One of the most exciting speakers at Savannah College of Art and Design's 10th annual lecture and panel series, SCADstyle, was also one of the first to take the stage. Designer Joseph Altuzarra joined Style.com's Nicole Phelps in conversation on Monday at the school's Museum of Art. (The free, open-to-the-public event was so popular that many students had to watch it via livestream from one of several classrooms set aside for the overflow from the main venue.)
The designer spoke candidly with Phelps about how the prevalence of online shopping has impacted his business. "We have a very large presence with retailers like Net-a-Porter or MyTheresa, and we basically got feedback that anything that had detail on the back of the dress wouldn’t sell as well because the pictures are all from the front," he said. "So we were encouraged to move the detail to the front of the dress, which is interesting feedback and is specific to the way that those retailers shoot the clothing, but it's sort of an anecdote to show that it has a real impact on how we design."
Altuzarra's clients are very aware of exactly what he sends down the runway, as well, and want to buy full looks. "There’s a very large and very discerning population of women who go on Style.com and look at shows, and know what is going to be sold," he said. "And if something is different in stores and doesn’t look exactly the way it did on Style.com — they’re disappointed." He added that it's much harder to sell anything that's doesn't come down the runway.
Speaking of the pressure to sell his collection, Altuzarra said that when he started his brand at the beginning of the recession, he was pushed by buyers to design a more minimal aesthetic. "There was real uncertainty about what was selling and what would sell," he said. "I think Céline came along and really started this whole trend of simple, easy, every day clothes. I remember there sort of being this wave of feedback from retailers that this is what we should be doing — things that are more minimal, or that fit with in that trend." He remained committed to his brand and says he is "happy we stuck it out."
Another challenge he's faced: the difficulty of growing a luxury brand the right way, compared to a contemporary one. "A lot of it is about the distribution, the exclusivity, keeping something fairly exclusive as you grow," he said. "What's difficult and different from contemporary is that you are forgoing a really rapid growth to preserve the authenticity and luxury quality of the brand. It's a totally different model in terms of strategy. It takes much longer to build a luxury brand in that sort of controlled way, and it takes a lot more money."
The designer's partnership with Kering, which took a minority stake in the brand in 2013, has provided the financial support he now needs to grow in the right way. "I was really impressed with what they had done with Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen and the levels those companies have gotten to." Altuzarra said Kering has opened offices for the brand in Italy, streamlined processes and introduced him to manufacturers. Kering was also key in helping him produce his first handbag line, which debuted for fall 2015. "It was a partnership that has benefitted us tremendously."
Phelps asked if he wants to design for another brand in addition to his own, but Altuzarra said growing his eponymous line is his complete focus right now, especially after the investment from Kering. "Depending on what comes my way, one day there might be something interesting, but it's not something that I’m seeking out. I love building Altuzarra and I love working where I work so I don’t know why I would want to change that."
Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodation in Savannah to cover its week-long speaker series, SCADstyle.