When Joseph Altuzarra closed his studio on March 15 to comply with stay-at-home measures, he was on his second day of resort fittings. The world has changed drastically since then, and so too did the initial concept of his collection — the result favoring a less formal, more relaxed form of luxury. The ways in which he and his team were used to working evolved, too, with digital tools replacing physical ones.
They powered through like the few other brands able to produce a resort collection during these unprecedented times, and closed out the resort season in New York. It was natural, then, for the designer to want to honor his team and their hard work by including process photos alongside the glossy images of his lookbook to underscore a sense of reality and vulnerability as a designer and brand.
“I think what I’ve learned a lot through the last couple months is how much I love the process but also how integral understanding the process is to understanding the product,” he explained on a call for the resort appointment. “We’ve grown in a lot of ways and I’ve sort of taken a step back from doing more of the pure hand work of the collection, and going through this pandemic and being separated from my team and us all being away from each other has allowed me to get back to draping and little stitch trials and going back into the very tactile craft of making a collection.”
He mixed in images of color swatches, fittings notes, pattern renderings and inspiration photos to show the steps that went into the new reality of working remotely, such as the original drawing for the ikat print found on a couple of feminine dresses or gingham swatches from spring 2015 he brought out of the archive. Next to finished looks were photos of their unfinished selves with handwritten notes on what to alter, or inspiration photos, like a 1973 Vogue Italia shoot next to the gingham on gingham look it inspired.
A photo of a fabric board was taken the day Altuzarra and his team left the office, serving as “a little bit of a memento of what didn’t make it into the collection because some of the collection changed and some of these prints and colorways were canceled,” he said, adding, “I just thought it was a very honest and transparent look at how the collection had evolved.”
Here, the designer talks more about his quarantine routine, challenges, silver linings and more.
WWD: You’ve been in the Hamptons throughout quarantine. How was that transition going from a studio space to a home design setting?
Joseph Altuzarra: It was actually an easier transition than I expected. We’re a pretty small, nimble team and I think that we embraced this new reality and in a lot of ways we just found new ways of being creative. I think the mistake we avoided was trying to replicate the process that we normally have, but to actually come up with a new process with new tools. That sometimes meant designing in a different way. As I mentioned, I think part of that was my getting back into a little more of the nitty gritty of creating swatches or draping or doing my own collages. That was a really nice transition and I’ve really embraced that for spring as well.
WWD: Were you designing with the frame of mind that the world would be open by the time the collection hits stores?
J.A.: Good question. Yes. I think my assumption when I was designing this collection was by the time this would hit stores that the majority of the world would be reopened. What we tried to think about when we were working on it was to think about how the months that we will all have collectively spent indoors, how that will have affected our sense of how we dress and also how we want to feel. We really wanted to highlight the comfort, the idea of something that felt more relaxed, a little more casual. I don’t think anyone would describe Altuzarra as a casual brand usually, but I think in a lot of ways we’ve tried to think about how we can translate a lot of the design aesthetic of Altuzarra into something that feels more like relaxed luxury.
WWD: This has been an unprecedented year with the pandemic, the resulting unemployment, racial inequity. What have been some challenges navigating those issues and still having to design a collection?
J.A.: Oh my God, let me count the ways. I think in a lot of ways our role as designers is to try to reflect the times we live in but to also provide beauty and a poetic answer. We’re going through such an important time in global society. As you mentioned, there’s the pandemic but there’s also a social awakening around racial inequity and inequality in general. And frankly, sustainability has really come to the forefront. Those are all things I think that I’ve tried to be very aware of during the last few months, both as a designer but also as a business owner. They have real consequences on the business. It’s impossible not to be candid about that. But I also think it’s been, for me, a challenging time but a time of hopefulness because a lot of the changes that people are calling for and that we’re starting to see were changes that were honestly needed. I am excited to see what people are going to do and how people are going to change.
WWD: How were your sustainability efforts and goals affected during this time?
J.A.: Honestly, they were affected positively because what this did was it forced us to — you know some of our mills were closed and some of the fabrics that were supposed to be delivered were never delivered — it sort of forced us to go back into our archive, go back into our warehouses, look at what we had and try to find new and creative ways of working with fabric that we already had. That was really exciting. I also think just generally the sustainability initiatives that we had put in place pre-COVID-19 have come more to the forefront of our design process post-COVID-19. I think it’s become more important and something that we think about a lot more as a team.
WWD: Speaking about change that the industry needs, you’ve been part of the movement calling for better alignment of seasons and deliveries. Can you talk more about that and what changes are happening at Altuzarra?
