How Joseph Altuzarra Turned Bull Ropes Into Handbags

We chatted with the designer and celebrity pal Michelle Monaghan at Barneys Monday night.
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We chatted with the designer and celebrity pal Michelle Monaghan at Barneys Monday night.
Joseph Altuzarra and Michelle Monaghan. Photo: BFA.com/Neil Rasmus

Joseph Altuzarra and Michelle Monaghan. Photo: BFA.com/Neil Rasmus

When Joseph Altuzarra was researching whips and braids online for his fall 2015 collection, his first to showcase handbags, he came across a guy in New Mexico who specializes in bull-riding ropes. Intrigued by his designs, Altuzarra decided to reach out about getting one. Once the two connected, the whipmaker had some questions. First, he inquired, how big is your hand? Altuzarra gave him the dimensions. Then, as is normal in the bespoke bullwhip business, the specialist asked about the weight of his bull. Altuzarra replied, "Do you really need this information?" "Yes," the man pressed. Altuzarra then tried to explain it wasn't actually going to be used for bull riding. The whip was simply an object he wanted to learn more about. The specialist listened and thought about his next question very carefully. "So the bull," he asked, "how old is it?"

After he told me this story Monday night at Barneys New York, where the retailer hosted a small party to celebrate his debut collection of handbags, Altuzarra seemed particularly proud of how he was able to rework the object. Developing the bull ropes in leather, creating the shapes of the bags and figuring out how to attach the bullwhip to the actual bag all proved difficult. The bottom of the bull rope, which is where the bag attaches, formed an acorn-like shape and his Italian artisans called this section "ghianda," which means acorn in Italian. The name stuck, and each bag, whether a hobo or saddle, is called either a Ghianda Small or a Ghianda Large. (Prices range from $2,195 to $28,000.)

Altuzarra handbags at Barneys. Photo: BFA.com/Neil Rasmus

Altuzarra handbags at Barneys. Photo: BFA.com/Neil Rasmus

When it comes to explaining his aesthetic, Altuzarra will often bring up a duality between French and American fashion. (Altuzarra grew up in Paris. His mother is American, with a Chinese background, and his father is French-Basque. And although he still spends much time in Europe, his home and studio are in New York.) So in order to contrast the American aspect of the bullwhip, he needed to find something explicitly French. That item turned out to be the gold cigarette lighter, specifically the bottom of it. "I was interested in the construction of the lighter and that it was something you could engrave and give to your children," he explained. These lighter bottoms are affixed to the bags. Each is engraved with his name, the only visible branding.

Actress Michelle Monaghan ("Pixels," "True Detective") attended the Barneys event as well. She and Altuzarra were seated together at a CFDA Awards reception once and while Monaghan didn't know much about his clothes, they immediately hit it off. "I fell in love with his personality," she said. "He's humble and he loves what he does." It didn't take long for her to fall for the clothes, too.

To many, still, it may appear that Altuzarra is behind in the mad-dash race of Eighties Babies designers: Alexander Wang has produced popular bags for several seasons. Christopher Kane has a handbag business too, and Jonathan Anderson's Puzzle bags for the LVMH-owned Loewe have received much critical acclaim. But Altuzarra is a dip-your-toes-in-the-water-first kind of guy and feels no rush to expand into other categories until the moment is just right, probably because his company launched the day before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Despite the economic slowdown, a certain success came to the Altuzarra brand, and in 2013 he sold a minority stake to the French luxury holding company Kering.

Simon Doonan and Joseph Altuzarra. Photo: BFA.com/Neil Rasmus

Simon Doonan and Joseph Altuzarra. Photo: BFA.com/Neil Rasmus

"A big part of why we really wanted a partner to grow was because we wanted to launch the [bags] and we wanted to do it with people who had done it before and who knew how to do it — and do it well." Many of Altuzarra's first questions for Kering had to do with handbag commerce: "What kinds of margins would we be getting? What factories are the best to work with? What kind of workmanship is possible, not possible?" Once he got the answers, it was easier to define what he wanted to do.

While the handbags are certainly desirable, it sounds like Altuzarra has something even better up his sleeve. "It's things that we're working on now that I'm really proud of, but I can't tell you about that at the moment."

Sadly, those answers were impossible to shake loose, but when I asked Monaghan what she'd like to see the designer do next, her reply came with a big grin. "Jewelry," she exclaimed. "He did the most amazing earrings for his last show." Since they weren't produced, Monaghan did the most logical thing a person could do when something entirely desirable but unattainable crosses their path: she stole a pair of the earrings and told Altuzarra, "These are mine until you start selling them."