For the fashion rebel behind A.P.C., going his own way has proved to be the path to lasting success. By Alice Cavanagh.
Abold man working in fashion once said: “To resist change is also a challenge in itself.” It’s a statement that rings true in an industry enslaved by trends and the spin cycle of producing four collections a year. That man is Jean Touitou, the 65-year-old founder of legendary Parisian brand A.P.C., who built his formidable business on an unwavering commitment to his mission: to create a desirable, yet fuss-free contemporary wardrobe. Or, in his words, “clothing that resists the passage of time”.
The strategy has served him well: this year A.P.C., still proudly independent, rings in its 30th anniversary, a milestone Touitou has marked with the release of a sizable coffee-table tome titled A.P.C. Transmission. His secret to success? “If you follow my advice, don’t be in it for the money, and allow yourself five years before you achieve success,” says Tunisian-born Touitou in his Left Bank atelier on a Paris summer afternoon. “Also, don’t make a business plan and don’t think you will get a salary: I had to work as a ghost designer for other brands for years to ensure I had an income.”
Touitou, who has a wry sense of humour and an ever-present glimmer in his eye, is a rare breed in this business. He sits apart from his contemporaries, not just for his financial independence and longevity, but also in the sense that he is somewhat anti-fashion, or at least outspoken against the polarising aspects of the industry. Like the questionable role of social media influencers, for one: “It seemed like before all the boys wanted to be a rugby or a soccer player to escape, and now all the girls want to be influencers to get free bags. Is that a life?” Then, there’s the fact that most brands today are buoyed by handbag sales, not clothing sales. “We refer to fashion as fashion, but at the end of the day it is a bag industry,” he says, visibly proud of the fact that A.P.C. ready-to-wear collections still count for 75 per cent of his sales.
This seems to be the present-day bee in his bonnet, but if you’ve followed Touitou’s trajectory you might be familiar with his refreshing rebel streak – he’s also long eschewed fashion shows and big budget campaigns. Resistance to the pack mentality has established him as something of a trailblazer and inspired a cult following for A.P.C., thanks to savvy (though Touitou would say sincere), collaborations with the likes of Supreme, Nike, Carhartt and even Kanye West.
Touitou was born in the Tunisian capital of Tunis; his family moved to Paris in 1960 when he was a young boy. “In Tunis, there were two seasons in life: school and beach house,” he says of his youth. “I hated Paris. I found it urban, dark and rainy and the people, as you know, are not the sweetest of people.” A revealing and very personal look at family life and his early years is documented via clippings in the first chapter of his book. His grandfather was a tanner, his father was a leather worker and a military man, and while young Jean was drawn to craftsmanship and took a liking to the sharp cut of a uniform, music was his first love. His first venture was a record company in the 1970s called Roadrunner Records. Still, fashion has served as a conduit for all of his other passions, music and literature. To date, A.P.C. has produced 25 albums at the in-house recording studio, with everyone from Bill Laswell through to Jarvis Cocker, Jean-Baptiste Mondino and the Septeto Nacional from Cuba. And many a garment has been inspired by the personal style of Samuel Beckett and Marcel Proust.
After working with the likes of Kenzo and Agnès B in the 70s and 80s, Touitou launched his first collection as a nameless menswear line with a dress label that simply announced the name of the season: Hiver ’87. In an era of high-voltage fashion – colour, silhouette and all the trimmings – Touitou had imagined a collection of classic, yet cool, menswear styles he couldn’t find anywhere else: well-cut suiting, simple crew-neck sweatshirts, and the raw denim that has since become the brand’s trademark. It was eventually named Atelier de Production et de Création, for the collective effort behind the creations (Touitou has always insisted on sharing the spotlight with his team). Female customers began borrowing from the boys, and a womenswear collection was launched in 1998 and thus, the ultimate Parisian uniform was born: classic, chic, with the deceptively easy appeal of effortless style. Touitou is the first to concede that this is distinctly French. “One cannot deny it … if you live in New York, you can follow the checklist, but [in France] it just doesn’t work,” he says.
Season after season, he and the team have set about perfecting the ultimate trench coat, the A-line dress, crew-neck sweaters and, of course, Japanese denim. The customers still can’t get enough.
As for the next chapter, Touitou admits he has been approached by investors, but he’s never been able to sign on the dotted line. “Sincerely, they believe we are crazy because we could add easily one more zero to our figures, but they don’t understand what we’re doing,” he says with an easy smile and a shake of his head. Touitou never was a sell-out – let’s hope he never changes.