J.A.: Yeah. I got on a call a couple of weeks into quarantine with a few industry players like Dries van Noten and a few retailers and Marine Serre. We really started talking about the reality of what we were all going through and what we saw as one of the main things that needed to change, which was realigning seasons. What’s happened over the course of the last 10 years is you’ve had this faster and faster pace of the markdown schedule, which has resulted in shorter and shorter full-price selling periods and these absurd things like swimsuits going on sale in May and winter coats going on sale in November. Which didn’t make sense to anyone. I think we recognized that this was a real issue, that this was a self-destructing habit for the industry and that we needed to realign everyone’s expectation: the customers, the retailers, the designers, the editors, and all get on the same page about this idea of seasonality. I feel really proud to have been part of this initiative and to have been able to come up with a tangible plan. At Altuzarra, it really means designing in a different way. It means really thinking about the season in which clothes will be delivered and recognizing that’s how people are shopping. People aren’t shopping anymore three months in advance. They’re not buying a winter coat in July to wear in September. They’re buying a winter coat in September when they need a winter coat. It’s definitely been a shift in, sort of, the ways that we’ve been thinking about the design process, but I think it was really needed.
WWD: For you, will the realignment begin with your fall delivery?
J.A.: The realignment will begin with our pre-spring delivery.
WWD: Let’s talk about sales. How did you present this collection to buyers?
J.A.: We presented it over Zoom. We had a virtual showroom. We had our sales team in the showroom. We had set up the showroom so that we were able to move the buyers through the whole showroom and see the entire collection. They received the lookbook, in addition. And actually, it was a really surprisingly productive and efficient way of showing the collection. I’m sure you’ve heard that a lot from people. Listen, nothing replaces someone being in the space looking at the clothes, but I think that people have realized this is a really efficient proxy for it and that while losing a little bit of the emotion and the tactile nature of seeing clothes, you gain a lot in efficiency.
WWD: What other aspects of working remotely do you think you’ll keep moving forward?
J.A.: That’s a good question. I think we’ll actually keep a lot of aspects of working remotely. We’ve been doing a lot of things digitally, sort of interactively as a team. We used to, for instance, have these giant boards when we would work on the collection we would print out all of these ideas and print out colorups and put hundreds of little pieces of paper on the wall and throughout this process we’ve been doing it on either Google Excel, sharing the screen, or on Keynote or on PowerPoint and sharing our screens and realizing we really don’t need to print all of that. We can actually just do this on the computer and it’s way more sustainable, it’s way more efficient. We have this process called “fabric to sketch,” which is when we take the sketch and decide, like, this dress we’re going to do in blue wool, we’re going to do it in beige wool, we’re going to do it in green wool — I’m totally making stuff up. That process would usually take us a week. Doing it on the computer remotely took us four days. So it took us three fewer days to do it virtually. I think that’s really exciting as a realization.
WWD: Why was it important for you to display the process in your lookbook this season?
J.A.: I’ve been really moved by how dedicated my team has been and I’ve really wanted to embrace vulnerability and transparency throughout this process. That’s one of the things that I have enjoyed the most going through this pandemic, is talking to other people and kind of just being real. Like, “What is actually going on with you?”; “What is actually going on with your business?”; “what are the hardships?”; “what are the challenges?” I think sometimes fashion can feel like it has this veneer and this polish that can feel very alienating in a lot of ways. I think that displaying the vulnerable underside of it and the process and the things that maybe didn’t work and the bad photocopies is a way of both honoring my team and honoring the moment that we’re living in and also being really vulnerable and showing my vulnerability as a designer and as a company.
WWD: How did you decide on these select images? Can you elaborate on their significance?
J.A.: I wanted to include images of the process, as I felt they added to the understanding of the collection, but also were an important memento of the way my team came together during this time. I also wanted to embrace the idea of transparency and vulnerability, and expose the unvarnished and unedited markers of the process of making a collection. I included fitting pictures, that were taken as screenshots during Zoom fittings, and that I then annotated. I also included a swatch approval for gingham, dated on the last day we were all in the office.
WWD: What are some other silver linings you’ve taken either personally or professionally from the past few months?
J.A.: You know, we had a baby eight months ago, so spending a lot of time with Emma has been really wonderful. I actually end up speaking to people face to face on the computer a lot more, which has been really nice. I hardly call people anymore. I FaceTime all the time. I’ve rekindled a lot of relationships, close relationships with people that had sort of just fallen by the wayside because we didn’t live in the same city or in the same country. So that’s been a silver lining. And I think feeling like the industry is much smaller than it was; feeling like you’re much closer to people and that you can talk with other people and exchange ideas without so much of the barriers that existed before. I think that’s one of the things I’ll really treasure from this time.