Spotlight On: Charlie Altuna
By Valli Herman
If you need a fantastical, hairy yeti-turned-crab, a set of horned Viking monsters and an elegant praying mantis costume fit for a ballerina, call Charlie Altuna.
Altuna is the multi-talented, multi-tasking, mile-a-minute stylist who has applied his creative energy to red carpet celebrities, high fashion editorial shoots, music videos and ad campaigns, most recently for Target. He’s also appeared on camera, becoming over the past decade a regular presence on reality television shows, where he applies his wardrobe expertise to performers, aspiring models and even special effects makeup artists.
These days, he darts around downtown Los Angeles on a folding bicycle, so he can quickly visit sets and gather supplies for his latest gig–the Costume Designer for “Face Off,” a SyFy channel reality television competition show for special effects makeup artists.
For the last four years and eight seasons, he and the experts at Shoppe, his downtown studio, have built the wildly creative costumes for the show’s contestants.
Watching “Face Off,” it’s easy to assume that the contestants also create the costumes, but they only build their special effects makeup concepts.
“Then they show me a sketch of an idea of a costume and I meet with them and elaborate on it and make it in one day,” Altuna said. “Sometimes we have to make 20 pieces in one day. We begin at 9 a.m. to source 10 to 20 different types of fabric, then go back to shop and we build everything for the contestants.”
These are no ordinary costumes. In a recent episode, contestants had to create two knights, one representing death, the other, life. Altuna’s crew pulled together the looks, which included elements that referenced the sea, the forest and fantasy worlds. He’s also made a giant squid, samurai-inspired warriors, and a long and lean praying mantis that wowed the judges.
“Sometimes our costumes have maybe been better than some of the makeup,” he said. “The judges will give us compliments — ‘The costume is amazing and the makeup is gross.’ It’s funny that we are these ghosts,” he said.
Altuna has applied his creative skills to just about every kind of project, beginning with his college days. Altuna, a Whittier native, studied fashion design at Los Angeles Trade Technical College. He traveled in the same circles as students from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
“I assisted on a few music videos with Art Center friends. Kind of everybody I was with was in the fashion industry,” he said. His styling career “just kind of happened.”
He began assisting French stylist Robért Behar who then worked at the Celestine Agency, where a booker gave Altuna a small job as a tryout.
“Celestine took me on. I got one commercial working with who I had no idea was a big director,” he said. Big brands starting hiring him for more commercials, which lead to jobs styling celebrities and fashion shoots.
“What I think really made my career was when I opened a clothing store on Beverly Boulevard called Eros,” he said. He was 24 years old, and taking a chance on a changing neighborhood that included the Richard Tyler boutique and furniture store Modernica.
“At that time, all the stylists were coming into my shop and doing stuff for Aerosmith and Sandra Bullock and more,” he said. “I was still styling, but I also come from world of making clothes.” While the store stocked designer collections in the front portion, in the back, Altuna applied his construction skills to custom couture–applying to his day job skills he learned from his nighttime pursuits.
“I came from that whole club kid world. I was the one knocking off Gaultier because we couldn’t afford it,” he said. After nearly five years, Altuna accepted an offer to open a showroom in New York, where he continued his styling career with celebrity fashion shoots. In a year, he returned to Los Angeles.
Altuna’s Celestine agent, Bobby Heller, offered to represent him when he returned to the West Coast. Heller, who later founded the photographers’ agency Opus Reps, was crucial to his client’s success.
“He was the best agent. He really connected me where, at one point, I was working with just everybody. It really made people aware of my name as a stylist,” Altuna said. He was 26 years old and he was working on commercials, editorials ads and celebrity shoots.
“It happened for me when I was really young,” he said.
He’s worked with dozens of celebrities–everyone from Charlize Theron, Christina Aguilera, and Cameron Diaz, to Robert Downey Jr., Diana Ross, Will Smith and Bruce Willis.
“But I got really tired of doing the whole celebrity world,” Altuna said. However, he enjoyed the creative aspect of customizing clothes for his clients.
“Every single time I’ve been with a big artist, I’ve always made and customized wardrobe for them. When you deal with artists, they always have ideas of stuff that doesn’t exist,” he said. “And I would egg them on and make it for them.”
When he worked on a music video with Sean “Diddy” Combs, the musician requested a specific black-and-white tracksuit — which was out of fashion.
“So I made it overnight–actually eight tracksuits within 12 hours. My life is always like that,” he said.
His career has often included some element of transformation — on camera and off.
In his early 30s, Altuna’s producer friends put him on “Remaking Vanilla Ice,” a VH1 show where the stylist updated the Robert “Vanilla Ice” Van Winkle in preparation for the release of his album “Platinum Underground.” He also appeared on “Remaking Vince Neil.”
He moved up to A-list stars for the 2006 series, “Style Her Famous,” working with Eva Longoria, Jessica Simpson and Halle Berry. Also that year, he began the first of more than two dozen appearances on “America’s Next Top Model.” In 2008, he played himself, a witty wardrobe stylist, on “The Cho Show,” where he was part of comic Margaret Cho’s “glamour squad.” One of his colleagues described him as “like a stick of dynamite and needs to get you dressed before it goes off.”
Though styling was a solid occupation, it was time for a change. “I came to the realization that I wanted to take my career more seriously and be an actual costume designer,” he said. He earned costume designer credits for the 2009-10 TV series, “Downtown Girls.”
“I wanted to get into television, and costume designing for television shows and movies,” he said. “I come from that world of actually making garments. And I missed making things for my other friends who are stylists,” he said. That’s when he opened his downtown studio and connected with “Face Off” and his life and career transformed.
“My world use to be Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills and shopping at Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. Now I’m going to these crazy, weird supply houses and making things with glue,” he said. “Oh, my life is so not glamorous anymore. I used to be at all these fancy parties and be with celebrities. “I’m a costume designer now and I make fantastic spacey, weird monster costumes.”
But does he like having traded the red carpet for the costume workroom–and the long, long hours?
“Oh, my god, yes! It just seems more meaningful. Anybody can go to Dior and pull a gorgeous gown and put it on a pretty girl. How many years have I done that? You do have to have a little bit of taste, but to take a roll of fabric and to plot some sort of alien skin on it and make it into this crazy, weird alien bodysuit and then 3-D print some weird, crazy goggles and perform in it is just incredible.”
Of course, the danger in the entertainment business is getting typecast.
“I can’t say I just do monsters, because that’s not true,” he said. “I’m a total chameleon.”