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On the subject of art and commerce, often a touchy topic between the creative and business sides of a luxury fashion enterprise, Joseph Altuzarra and his chief executive officer Karis Durmer share the same big-picture perspective: “This is not art for art’s sake,” said Durmer during a conversation at the summit. “But, on the other hand, it’s not purely a commercial endeavor, so that tension is why we love to do it.”

To some extent, their holistic philosophy toward the business of fashion is owed to their respective unconventional paths into the industry. Altuzarra did not attend fashion school but studied art history at the ultraintellectual liberal arts school Swarthmore College. “I realized in college that fashion was a real industry and that it was something that you could actually make a living from,” said Altuzarra, who learned design on the job, working at Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler before eventually moving back to Paris, where he grew up, to work with Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy. He launched his own label in 2008 just as the market crashed, something which has also heavily weighted his — and many of his peers’, who went into business around the same time — approach to his job. “There is a greater understanding of economics and how the financial climate can impact your business,” said Altuzarra. “As a whole, a lot of the designers of my generation have started their own companies, and starting your own company and understanding how you survive in this environment and thrive demands an understanding of both the art and the commerce of the company.”

This story first appeared in the October 28, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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For her part, Durmer’s career began in investment banking and media business development, breaking into fashion in her early 30s when she was in business school, which was a challenge. “For a long time, if you didn’t grow up in one of the verticals — merchandising or sales — you really didn’t have an entryway [into fashion],” she said. “Now people have realized that different points of view and skill sets can help a company grow. That being said, I think for someone to make that transition and do it successfully you have to have a real passion for product first and foremost.”

Altuzarra and Durmer were introduced by Shirley Cook, ceo of Proenza Schouler, and have been working together for four years. From the beginning, Altuzarra has had a specific vision of the woman he wants to dress, the brand he wants to build for her. Anchor silhouettes are the slim pencil skirt with a severe slit up the thigh and sensual takes on men’s shirting. Carine Roitfeld is constantly cited as his muse and ideal customer, “someone who is in her late 50s or early 60s and still wants to be sexy and seductive…she doesn’t want to stop being a sexual being or woman. That was always very much the model.”

Roitfeld, along with the rest of the retail and editorial elite, has reciprocated Altuzarra’s admiration from Day One. Yet despite the instant swell of support, Altuzarra and Durmer have resisted rapid expansion, taking a slower, more calculated approach than many other companies in the market. Altuzarra does not have its own store or e-commerce. Social media is strictly controlled. Even the concept of pre-collections, which most designer labels can’t get into soon enough, were added in 2012 for resort, 2014 for pre-fall. Accessories — shoes launched for resort and handbags are forthcoming for fall 2015 — have only been developed since Kering took a 40 percent stake in the company in September 2013.

Asked how the partnership with Kering has affected the company, Altuzarra and Durmer had no criticism. He praised Kering’s “hands-off” approach, as well as the manufacturing resources it’s provided, new factories, etc. As for Durmer, “[Kering] came to Altuzarra because they thought we were doing a great job building the business, so they let us continue to do it our way….Joseph and I came from non-traditional backgrounds so this is the first time we’re doing a lot of things. Now we have someone to use as a sounding board and point us in the direction of resources. They’ve done it umpteen times before.”

Surely there have been some challenges in the quest for a peaceful union of art and commerce? “Spring/summer ’12 Neoprene pants,” said Durmer. “Joseph really felt it.”

“There were cone tops on dresses and not very flattering materials,” said Altuzarra. “We as a company are very open to taking risks and making mistakes because we have this very pragmatic, slow-and-steady approach.”

Not to be left out of the business plan is the idea of emotion, that elusive ingredient that compels a customer toward the brand. “We’re not making corrugated cardboard and I’m fairly certain most people that come into a retail store to buy Altuzarra are already dressed,” said Durmer. “We need to build desire. That’s what Joseph does every single day with his team.”

To that point, they believe the role of the runway is more important than ever. Durmer noted that it’s easy to argue the opposite — all the tools and technology exist to make the transactions necessary to make a retail business happen. “If you’re a brand of our age, it [the runway] puts you on a platform with other brands. People can come and see Joseph’s vision for Altuzarra. It’s the only environment we have to do that. We don’t have a physical store or space. That’s our moment. Also, for the industry as a whole, you have a month where the world is watching all the creative genius that comes out. That’s amazing for the industry. Collectively, everybody benefits from that moment.”

Altuzarra also noted that they’re still a company of limited resource in terms of cash and people. “We don’t advertise so the runway is our only big marketing expense,” he said. “It also allows our retail partners and editors to understand what Altuzarra is about, to create an atmosphere.”

Both designer and ceo realize that for now Altuzarra is still very much a small fashion-insider brand. The goal is to grow the business in a considered way, by leveraging partnerships. Thus, the design collaboration with Target earlier this year. Asked if it there was any backlash to a luxury designer partnering with a mass brand, Durmer said, “We were able to generate three billion media impressions [through Target]. That’s a number that is impossible to achieve for a brand our age, based on our resources.”

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