French lessons

For the fash­ion rebel be­hind A.P.C., go­ing his own way has proved to be the path to last­ing suc­cess. By Alice Ca­vanagh.

VOGUE Australia - - Viewpoint -

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.

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