With His New Line, Joseph Altuzarra Honors His Teen Self

Like many New Yorkers during the city’s lockdown of 2020, Joseph Altuzarra discovered that being at home for such an extended period led to much introspection. Even before March of that year, though, life as he knew it had changed drastically, as the fashion designer and his husband, the real estate investor Seth Weissman, welcomed their first child, Emma, at the end of 2019.

One of the things Altuzarra, 38, found himself thinking a lot about, while juggling the demands of caring for a new infant, was gender. As an award-winning women’s wear designer — after studying at Swarthmore College and doing stints at Proenza Schouler and Givenchy, he launched his namesake line, Altuzarra, in 2008 — his livelihood partly depended on him understanding at least a certain type of woman, but having a daughter made him newly aware, he says, of “the pervasive nature of the gender binary in our culture, and the ways in which we’re restricted by stereotypical norms.” He noticed, for instance, that people often described Emma with terms relating to her appearance, whereas baby boys were described according to their behavior, and that shopping for her always led to two racks, one hung with pink and flowery options and the other with a lot of flannel. “Even with puzzles, there would be unicorn ones and ones with cars,” he says.

From there, he tried to unpack how he, too, had internalized these beliefs, diving into memories of his own adolescence in Paris, where he felt pressure to dress and behave in a certain way. “There was an expectation that I would never cry or show emotion,” he says. “It built a lot of shame that I’ve had to dismantle slowly over the course of my life.” Being away from the office and out of the public eye allowed him to further this dismantling by experimenting with wearing skirts and dresses, as well as with skin tints and blushes. “What quarantine did for me,” says the designer, “was take away a lot of my fear and inhibitions.” A couple of months into it, he’d decided to create a new line — Altu.

While some designers are content to launch diffusion lines that consist of little more than less expensive versions of pieces from their main one, Altu, when compared to Altuzarra, is a real departure. Gone are the brightly colored fitted pencil skirts and beaded dresses, the patterned pleats and handkerchief hems. Instead, it features everyday staples like hoodies, body-skimming dresses, tees and trousers — including two pairs of leather pants modeled after those that Altuzarra himself has been wearing for years — that are intentionally genderless, though he prefers the term “genderful”: “We wanted to think of gender as something that was positive, optimistic and playful, as opposed to what’s implied by ‘genderless,’ which is about negation,” he says, adding, “Altuzarra has always been an alter ego. It’s a woman who is superconfident, sexy and unapologetic. She was the person Joseph, as a teen, wished he could become.”

In reality, he says, “Adolescence was not a particularly happy time for me and, instead of shying away from that, I wanted to re-engage with it and make something beautiful and productive out of it.” Indeed, there’s some teenage angst visible in Altu — on the website, the models glower while slouching in suburban bedrooms and on streets — but there is also a knowing confidence. When I ask Altuzarra what he would say to his 15-year-old self, he becomes wistful and emotional. “I felt so different and alone,” he says. “I would tell my teen self that I’m gonna turn out OK and find my people.”

Thus, Altu combines elements of Altuzarra’s teenage self with who he might have been had he come of age in 2021. Low-slung pants, slinky tanks and crop tops nod to a new generation, one that isn’t afraid to show skin. Take the singer Troye Sivan, who gave a preview of the brand when he wore an Altu black scoop-neck body-hugging dress with large cutouts at the waist to September’s Met Gala. “I just wanted to be hot,” Sivan said to Vogue, and, on Instagram, millions agreed that he’d achieved just that. The dress was also one of the few looks at the event that could translate to real life — a breath of fresh air among so many fantastical gowns.

The other 35 pieces in the inaugural collection also have an appealing versatility. Both a cotton tee and a wool sweater feature a slit at the neckline, added because Altuzarra likes to slip his pendant necklace — a gift from his husband — through the hole to make it more prominent. A matcha green cotton hoodie looks like it has four sleeves, with two tied at the shoulders to give the illusion of layering minus the bulk. And a cross-body leather fanny pack features a nylon lining that can be yanked out to convert it into a backpack. These items are also accessible in terms of sizing: most are available in sizes ranging from 0 (equivalent to a women’s extra small) to 5 (a women’s extra extra large), while the trousers go from sizes 0 to 7.

Altuzarra’s (other) babies, however, have to be the leather pants, one style with a wider leg and another that’s more tapered. “I’ve had my factories make [versions] for my own use for the last 10 years, and I wear them almost every day,” he says. Still, Altuzarra wants to keep privileging experimentation in all its forms, and so Altu isn’t really about uniform dressing. For the next release, expect pastels.

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