On the third floor of Bergdorf Goodman on a wintry Tuesday morning, it was hard to distinguish between team Altuzarra and the department store’s own staff. It was all hands on deck as people unpacked dresses and arranged coats under Joseph Altuzarra’s watchful eye. He and Bergdorf Goodman were hosting a trunk show for his fall 2015 collection. It was surreal to see velvet devoré evening dresses, which debuted on the runway not three weeks ago, so suddenly accessible on the cold white display mannequins.
The trunk show is a long-established, if not old-fashioned, business practice that allows clients to pre-order ready-to-wear pieces before the collection arrives in store. In this case, Bergdorfs has already placed its fall order, so customers can either reserve items from that buy or choose something else from the line with the help of the designer himself.
Altuzarra said that trunk shows are an essential part of his business. “After working on the collection and drawing and fittings, it’s probably the biggest thing that I do,” he said. It allows him to deepen his relationship with important retailers and gives him direct access to clients in all primary and many secondary markets in the U.S., as well as abroad. A designer known for his business savvy, Altuzarra recognizes the value of these in-store appearances despite the time commitment. It is all part of his growth strategy, which was strengthened by an investment from Kering in 2013.
I spoke with Altuzarra about getting feedback from the changing room, his first handbag collection and how he felt about those Gucci rumors.
Why are trunk shows important to you?
They’re important because they put you in touch with your customer. A lot of times it’s women who have either bought your clothes before and like what you do or women who haven’t but maybe are curious. It also allows me to speak to personal shoppers and also to the sales team on the floor, which has a huge effect.
A huge effect in terms of your relationship with Bergdorfs?
Yes, exactly, for them to understand what the brand is about and for me to also understand who their customer is and who they’re dressing. It’s also really important to have personal relationships with people who are selling your product for you, because I can’t always be here. I think it makes a really big difference for them. They can say, ‘Joseph was here and he was telling me about the collection, and this is what it was about, and this is how this print came about.’ I think there’s something really nice about that.
Also in this day and age, in an incredibly saturated luxury market and especially in my generation and in my peer group, it is really important to get out to stores and to be present. It means a lot to the sales staff and to the stores you are partnering with because they are, in a lot of ways, investing in your business. It is important to show that we are investing in the relationship in a different way, but I’m just as invested in it.
Does the feedback you receive from customers affect your designs?
Yes, 100 percent. A lot of times, I find it really motivating. Even if you get sort of negative feedback or you realize that something’s not working, it gives me a lot of direction for the future.
I remember very early on, when we did the first parkas and our first peacoats, women said the pocket bag wasn’t deep enough for the winter, which is such a small detail but actually makes a really big difference. Sometimes a certain style that I really liked on the runway and that I was really attached to just doesn’t resonate at all. It’s not something that women want to wear and then vice versa -- something I don't spent a lot of time on will be something that women really feel strongly about. And that does have an effect on how I design to a certain degree going forward. It doesn’t mean that I let go of something, because it might just not be the right fabric or the right length.
It’s easy to be simplistic like, ‘Okay, this dress works, I’m just going to redo this in a different fabric.’ I have to think more about why this dress is resonating with women right now. Sometimes it’s not the shape, but it’s the shape and the fabric together. [For example] the shirt dresses for spring that are in gingham or stripes. I think if we had done that shirt dress in just a white crêpe de chine, I don’t think women would have had the same reaction. It’s this interesting print that has a very sort of nostalgic effect in that shape, and I think that’s something that women feel right now and that strikes a cord.
During trunk shows, how do you balance being a salesman and not being pushy?
I try not to be a salesman, first of all [laughing]. I don’t think I’m a great salesperson, but I also don’t think that’s what they want from me. They want me to talk about my process and the collection and how I got into fashion. I also feel really awkward because I don’t want to be there if they really don’t like something. They should have their own privacy when they are deciding if they like it or not, and not have that awkwardness of like, ‘Oh, the designer is here.’
Does feedback from clients influence you more than reviews in the press?
I think you get different feedback. When I read a review and someone’s interpretation of the show that I really respect, a lot of times it makes me think about the stylistic direction that I’m taking, because I know where I want to go and I see the journey and sort of an arc. And I think I try to see everything as a long-term game. So that’s valuable to me and that’s something that helps me. The kind of feedback I get [at trunk shows] and you saw it, it’s a very direct relationship. It’s less intellectual, much more intuitive. The feedback has almost more of an immediate response in my work, whereas I think the review is more of an overarching philosophy.
Tell me about designing your first handbag collection.
It was actually a great process because it is very different in a way than working on clothing. You really have to think about the utility of the handbag -- the function is the leader for what it’s actually going to look like. It was also about looking at what was on the market and what I felt was missing, and looking at our brand and thinking about what I wanted the bag to represent for the brand. I wanted something that felt very worked, in terms of leather, and felt that it had a lot of handcraft. I feel like it was very on brand for us, and I felt like it was something that looked different.
You told the New York Times in September that you could imagine working for more than one brand. Is that something you are actively thinking about?
It’s not something I’m actively thinking about, but I would say I think most everyone would be open at some point or another to working for another brand. But I’m very focused on Altuzarra and Altuzarra is growing so much as a company. We have the very good fortune of having wonderful partners in Kering that I don’t really feel like it’s something that I’m looking for or that I feel unfilled in the place that I am now.
What did you think about the rumors about Gucci and your possible role there?
I thought it was sort of funny. I think who they ended up with is really wonderful and I didn’t really have an opinion about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.