le chic gauchiste
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait and photography by OLA RINDAL
A.P.C. has a unique model in France. It may also be unique in the fashion world as a whole today, having lasted for three decades while always remaining fresh. The Parisian label retains its coherence, style, and difference, with ideas that remain current and with a certain discretion. Jean Touitou seems to be someone who is continuously moving forward with clarity. His line, underpinned by talent and strategy, evolves effortlessly over time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was the end of the ’80s when you launched A.P.C., and if I remember correctly, it was perceived as an anti-fashion statement, no?
JEAN TOUITOU — Well, fashion in the late ’80s was even more of a caricature than it was a year or two ago. As I had Marxist roots, I was perceived by the profession, by that section of the Left, as being anti-fashion — A.P.C. was an immediate contradiction in the fashion world. Speaking of longevity, however, I have a certain number of flaws, but I also have one quality — I know how to cut myself off, to challenge myself, to say, “I’m probably wrong,” or “I know I’m going to be wrong in a year,” and therefore to re-do everything. You don’t see that from the out- side because cleverly we’ve made it seem as if A.P.C. is fixed, unchanging, like the tailor in Naples who always makes you the same suit. It is mere millimeters that subtly change the silhouette, the smallest tweaks.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And if you had not had those progressive, permanent little changes, would A.P.C. have disappeared?
JEAN TOUITOU — Oh, sure. We’d be dead! I believe we have the ability to self-analyze. For example, to take the non-architecture of the stores we did in the ’90s and to say no to that model, which in theory was still working. We needed to be a little more extroverted.That level of minimalism had gone too far.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fashion is commerce. And it has always been looked down upon by the French intellectuals of the Left.
JEAN TOUITOU — Condescendingly, yes. And when we look at them closely, we often find that those intellectuals are quite chic. I mean, Gilles Deleuze always wore this perfect shetland or lambswool sweater. Félix Guattari wore those belts with the big buckles, the kind you’re wearing now. These people, you never catch them committing the crime of bad taste, never — I mean, look at Samuel Beckett. He was always perfect. But I see where you pick up on the contradiction. There were the good Yves Saint Laurent years in the late ’60s, with the completely accepting bourgeoisie. I mean, there has never really been democracy in fashion; it’s always been so elitist. The only intellectual who ever really looked at the subject was Roland Barthes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — From the point of view of the sign, of language, not of fashion itself.
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes, he looked at fashion as a semiologist, but also has someone who liked it. He looked at it like a pure, sexy university guy. It’s striking that what you said applies not necessarily to Leftist intellectuals, but to researchers in general. Fashion is an interest- ing domain, but no one doing serious, university-level research has ever gone into it. And in the press, there are certain subjects we do not touch. It’s like a giant Stalinian party hovering above our heads, making sure we can’t talk about everything.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Even the daily press is compromised by advertising.
JEAN TOUITOU — Fashion is the only applied art form which is submissive. In cinema you can publicly love or hate a film, but in fashion you can’t criticize anything. What is disturbing is that in literature and cinema, there has never been anything interesting inspired by fashion. But fashion is actually extremely graphic and inspiring, like the final stage of Bovarysme [a sort of daydreaming in which the dreamer imagines him or herself to be a romantic hero]. I think it would be a good development subject — someone should be writing incredible scripts about women who have always wanted to attain perfection but never quite make it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They did try during the Nouvelle Vague, integrating the fashion of the moment, quite creatively. There was a kind of bonding with the spirit of fashion, and it still influences creation today.
JEAN TOUITOU — And it happened at the same time prêt-à-porter came into being. There wasn’t the incongruity there is now — meaning that at the time it was stuff like sweaters you could actually buy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this the problem you mention, that the street has less and less style these days?
JEAN TOUITOU — Certainly there’s less and less spontaneous style.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think this comes paradoxically from the impact of fashion itself? Creators who all of a sudden — from the top, with their superior creative authority — finagle things so that certain brands impose an aesthetic which is then copied through mass consumption. And copied poorly. And these poor copies then corrupt the spirit of popular fashion.
JEAN TOUITOU — Exactly.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Don’t you have something coming out of your revolutionary, Marxist background that places value in the people? Quality in the street. Don’t you feel nostalgia for that time?
JEAN TOUITOU — No. The value of the Left for me is civilization. It’s the question: “What is civilizing?” So if it runs through certain ruling classes at certain moments in history, well, that’s the way it is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You aren’t at all nostalgic for what was the stylized, lively street.
JEAN TOUITOU — I am nostalgic about well- made buildings, sentences, clothing. Nowadays, when you try to buy a plain black notebook in a certain luxury house in Paris, whose name is, ahem, the Greek word for god of commerce, the salespeople immediately show you something in green or yellow ostrich, the notebooks they sell to their Asian clients. And they do that whole snob thing: “Monsieur, this is not expensive, it is costly.” Indeed, they’re like the temple merchants, targeting the Asian market and its impossible colors. I find the whole luxury fashion market frustrating. They have the means to do things well, but they can’t resist the easy market of emerging countries, so uncultured. There is nothing more vulgar than the “luxury” market right now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the emerging markets it’s about money, wanting to show off.
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes. It’s their right, but at a certain point you have to choose. Either you’re a temple mer- chant or you’re the luxury elite.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So the A.P.C. cloth- ing line is what’s left of your revolutionary, Leftist spirit? Because at a certain point during the late ’80s, fashion was pretty flashy. Then you arrived, you re-minimalized, re-essentialized everything, and they said you were anti-fashion?
