Conversations on Power: Jean Touitou

Q&A with Jean Touitou, Creative Director & Founder, A.P.C.

WHEN I FIRST MET Jean Touitou he was giving a presentation in the A.P.C. showroom about the latest collection to a room full of press and buyers. He was cracking jokes and treating his audience as if they were just a bunch of old friends. He was also saying some pretty controversial things, like ‘Women should be allowed to look like women without worrying about being raped.’ Or, ‘Men in skirts look ridiculous, why don’t men in fashion look like men anymore?’ There was, in fact, more than one man in a skirt in the audience that day, but no one seemed to mind very much; instead the audience laughed on cue and clapped enthusiastically at the end. When I met Jean again I wanted to find out why he finds it important to be so openly critical of fashion, and how he marries that with being very much a part of the industry.


Anja: In the fashion industry you’re known as someone rather opinionated. In an industry notorious for the reticence with which people usually speak, have you found that speaking your mind is an advantage or a disadvantage?

Jean: First of all, I’m frustrated by the fact that I’m called ‘opinionated.’ Everyone should have opinions but I operate in a world where nobody does. What can I do? It’s a big problem. When people say I’m opinionated it sounds like I’m a pain in the ass but really, I just have a point of view.

Anja: Why do you think that so many people find it hard to speak freely in our industry?

Jean: Because nobody wants to risk upsetting anybody else. Journalists today have their hands tied. I mean, not that I have anything against these guys personally, but did you hear about Dolce & Gabbana? They took a fucking billion euros from their business in Italy and put it in Luxemburg to avoid paying taxes. Can you imagine? Now they’ve been given suspended sentences and fined 500 million for tax evasion, but the fashion press pretend it’s raining because Dolce & Gabbana are huge advertisers. Stories like this are as common as sand on the seashore.

Anja: Though when Hedi Slimane was showing his first collections for Saint Laurent I thought it was interesting that the fashion press were uncharacteristically critical. My feeling was that journalists felt that the company went too far with regards to how tightly the image of the brand was controlled.

Jean: Yes, an editor can’t even use his clothes in a photo shoot unless it’s as full total looks. Not even a sock by another designer is allowed. It’s like he thinks he’s the Kaiser or something. But seriously, it’s ridiculous; the brand is trying to establish connections between what Slimane is doing and what Yves Saint Laurent himself did by saying that Slimane is working the rock ‘n’ roll vibe in homage to YSL. The official party line is that Yves Saint Laurent hung out with Mick Jagger in the 1970s, and that the relationship between Slimane and his rock star friends is just the same. But YSL was never into rock n’ roll; he was into reading Proust. I mean it’s one thing to hang out with Mick Jagger at Studio 54 because you’re totally coked out and everybody’s partying, but that doesn’t make you a fan of rock n’ roll. That part is an after-construction and the Kering Group is blatantly trying to spin the story to suit their ends. But the Slimane bashing will stop soon anyway because it’s fashion and people get tired of bullshitting about the same subject. Plus the brand probably sells a lot in China, and as long as you’re financially successful you’re pretty bulletproof.

Anja: How do you think the dominance of fashion conglomerates in today’s fashion industry affects the notion of luxury?

Jean: Okay, here I’ll say something that you’ll think is ‘opinionated’: the more ugliness you accept the more you’ll sell. It’s totally proven.

Anja: What do you mean?

Jean: Well, look at Jay-Z’s website for instance. It doesn’t look good, but it sells a lot. I’m sorry, but beauty is beauty and ugliness is ugliness. If that weren’t the case, the words wouldn’t exist. If A.P.C. was to be bought up by a big conglomerate, it wouldn’t be long before I found myself in a meeting with five bigwig executives telling me that to be really successful, we need to sell more jeans. And in order to sell more jeans we’re going to have to shoot a very obvious ad campaign. And the obvious ad campaign is going to end up being a bit ugly, because that’s just what happens when you try to reach as many people as possible. If you want to be sophisticated, you won’t reach the maximum amount of people.

Anja: Ok, I get it – don’t compromise on your integrity in order to build another swimming pool in the backyard. But considering your stance, how do you see the influence and role of A.P.C. in the contemporary fashion industry?

Jean: We’re independent first of all and that’s a feat in itself today. We don’t have to accept ugliness. We can do what we want. I don’t want A.P.C. to grow so big we become a slave to the banks. If you aim to sell a million jeans a year, that’s what happens: you have to open new stores everywhere. Before you know it it’s all very mechanical. But young designers today they don’t want to be independent, they all dream of being owned by LVMH. Me, I want to make products with care and attention, and I want them to be affordable.

Anja: But what’s ‘affordable’, how do you measure that?

Jean: When something is expensive but you can still manage, then that’s affordable to me. I’m not saying what we do is cheap, but we’ve got the correct margins.

Anja: My impression is that brands price their garments in order to connect with a certain consumer demographic and exclude others. Is that how you work too? Did you already know what customer you wanted to reach when you started out?

Jean: I don’t see point of all these questions because it seems you want a recipe for what we do. You think we have a recipe but we don’t. It’s like seeing a great dancer in a nightclub and going, ‘Please explain to me how you do it – is it about how you transfer your weight and move your head at the same time?’ But the dancer won’t be able to explain his movements; it’s not about the concept, it’s instinctual. So, I understand your questions, but I can’t give you a breakdown of why we do what we do, or why it works. To me, work is instinctual, like dancing is to the dancer. Of course, eventually my instinct gets filtered by business people whose job it is to take my gut feeling and turn it into something financially viable, but that’s not the starting point or even the incentive.

