PARIS — Jean Touitou is taking A.P.C. to the catwalk this season. “I feel ready for it now,” he says.
The designer has been known to tinker with presentation formats — staff modeled clothing in a store on one occasion while professional models grooved to music at a cabaret on another.
The freedom is, no doubt, one perk of remaining independent, which Touitou has insisted on over the decades.
A.P.C. was one of the earliest labels to establish itself in the now-thriving field of contemporary French brands, serving those who want style without an overblown price tag.
Speaking in the cozy, book-lined meeting room of his Paris headquarters — Touitou calls it “my oval office” — he reflected on the brand’s longevity and hinted at future expansion.
He also relayed his doubts about artificial intelligence and explained how he got the secret behind a raw Japanese denim used by the brand — it didn’t happen overnight.
WWD: Do you think that A.P.C. exists because of the larger conglomerates or in spite of them — has it been difficult to carve out a space for your brand?
Jean Touitou: We are not doing the same work at all. Last Saturday, my son took me to a restaurant that had the ultimate, ultimate ramen soup. I asked him, why do they make it only on Saturday and why don’t they open many shops like this? It’s so good they could make a million. My son explained to me the slowness of the process of making those noodles — they sort of age them two days in a perfect temperature and then the stock is this and that and — even the eggs — not hard, but not soft. Then they dip it for 12 hours in something soya based. A lot of production for ramen soup that seems the most simple thing in the world.
We’re not doing the same job as a chain. We work in a more — I wouldn’t say artisanal, because when we have a best-seller bag, it’s a five-digit number. But we’re still using real leather, whereas most brands use something that’s called, technically, leather. When they pay $3 a square foot for leather, we pay $9 a square foot. It looks like leather because it’s a leather base — then they put a layer of paint and create a perfect skin. We don’t put paint on it, so the faulty parts appear.
WWD: With Tunisian roots did you feel like an outsider in France?
J.T.: Frankly, I feel at home in French culture, in French literature, I think as much as I would feel at home with Greek culture. When you see a Greek performance like a play, or a play by Molière, you feel at home. But I don’t feel at home with the French rudeness and French pretentiousness. French people are not friendly — even if they say Americans are hypocritical and superficial, I do appreciate it if someone tells me ‘How are you today,’ and if you feel s–tty you think you can talk to somebody. French people, you can spend a few hours in a party and no one introduces themselves. In that way, I reject France. But I adore — and this is my religion — French culture and literature. The bad aspects of France, I do know them, and I pity the tourist.
WWD: How does French fashion fit into this view?
J.T.: Well sometimes it’s a legit snobbism. I won’t push it too far. Yves Saint Laurent would say about Italian fashion, something like “Let those guys do spaghetti and leave us with the fashion.”
I do believe there is a French sense of proportion which is celestial, maybe. But I don’t agree when they say “Paris the fashion capital.” Fashion could have been in Winnipeg, in a different decade. Who knows where something creative will happen again?
It’s a beautiful city and I really enjoy living here. I consider myself like a tourist, I walk a lot in Paris. At night, when you cross these bridges and you go by the banks, every time you get a shock, a visual shock, and discover angles you didn’t see before.
It’s unbelievable, the beauty of the city; Too bad these guys are rude.
WWD: How important are you to the brand?
J.T.: I believe I just finished building the foundation and now we’re going to grow…seriously. I like the metaphor — because when you just see the foundation, you don’t see the building. We just finished hard-core earthquake-proof foundation and now we’re going to talk.
I think we are ready to go for it — I’m not giving figures.
I think Chanel lasted after Gabrielle died, if you have very good foundation, strong cultural foundation, you can go on. It’s been a slower process than other companies for two reasons. I don’t trust the finance industry, because once they get in a company, they push you to take debt and you end up owning only 10 percent.
WWD: When you say it’s only the beginning of a push, do you mean more stores?
J.T.: Probably so, yes. We have found a new idea that will make the opening of many stores much easier. This idea will be publicized in a year. We’ve been working on it for two years now.
