Karis Durmer always knew she wanted a career in fashion. But it took a stint in finance (Bear Stearns), a stop-off at Columbia Business School, and experiences in publishing (Martha Stewart and Conde Nast) and startups (Make Meaning) to get there.
Today, Durmer is the ceo of Altuzarra, the maker of powerfully sexy clothes for women. (Not girls, women. Carine Roitfeld is a champion and muse and the team tells me that Helen Mirren is a “dream client.”)
Durmer, who sits at a desk off to the side of company’s SoHo showroom and design studio, might have been an unlikely candidate for the gig in September 2011, when founder Joseph Altuzarra brought her on as his business partner. His mother, Karen Altuzarra, was his first ceo and is now chairman of the company. Durmer was introduced to Altuzarra by a mutual friend at Proenza Schouler, where she was working for a brief time. While that certainly sounds like a convenient connection, it wasn’t always that easy.
“From 22 to about 30 was a baby step process towards what I actually wanted to do with my life,” she says sitting at the company’s nondescript meeting table, wearing an embellished banker’s shirt from the designer’s spring 2012 collection. “Looking back, I knew that I had a real passion for product and business, and how those two things came together. But it took a while to get there.”
The oldest of three children, Durmer felt pressure to be a certain kind of responsible person. Lawyer. Doctor. Banker. When she graduated from Georgetown University in 2001, the only acceptable path appeared to be finance. “It wasn’t very easy to say, ‘What I’m really interested in is fashion, retail and luxury,’” she says. “But the part of working at an investment bank that I loved was that I had a tremendous amount of training. I had a lot of responsibility at age 22. You start working with CEOs, and on deals. It’s a crash course in finance.”
It wasn’t until Durmer entered Columbia Business School at age 30 that she fully admitted she wanted to work in fashion. “I finally said to myself, ‘I’m here and I’m focusing on retail and luxury goods.’ When I told my dad I was going to work in retail, he said, ‘Does that mean you’re going to work at Macy’s and spray perfume?’ It’s exactly the reaction that I was afraid of. For me it was a serious industry and profession, and sometimes the perception is different than that.”
Day to day, Durmer manages the company’s major projects, as well as the not-so-fun items, like paying the bills. “I need to make sure we’re all on the same path all of time, that marketing is in touch with what sales is trying to do, what press is doing,” she says. “A website development project may be the subject of one afternoon, the next afternoon may be pricing the next collection, or helping to merchandise something two seasons out.”
Part of her job is also making sure that, as the company grows, new employees fully understand Joseph Altuzarra’s vision as a designer. So Durmer and her team put together an internal “brand book” that every employee studies. “I spend a lot of time understanding, articulating and putting pen to paper what the Altuzarra brand is so that everyone on the team, if you ask them in a separate room, can define the Altuzarra woman.”
While Durmer leaves the actual designing up to Altuzarra—”it’s completely Joseph’s vision”—there is one part of the creative process she keeps marks on. “The budget. And the spending of it. I think, for young designers, it’s really important to have someone who’s looking at the numbers and giving them some guidance and some limitations,” she says. “Without that, people can run into problems.”
Two years in, Durmer believes her biggest challenge is ambition. “You see so much potential—youth, energy, enthusiasm, excitement—and you have to recognize that sometimes Rome isn’t built in a day,” she says. “We have to remember that we’ll do it in our own time and our own way, on our own merit. We don’t compare ourselves to anyone else.”
Yet the allure of more capital isn’t lost on Durmer and her team. After all, Kering’s recent investment in Christopher Kane and its appointment of Alexander Wang at Balenciaga will allow those two designers—both contemporaries of Joseph Altuzarra—to do so much more.
“I think that anyone in the industry knows that it takes a lot of resources to take a company from inception to something very scalable in size,” she says. “For us, it’s about doing everything when it feels right. We’re not very rushed. As a company, our philosophy is always to put one foot in front of the other. We want to be around for a long time. It will take resources and capital to get there. If and when the timing feels right, and the partner feels right, and that’s the way we decide to go [we would consider taking major investors.]”
Whether or not that day ever comes, Durmer will continue to build on what she and Altuzarra have already accomplished. “I feel proud of myself and excited going to work every day,” says Durmer. “I’ve never been so motivated by a job. It doesn’t feel like a job, it’s just what I do.”