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Joseph Altuzarra brings French preppy style to J. Crew

For emerging fashion designers, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize is a key to the kingdom. Last year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, along with Vogue magazine, presented the award to French designer Joseph Altuzarra. As part of his prize, that kingdom includes shelf space at J.Crew. On Thursday, a small collection of Altuzarra clothes debuted on the preppy retailer’s online store. The clothes will arrive in stores on Monday.

The French designer’s clothes are usually very expensive and very cutting-edge. Now he’s poised for mainstream attention, but would J. Crew’s average customer be so bold? Probably not. But Altuzarra is as savvy as he is daring.

A signature Altuzarra collection accentuates curves, exposes midriffs and hugs hips. The designer delights in plunging necklines, leather accents and colorful prints. His Spring 2012 ready-to-wear line features head-to-toe ensembles patterned with tropical birds.

But more reserved shoppers can rest easy. On J. Crew’s Web site, the collection revealed that Altuzarra’s seven pieces establish a middle ground between his French high-end sex appeal and the retailer’s all-American commercial sensibility. The line includes wardrobe staples such as denim pencil skirts, gingham blouses and striped sweaters, but with playful twists .

In a press release Wednesday, J. Crew said the collection was inspired by “Brigitte Bardot in Saint-Tropez and French preppy style.”

The deal is a big get for a designer with relatively little formal training. Instead of going to fashion school, he studied art history at Swarthmore College before interning with Marc Jacobs in New York and then Givenchy in Paris. His first runway show was in 2009.

Collaborations of this sort are nothing new for Fashion Fund winners. Last year, 2010’s awardees -- Prabal Gurung, Billy Reid and Eddie Borgo — all had mini-collections with J. Crew. But this particular partnership has the fashion set speculating about what to expect from the 28-year-old whose daringly sexy designs don’t fall in with J. Crew’s customary aesthetic.

With the CDFA in his corner, the odds are on Altuzarra’s side. The Fashion Fund’s first winner, in 2004, was Proenza Schouler, now a coveted industry staple. Also in his favor is the growing cross-pollination trend. As more luxury brands partner with budget-friendly retailers (Missoni for Target, Versace for H&M), releasing a commercial line is becoming a sign of life rather than a sign of death. For Altuzarra, this could be just the beginning.

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