What’s the point of being a fashion star if no one knows who you are?

At the same time, why hasten your own departure from the public stage with hype and overexposure – or by playing things low-key and cool?

In an age where fashions change quicker than spoiled-rotten athletes re-framing their ill-worded tweets, media exposure – be it for politicians, celebrities or, yes, clothing designers – is a tricky game of guessing just how much nitroglycerin to use to get noticed. But not so much as to cause a deadly explosion.

Never believe your own publicity

Take Joseph Altuzarra, for instance. He’s all of 29, talented, seems to work hard and appears to have earned his place on the Fashionmaker A-List. A quick online search shows that he’s been generating a lot of attention lately:

  • In April 2013, W Magazine ran a feature on Altuzarra, 29, describing him as having become the “darling of New York fashion” – all of five years after launching his sportswear line. Yes, sportswear. The story focuses on the various people, things and places that inspire his work. Its gushy introduction – “It’s like moving art” declares one fan of Altuzzarra’s creations — is the kind journalists once reserved for people near the end of their careers, not the beginning. Which brings to mind a sentiment voiced by many an aging, and accomplished, movie star: How can anyone that young be regarded as a genius at anything — other than by appearing to be one? Or forcibly molded into one?
  • At the end of May 2013, Women’s Wear Daily named Altuzarra as part of its “Ten of Tomorrow” series (at least he was but one of ten), prompting a fashion blog to seize upon WWD’s story…by focusing on what it had to say about Altuzarra. Oh, the pithiness thus extracted: He thinks having a surname that begins with “A” is a plus in the fashion world; he’s designed costumes for ballet companies (“like many other designers,” the blog notes, deflating whatever importance that point was intended to have); and, he’s interested in women over 50, with deep pockets, who can still seduce. These are surprises in the world of boy geniuses?
  • Then there’s the obligatory “12 Things He Can’t Live Without” article from none other than Elle Décor, which describes Altuzarra, perhaps not without a trace of irony, as “fashion’s latest shooting star”. Guess where he tells the mag that he looks for inspiration? The worlds of architecture and décor. Because, he goes on to say, “[T]here is an interaction that is both functional and aesthetic.” In other words, he gets his ideas from designers who have made something work on a larger and significantly riskier scale than, say, a skirt. Are we uncovering more genius here, or just adding to the omnipresent fluff?

Measure twice, cut once

Make no mistake, the problem here isn’t Joseph Altuzarra, someone generally regarded as having genuine talent and a like-able enough personality – qualities that, when lacking, often account for the cotton candy that passes as press coverage in any art form. Does he have an ego? Of course. He wouldn’t be able to present his designs as something worth buying if he didn’t.

Has his ego driven the kind of press coverage he’s been getting? Hard to say on that one, what with the many layers of publicists and PR people, not to mention the unavoidable hangers-on that cling to anyone and anything that ruffles a mannequin. And the merchants that depend on PR to drive and sustain fashion sales. He could beg them all, and sincerely so, not to play up his qualities. Few, if any, would heed the call.

What, then, accounts for all the fuss about someone not yet 30, who isn’t a boy-band idol or a bizarre stick figure singer who supposedly shows up at awards ceremonies packed in a giant, artificial egg?

Perhaps it’s the hope and the expectation that someone worth the coverage actually is the genuine article. That the talent described, the work ethic observed and the vision admired might all combine to give us another American original. Another Bernstein, Hopper, Brando, Astaire, Copland, Steinbeck. Not because of the passport they carry, but because of the qualities they possess that make them one of us.

It all comes down to perspective. To be accorded genius treatment is to deserve like coverage. Yes, he may be all the rage right now, and could be for some time to come. All that’s needed is for coverage that says precisely that, saving all the purple coronation prose for the actual ceremony, and not merely today’s fleeting daydream of one.

If Joseph Altuzarra’s path takes him to the pantheon of American culture, that will happen largely as a result of the creative forces he possesses – ushered along by fashion writers with enough vision and temperament of their own to spot the enduring fire from the mere flash in the pan.

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