Product rules. Karis Durmer, chief executive officer of Altuzarra, learned that lesson growing up in Nashua, N.H. She’d comb the racks at her local TJ Maxx, searching for that special piece to race her fashion adrenaline and spark her wardrobe.
In the deep dive for off-price discovery, Durmer honed a skill: the ability “to judge a garment on its merits.” She found a fascination with beautiful product that set her on a path to fashion, albeit a circuitous one. Post-Georgetown stints at Bear Stearns, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and Condé Nast preceded Columbia Business School; the launch of Make Meaning, a children’s retail activity concept, and ultimately, Altuzarra. “I took baby steps,” she says. “I always knew I wanted a career in retail and luxury goods. I think it took me a long time to be able to say that.”
Yet when she met Joseph Altuzarra, whose clothes — urbane and elegant, with a slyly twisted sensuality — rank among the most exciting of his generation of designers, luxury wasn’t the first topic of conversation. “Joseph and I connected, not on an aesthetic level, not on a business level,” Durmer says, speaking with quiet confidence and a perspective insightful beyond her years of experience. “We talked a lot about the type of company we wanted to have in terms of the human element,” a company that would invest in and nurture people as well as a brand.
That meeting, orchestrated by Shirley Cook, then ceo of Proenza Schouler (while in graduate school, Durmer did a project for Proenza; Altuzarra had interned), initiated a getting-to-know-you period during which they discovered other commonalities (aesthetic point of view; brand-narrative development). When Altuzarra’s founding ceo, his mother, Karen Altuzarra, decided to step back from the role in 2011, Durmer came in as chief operating operator with an equity stake. The women worked together for a year before Durmer took over as ceo.
“You have to understand the relationship you’re going to have with the creative director,” Durmer notes of that role at a nascent fashion house. “Your partnership is critical to success. Joseph has one chance at putting his name on the label. My role is to help him fulfill that dream and make sure it becomes a reality.”
No need to rush along the way. While other young companies hurry to launch brand extensions, e-commerce and physical stores, Durmer invokes the “marathon not a sprint” mantra. Case in point: accessories. Altuzarra’s fall 2015 launch came only after the company had met certain “milestones” in terms of staffing, supply chain, organization, ready-to-wear performance and branding. Still, understanding the Altuzarra woman and the bag she should carry wasn’t enough; it was essential to explore “what the marketplace looked like and what the white spaces were.” Thus, counter to the still-minimalist norm, Altuzarra moved in with artisanal flamboyance, his Ghianda bags done up with thick braiding, tassels and demonstrative hardware. “I think he did a bang-up job,” Durmer says.
As for expansion, e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail are “inevitable” and will likely find support in Kering, “an amazing partner,” which took a minority stake in 2013. Beyond the obvious benefits, the investment opened opportunities for invaluable cross-brand communication. “It’s given us a network of people to reach out to and speak with and grow alongside, people who’ve been through what we’ve been through…[and] seasoned expertise that we didn’t have on our own,” Durmer says.
For all her calm, Durmer worries about fashion’s relentless demands. Absent a large design staff, “it’s a lot for Joseph to come up with new ideas four times a year and work on this aggressive calendar and also to have a press presence and to visit stores and to keep on that churn.” Part of her job is to recognize “when he’s at a breaking point before he’s aware that he is.” At such moments, she assesses whether it’s time to add staff: “This is a time to push ourselves but not break.”
Durmer herself is living out the classic working-woman home-work balancing act, one that will intensify with the birth of her second child in July. Daughter Agnes turned one on Jan. 6. “I feel the first birthday party is really for the parents,” Durmer says. “We made it through the first year. She’s fine, so we’re good.”