I’m very happy that the mail order works well, but I’m also thinking we could use — in the near future — a two-digit number of more stores.
WWD: As in dozens? Between 10 and 99?
J.T.: As in not more than 99. The current number of stores is 70.
After session and session and session of work, we found an idea that would make it possible. An architectural idea.
WWD: So maybe in 2018?
J.T.: No, we’re gearing up for it, industrializing. It’s a matter of industrializing architecture.
WWD: How important are collaborations for your brand?
J.T.: Not important at all, it has really become like a phony co-branding. Some collaboration could be done over the phone now. Also sometimes you deal with corporations that are so huge, to get an answer takes three months.
It’s like a drug, you can get addicted too quickly because it has easy success. But there’s no creativity involved and since I’m not only here for the money, I might as well do things that I like. The day is only 24 hours and we have to deal with our own work here.
WWD: How about the Vanessa Seward brand?
J.T.: We started a collaboration with Vanessa six years ago. It went very well and so we started a brand, which is remarkable because if you look at it carefully, the big conglomerates, they’re running big business, but there’s no brand that is being started. It’s a piece of work, it’s not artificial. It’s only now become her own brand, separately.
We’re happy with the results, image- and business-wise, too, but again, we’re not aggressive, it’s not my style to be aggressive. I won’t tell you we’ll open 10 stores in six months or whatever. It’s the beginning.
WWD: What is your financial stake in the brand?
J.T.: I would say we’re very important financially for that brand.
WWD: What is the relationship between Vanessa Seward and A.P.C.?
J.T.: The two are totally independent now.
I thought there was no brand in that section, in something higher range than A.P.C. It was exciting to do something obviously feminine, but we’re not after making many brands or becoming a group.
The only other involvement with a brand is Outdoor Voices in America, small partners. We have a financial link, a very strong friendship link — that happens, too.
They were based in New York and Tyler Haney said we are going to grow bigger, let’s all move to Austin, Texas. So they’re all in Austin now.
They kept a little creative studio in New York, I believe, to keep the vibe.
WWD: How did you meet Outdoor Voices?
J.T.: A guy in New York I met 10 years ago because he wanted to buy me out, told me, “Jean and Judith [Touitou], please go and meet this girl in Chinatown.”
They had a little studio with a very scary staircase.
I really liked their approach on fabrics because they did a lot of research, I experienced their garments for sports and for everyday and I found them very well cut. It was like love at first sight. So A.P.C. became an investor and we did a collaboration.
WWD: How about the Japanese denim secret? Are you ever going to reveal it?
J.T.: Oh, no, even I forget about it myself, sometimes. It’s a denim that has a special recipe to it. I’m very honored by the fact that even the supplier, the third generation in the industry in Japan, did something for me and didn’t sell it to anybody else.
WWD: How did that happen — personal relations?
J.T.: It happened, something magical. I’m not saying I’m Japanese…but I’m one of them from the heart of something — culturally, something connected. The denim supplier said, “Jean-san that’s for you only. I’m not going to give it to anybody.” I said, “Thank you, what did you do?” and he didn’t want to answer. Five years later, he told me. And it’s interesting.
WWD: What are your thoughts on artificial intelligence?
J.T.: I think we’ll use our brains instead. I see the point, you know, it’s like very deep rocket-science marketing. Maybe there will be something to analyze our data on e-commerce. But you do something, you show it, somebody wants to buy it, he buys it. I’m not looking for more than that. It gives no chance for the beauty of the uncertainty of commerce.
It’s like electrical fishing…these big boats based in Rotterdam, they put electricity at the bottom of the sea, so everything dies, it floats and they grab it.
You cannot push commerce and the desire of growth too hard. Whenever a very good, luxurious hotel owned by a family becomes part of a conglomerate, even the very quality of the butter they give you is not as good — not to mention the beauty of the flowers. The culture of the company changes. We’ll see if artificial intelligence can help, if it remains in the boundary of what I would like to call our morals.