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Joseph Altuzarra's Theory on Why Designers Are Ditching Brands

Photo: Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/Getty Images

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New designers and old houses is fashion's topic du jour (du year, really) as storied brands go full cougar, snapping up hot young kids at every turn. What it all means, if anything, dominated a conversation between 33-year-old fashion designer Joseph Altuzarra and Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic of the New York Times, in New York on Monday night.

Surface magazine's editor in chief, Spencer Bailey, hosted the two at the Gramercy Park Hotel where he asked the basics—How did you make your way into fashion? How much did the recession suck?—before Friedman and Altuzarra took off on their own. Altuzarra confirmed that yes, he's been courted for one of the big gigs (Friedman suggested "Saint Laurent") but that he is "very happy" right now, with his work life balance, enjoying the resources Kering's minority stake has brought his brand (bags, Italian offices, better factories).

Though he left himself open to the "exact right fit," Altuzarra basically said no, he's not interested in leading a brand like Chanel or Celine, should those positions open up. And no one really says no to a gig like that. Before starting his own collection, he worked for Marc Jacobs and Riccardo Tisci, both of whom lead or have led historic brands (Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, respectively). And Altuzarra's close friend, Alexander Wang, recently left a brief gig at the head of Balenciaga, so it's not like there's been a generational shift. Instead, he suggests that designers are tired of playing second fiddle to brands.

"Whereas the designer was really exalted before, and the figurehead, I actually think the brand has become the most important thing, for better or worse," Altuzarra says. He's right, in the sense that no one outside of the (very small) fashion industry is running around saying, "OMG have you seen Alessandro Michele's new collection? I love what he's doing with shoes." Most women are buying Gucci because it's suddenly different, and everywhere. The women who are buying Altuzarra’s clothes know who he is and what he stands for, which is something very modern, without the assist of historical archives. He doesn’t need a big house behind him to make his name, or his brand. He’s patient enough to do it his way, to enjoy success on his own terms. And it’s working.

While it’s not an entirely new path—Altuzarra mentioned Dries Van Noten and Azzedine Alaia as independent designers who’ve largely done their own thing, grown their own way—it’s an increasingly rare one. And one Friedman encourages more designers to take. "It’s great that new brands start and new companies start and new aesthetics are born and I wish more investors and big companies would support that instead of buying Patou and trying to start that or buying Vionnet and trying to start that."

Fashion supporting the new? What a novel idea.