Anja: You seem to often define yourself in opposition to fashion, and in your presentations you’re often openly critical of the industry. The contemporary fashion system appears to be extremely regimented; you have to follow the rules to count. What does it mean for you to be a rebel in the fashion industry today?

Jean: I’m not a rebel.

Anja: Ok, I’m not saying you are. But if you wanted to go against the grain in the industry, what would you do?

Jean: Well, first of all, never copy. That’s rule number one of being a so-called rebel. However much you admire another designer, you should never ever put someone else’s design on your studio table and say, ‘How are we going to knock this off?’ But believe me, even the most respected names in fashion don’t always follow that rule.

Anja: What about trying to break some of the conventions that we appear to take for granted today, say by not showing according to the fashion week schedule, producing according to the commercial seasons or communicating via press releases to the fashion press. Have you ever considered deviating from those norms?

Jean: That would be suicidal! You can do that if you’re Azzedine Alaïa maybe but even he’s well organised now. You need the attention you get from the fashion press during fashion week. What are you if what you do isn’t on

Anja: Yes I’ve heard that before – being on is a sure sign of acceptance by the system. But not every designer who shows on the official fashion week calendar is on, right? How did A.P.C. get on the site?

Jean: We did have a problem where A.P.C. wasn’t covered for a long time. But more than anything it’s about connecting with the reviewers, finding out what they need in order to do their job, and making sure that they get it on time. What we needed to do was some sort of absurd thing like shooting the lookbook on the day we show the collection so the pictures look like they’ve been shot in the fitting room of the presentation.

Anja: I’ve heard that sometimes they come, see the show, but neglect to review it. What would you do if that happened?

Jean: The sun would rise anyway! Honestly though, if we were to see that the interest from the fashion press was deteriorating, then perhaps it would be time for some serious questioning. It’s never too late to change. Like Cristóbal Balenciaga did in ’68. He said, ‘I don’t fit into this world anymore,’ and stopped designing, and then eventually Yves Saint Laurent took all his customers.

Anja: There’s always someone there to take your customers.

Jean: I’m serious though. The day I feel we’re not good enough anymore, that’s the day we stop.

Anja: I’m curious to know what you think of the way a designer seems to have morphed into a ‘creative director’ in the past few decades. My impression is that the role has changed from someone directly involved in designing garments to someone who often works as a sort of brand manager and public face of a brand.

Jean: It’s true that times are different now, but what can you do? Now my work with the collections is more about the general mood. I give my input at the beginning of the creative process, and after that my staff consult me like a doctor. If they love a fabric, I tell them if it’s shit or good.

Anja: How do you communicate the mood for the coming seasons to your staff? Do you show images or just talk to them?

Jean: Just by talking. Eventually some guy will do mood boards or something but I just talk.

Anja: We talked earlier about how hard it is to break away from the norm in the fashion industry today. At A.P.C. you don’t have standard fashion shows, instead you have small gatherings where you talk the press and buyers through each collection. What’s the reasoning behind that?

Jean: Our clothes are clothes for everyday life so they’re better suited to more intimate presentations, but I do try to do something slightly more personal to make it more fun. It’s always nerve-racking though. Fashion people are a hard audience. I know I have to look relaxed when I talk, like I haven’t been up all night scripting my speech, but I can never quite shake the feeling that the room is full of mean people just waiting to pounce. So I try to make them laugh a bit, maybe teach them something. If I can do that, I know I’ve done a good job. But I need to always be thinking about how to give the press something new. Otherwise they will snore. I guarantee it. If we had just clothes on girls without my act, the journalists would arrive, pick a cookie, eat it and say, ‘It’s got too much sugar.’ Then, ‘Okay, four models done – what time is it? I’m out of here.’ And then to me, ‘Oh, hi darling, it was sooo good! We have to run!’ But this hasn’t happened yet, so we’ve been successful.

Anja: Is there anything in particular that stresses you out before a presentation?

Jean: The models are very important today. So many people at the shows seem to be there to see the casting rather than the clothes. I don’t agree with the fact that they have to be so young or skinny necessarily, but people really judge you on it. If you’re able to get the right girls it means you’ve got money and the right contacts. Another bugbear of mine is cheap champagne. I hate cheap champagne, I really do. I think it gives people bad breath. But I can’t afford to have Crystal because when people start to drink they never stop. So every season we have the same problem and we have to find creative solutions for our champagne conundrum.

Anja: We’ve talked quite a bit about the unwritten rules in fashion. Is it in fact possible to challenge the status quo, and, if so, how?

Jean: Frankly, it’s totally regimented and if you do something different, you’re dead. But I have some rules of my own: my staff is strictly forbidden to call anyone ‘darling’ for example. And if I’m in a situation that I find awkward or boring – whoosh, I’m gone! Even if it’s a bank meeting. That’s a new rule. Once I played the harmonica in a very important bank meeting. A banker had sold us what’s called a ‘structured product’, which is finance speak for ‘you’re going to get screwed.’ I was having a meeting with the big boss – the kind with slaves, you know, with little ties on – we’d just lost 300,000 and I was ready to crack. So I took my pocket harmonica out. I figured playing it in the meeting would really make him think I’d lost my mind.

Anja: You’ve been running A.P.C. more than twenty-five years now. What lessons are you carrying with you today?

Jean: I’m always open to change. But the creative process can be very difficult. I was making fun of Yves Saint Laurent before, but really I know how torturous it can be to be creative. Ok, ‘torturous’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but being creative and running a company is pretty demanding. I’m sure you know because you have a company yourself; at some point you have to be a shrink to everybody. Especially at my age, I’m pretty sure I’m a father figure to every young member of my staff. But I have learnt a lot over the years with the company, most importantly – never skip your holidays.

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Fashion and Power.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj‘s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.