In an crowded room on the second floor of New York's Gramercy Park Hotel on Monday, Surface hosted its latest "Design Dialogues" panel series featuring designer Joseph Altuzarra and The New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman. The conversation was led by the independent magazine's editor-in-chief, Spencer Bailey, and covered career origin stories, the globalization of fashion and the recent revolving door of creative directors. When Bailey turned to the audience for questions, someone asked Altuzarra one he has heard many times before: Would he consider working for a big luxury brand?
"I have been approached in the past, but I think that my focus is squarely on Altuzarra," said the designer. "And so unless there was something that I felt was the exact right fit for me — I'm giving you a very PR answer — I'm very happy with what I'm doing." Friedman, who jokingly added "Saint Laurent?" after the audience member passed back the mic, praised Altuzarra for focusing on his own brand. "Can I just say as a critic that I'm really happy that you haven't taken any of those jobs, and you've stuck with your own brand?" she said. "I really think that we don't have enough new blood and new ideas and we should support it."
After Bailey asked if Altuzarra wants to grow the brand more globally (yes, the minority investment from Kering is "opening a lot of doors"), Friedman asked if he knew "how big is big enough" for his business. "I think it's a hard question for me to answer right now," said Altuzarra, adding that he and his team think about it a lot. "I'm in a place where I'm very very happy with my work and I'm very happy with my personal life, and it's an important thing for me to keep a balance... You can see brands [that] have reached a certain size and you feel like that is exactly the size they should be." He mentioned Dries Van Noten and Azzedine Alaïa as examples.
"The thing about Dries is Dries is private so he can make that decision," responded Friedman. "It's the same with Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo can make the decision that she's as big as she wants to be... But if you're [Kering CEO François-Henri] Pinault or if you're [LVMH CEO Bernard] Arnault or even Richemont, you have a whole bunch of shareholders who want more dividends and better returns and you don't necessarily get to make that decision. I think that's where things get very complicated. The question really becomes: how do you talk to your investor base so that they also feel like they are doing well enough? This is now your problem."
Earlier in the conversation, Bailey asked about the relationship between the commercial and creative sides of fashion businesses. The two were often at odds in the 1990s and 2000s as luxury brands became global forces, which Altuzarra said he witnessed working for other brands before starting his own label in 2008. But the designer thinks that in the past few years, "there's been a sort of thawing of those relationships and much more of an understanding and a working together than I had previously seen," he said.
Friedman had a different take, citing the "strange trend" of "designers increasingly thinking of themselves as employees," much like executives do. They feel they can move freely from brand to brand, she explained, as three creative directors have done since August, with less than three years at a brand. "That's not enough time to establish any sort of meaningful creative legacy or aesthetic legacy and that's not just because they didn't get on with their bosses or they got fired," she said. "They made a choice, some of them, to leave and... in a way it is an example of the parity between the two sides. But it's not necessarily a good thing."
Altuzarra agreed that the "trend" is interesting, and added that a possible explanation is that "whereas as the designer was really exalted before and really the figurehead, I actually think the brand has become sort of the most important thing, for better or for worse." The designer also said creative directors are also making the decision to slow down in an "overheated" fashion system.
"I'm not sure I believe that," said Friedman, laughing. "I think that's an excuse. It's a good one!"
Watch Altuzarra and Friedman's conversation with Bailey in full below.
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