said, sitting in his studio on Howard Street in New York. “She is someone who could be in her 50s, her 60s, but who hasn’t lost her desire to seduce, to feel feminine and sexy. Basically it’s someone like Carine.”

Altuzarra was referring to Carine Roitfeld, the editor and fashion stylist, who he said perfectly embodies his strong aesthetic, as do women of different age demographics like stylist Vanessa Traina Snow, another muse. The versatility — teamed with a chic Parisian sensibility; in past seasons infused with Berber and Bollywood touches and a dose of American street — contributed to Altuzarra becoming one of the hottest names on the New York fashion circuit. At 29, his star continues to rise.

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The son of a French-Basque father and an American mother, Altuzarra grew up in Paris’ Seventh Arrondissement, where he attended a traditional French lycée before moving Stateside for Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

“Not a fashion school,” he said. “I studied art and art history. I had always liked fashion, I just didn’t know people who worked in fashion. I didn’t know what it entailed, so I went to college for art history and came to fashion through the back door, looking at fashion advertising and tying it in with classical or historical iconography.”

While studying, he worked in a local costume shop, which further whetted his appetite for fashion. Postgraduation, he applied for an internship at Marc Jacobs.

“I got called back mainly, I suspect, because I was on top of the pile alphabetically,” Altuzarra said. “They needed someone right away and I started working there as an intern in the design studio. It’s where I realized that I really wanted to work in fashion.”

After another internship, at Proenza Schouler, he apprenticed for a New York-based French patternmaker — “I’d always had this inferiority complex because I’d never been to fashion school,” he said — who encouraged him to return to Paris. He reluctantly agreed.

“I did not necessarily have the best high school experience in France, so I’m not particularly emotionally tied to Paris, but I went back and I pretty much immediately started working for Riccardo [Tisci, Givenchy creative director],” he said.

In 2008, Altuzarra decided to strike out on his own. “Firstly,” as he put it, “because I thought that if I waited any longer I probably wouldn’t do it. I also wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had a vision or something that I felt was relevant to the industry.”

The watershed moment came for fall 2010, when Altuzarra presented a cool collection inspired by Tim Burton and, particularly, “Edward Scissorhands.”

“People started taking notice,” he recalled. “We also really identified who the Altuzarra woman was in a very precise and focused way. It became a template, which we still build upon every season.”

Altuzarra is expanding that repertory with apparent ease. He recently designed costumes for the New York City Ballet and is growing the overall breadth of his collection with more day clothes and the launch of his first pre-fall collection.

“I would also love to open a store and launch accessories soon, but I’m very cautious, and maybe that’s what the recession has taught me,” he said. “I want to make sure that whenever we do something, we do our research and we’re prepared.”

Throughout, he plans to remain true to the core of his aesthetic, which he described in a twofold way. His woman, he explained, could inhabit two distinct worlds at once.

“There’s always a lot of tailoring, a sense of structure, body-skimming and body-defining,” he said. “On the one hand, there’s this incredibly French, almost a bit decadent world, with a certain darkness and richness. And then, there is this other world that’s much more tied to the U.S., and a bit younger and more subversive.”

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