Altuzarra, seated, with (to his left) Vanessa Traina and Mélanie Huynh. On women: All clothing and accessories Altuzarra; all footwear Gianvito Rossi for Altuzarra. Joseph Altuzarra wears his own clothing.

Last May, Joseph Altuzarra was milling around Miuccia Prada’s afterparty for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring gala when he was approached by Tom Ford, his idol since high school. As Altuzarra stood there starstruck, Ford proceeded to tell the young designer how much he admired his work. “I was like, What is he talking about?!” he recalls. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Modest as he is, Altuzarra, 29, ought to be used to such attention by now. Five years since launching his namesake line, he has become the darling of New York fashion, racking up a host of prestigious accolades (most recently, the CFDA’s 2012 Swarovski Award for Womenswear) and garnering an illustrious cadre of fans (Diane Kruger, Carine Roitfeld, Jenna Lyons). His collections are known for their unique and thoroughly modern take on sexiness, mixing ethnic and utilitarian fabrics, masculine and feminine silhouettes, and historical and street-style inspirations. “It’s like moving art,” effused Jessica Chastain following his spring show. But Altuzarra begs to differ. “I don’t think I’m an artist or that I’m doing anything superintellectual,” he insists. “What’s important to me is to get a visceral reaction from people, for them to want that coat because they think it’s beautiful.”

An avid walker—“When I’m not working, I’m walking”—Altuzarra conceives his collections on miles-long treks around Manhattan, taking notes on his iPhone. Mentally, however, he begins each season in his hometown of Paris, where he was born to a French-Basque father and a Chinese-American mother. He left when he was 18 to study art history at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania but clearly has never let go completely. “I’m always fetishizing the French woman and French taste and style,” he says. “My assistant will make fun of me because every time we’re picking the direction of a collection, I say the same thing: ‘I want it to be really French.’ ” Here, Altuzarra offers more on the people, places, and things that inspire his work.

Models: Georgia Hilmer and Molly Smith at Next Management; Manon Leloup at Wilhelmina Models. Location courtesy of the Consulate General of France in New York.