In September last year, the Duchess of Sussex arrived at the Wellchild awards in what was possibly her least ‘royal’ outfit yet. Her sleek, immaculately tailored black trouser suit was simultaneously demurely understated and outrageously glamorous; she could either have been stepping into a job interview or onto the set of a Helmut Newton photo shoot.
The man behind the suit was Joseph Altuzarra, a designer who has made it his business to create these dichotomies for his customers. In a decade when sportswear and mannish minimalism has dominated the fashion conversation, Altuzarra’s sensual and feminine yet polished and work-ready aesthetic has offered a refreshing alternative which has been embraced not only by Meghan but Michelle Obama, the Duchess of Cambridge, Rihanna and Jennifer Lawrence as well as a faithful coterie of clients.
“I just really wanted to create happy clothes, that you would want to wear when it’s beautiful out, and which make you feel in love and happy,” Altuzarra tells me on a bright Autumn day in Paris as he leafs through a rail of ditsy floral printed pencil skirts, gingham tailoring in ice cream hues and crocheted sundresses which make up his hot-summer-in-the-Mediterranean-inspired spring/summer 2019 collection; Luca Guadagnino’s sultry romance, Call Me By Your Name, was an important reference.
Altuzarra, an infectiously smiley 35-year-old Chinese/ French/American who wears a white t-shirt, leather trousers and trainers when we meet, has never been one for overwrought concepts, instead preferring to infuse his offerings with ease, optimism and a dash of modern sexiness.
For example, the reason that so many of the looks he shows me expose the decolletage “came from this article I was reading about chakras. The solar plexus is the seat of where your self and confidence is, and exposing that is so open and freeing.” Doing sexy clothes as a male designer is something he’s grappled with over the past year in the wake of #metoo, he admits, but his focus is firmly on “body positivity and helping women to feel empowered.” He’s also been happily married for four years to his husband, Seth.
Altuzarra’s name has been quietly revered in fashion circles for years- he has won several CFDA awards in his time including the Vogue Fashion Fund, which is overseen by Anna Wintour, in 2011, and Kering, the conglomerate which owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, took a minority stake in his business in 2013 - but there is nothing like a little royal patronage to take one’s name stellar. The Duchess of Sussex has several Altuzarra pieces in her wardrobe, including a pinstripe dress, a white blazer and, of course, that super chic suit. Many of these pieces sold out after she wore them, ‘a rare power’ in the realms of VIP dressing, he tells me.
“You know the really nice thing about Meghan which obviously we could not have planned was that we actually started working with her prior to Harry,” Altuzarra confides. ‘She came to the party for our Target collaboration five years ago and we’ve worked with her ever since. She represents such a modern idea of womanhood as well as a very new idea of royalty.” He’s proud too of dressing her in pieces which a designer may not have ordinarily expected a Duchess to select- “it sets a really nice tone for a newer generation.”
He lives and works in New York, and showed his collections at the city’s fashion week until 2017 when he decided to take himself from ‘a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond’ and show in Paris instead. Having been brought up in the city, it seemed like a natural move. “I think a lot of French style is ingrained in me,” he says. “I love a certain kind of dressing and attitude towards the body- those are things I grew up with.”
One of his muses is Carine Roitfeld, the 64 year-old former editor of French Vogue. “She really embodies that idea that you don’t need to stop being seductive because you’re aging, she does whatever she wants. America is a society of correction, a lot of it is about being perfect, getting yourself to be perfect through plastic surgery or exercise or nutrition. Whereas in France it’s much more of a society of acceptance of your flaws and sometimes even highlighting them, celebrating them.”
Altuzarra has made this celebration of ageless glamour a central tenet of his label (the New York bit comes in via pragmatic wearabilty), which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2019. His signatures include nipped-in tailoring, curve-enhancing skirts and sinuous dresses which are imbued with flattering, feel-good power. “I have been really conscious of being respectful of how women want to feel and actually dress,” he says. “They need to wear a bra and maybe some of them want to wear Spanx, it’s got to work with that.” Perhaps those solar-plexus baring tops don’t quite tick the bra box, but he has plenty of other options which do.
“A lot of the women we want to talk to are not just 20, 30 or 40 but also 50, 60 and 70,” he adds. “The root of my idea for the brand was looking at women like my mum, who were in their 60s and who still wanted to be sexy, and who didn’t want to feel like society was relegating them to having to wear tweed suits.”