JEAN TOUITOU — First of all, I was never a Leftist, I was a revolutionary, which is different. I needed to give daily life a civilizing aspiration. The irony is that A.P.C.’s first image campaign was directed by Carine Roitfeld, who wasn’t really an anti-fashion Trotskyist!
OLIVIER ZAHM — We should say the “anti-fashion mode.” Something linked to the idea of a piece of clothing.
JEAN TOUITOU — There’s the question of the image, but the original idea was the garment. Because having concepts about a piece of clothing without the perception of that clothing doesn’t work. And I could say something even worse. You know what interests me the most in my craft is the cloth itself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s your raw material.
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes, I have always developed most of the raw materials we use. So at the beginning it was the raw material. We tend to forget that in fashion. We ask ourselves, “What is the vision of fashion right now? Is it which celebrity is wearing which label?” It is important, but in the end there are people who are co-opted as “muses,” and you don’t see how they relate to the label. And it creates a slightly absurd system in which there isn’t a garment at all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Could we say that, going beyond your respect for the garment, you approach clothing as an essential product, a staple?
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes. When you walk out your door, you don’t like yourself if you are wearing bad garments; you’re not happy. We might even say you’re depressed. And you would be right. What would you do right now without your checked shirt, your leather jacket? That’s why there is this respect for clothing: What is it good for? And what image does it give off?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Not many labels share this discourse about function and form, in the quasi-modernist sense of the term, with a running theme of general creativity, even a trend?
JEAN TOUITOU — I imagine that Miuccia Prada works in the same vein. In fact many other lines also work like this, but they don’t theorize about it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is Prada a reference for you?
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes, they really work at it; they take risks. And — a little anecdote for you, there’s only one Italian brand that worried Yves Saint Laurent, and it was Prada. I find that Prada respects the unwritten rules in their shows: in a Fall/ Winter show there will always be coats, not just dresses. That’s what is crazy in fashion: there’s one rule that most people do not adhere to — that the clothes in the show will all be available in the stores. But if you do follow that rule, you end up being Mr. Grouchy Complainer — a.k.a., me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughter] No, you’re just Jean Touitou! You were one of the first people to link art and fashion. Then you began producing albums along with your clothes and kind of let go of contemporary art, whereas contemporary art has now moved much closer to fashion.
JEAN TOUITOU — It’s quite simple. Contemporary art is now closer to fashion because the fashion creators never want to speak about their work, nor about what they are, about their lives. They immediately start talking about contemporary art. Meaning that contemporary art has become a sort of ticket to paradise; it’s a new kind of bigotry. What has become chic is to collect con- temporary art and talk about it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the biggest labels got closer to art to render more credible their creative status.
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes, and the end of aristocracy. Yes, let’s mention this, too, the aristocrat is someone who loves art, who literally vibes with it. He is someone who can write 20 pages about a single musical phrase.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you kept your label outside all of that, in hostile territory, as it were?
JEAN TOUITOU — In the opposition, exactly! Except that I have always maintained friendly and quite respectful relationships with certain major players in the art world. But when I look at all these foundations, I know it is for financial reasons that these people adore this or that artist. They’re people obsessed with building up their holdings. What I object to is how systematically these people try to use art, through snobbery and vile opportunism.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I always come back to the origins of the label, Atelier de Production et de Création. It’s a way of working and validating work. I imagine you love everything that happens in the atelier, the different tasks, like the intellectuals in the ’70s, going into the factories.
JEAN TOUITOU — You’ve made an interesting connection. It reminds me of the book by Robert Linhart, L’Établi (The Assembly Line), about Marxist-Leninists who were going to the factory. It’s like political Bovarysme, basically worthless, a huge error of youth. It’s true I like the idea of the vertical factory, embracing all facets of creation. I like this place a lot for that very reason, among others. When I go into the tanneries or into the weaving mills, I have the feeling that this is where it all happens. It is in the process of creating a work of art that the quality of the piece is also defined.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It is a standard but also a question of taste.
JEAN TOUITOU — It’s taste, and it’s also what I know how to do. Meaning I work like this, and it’s all in the name A.P.C.; in “atelier,” it’s a structure with different stages of work. We dispense with the roman- tic notion of creation here — there is also a collective vision. I try to make sure the creatives do not disdain the commercial sector. Normally they are two worlds that do not speak to each other, but in my atelier they do. I want the commercial people to be in osmosis with the creatives, to be completely aware of fashion. That they get fashion, so they can be credible in their discussions with the creatives, especially when they’re in their pissed-off, castrating mode.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Production is as important as creation.
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes. Meaning that if someone designs a very pretty dress, makes a great prototype in the workshop — well, if that dress is sent into production under the wrong conditions, the dress will earn us some money, but it will have lost its soul.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does that mean you accept that you may lose money on certain pieces?
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes, sometimes. In A.P.C.’s numbers, if I had other principles than the ones I espouse — you’d be seeing another zero.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is that a way of being political today, continuing on your Marxist path? Because I don’t know of any companies that aren’t looking for maximum profitability.
JEAN TOUITOU — Olivier, I think I killed old father Marx a long time ago, especially in terms of his sense of history. Now I am more interested in a new approach to capitalism that is more conscious, more responsible. What is it good for, this desire to invade the world with these gigantic brands? What I get out of it is this artistic expression called A.P.C.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you have always resisted being called a creator — you don’t sign your clothes?
JEAN TOUITOU — I don’t sign them, and perhaps I’m not a creator either. Maybe I’m a producer, in the musical sense of the even that of the creatives.
OLIVIER ZAHM — However, for five seasons now, you have been speak- ing about your collections, which you didn’t do before.
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes. All I have left is my mind and a little common sense to use in making some noise.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You want your voice to be heard?
JEAN TOUITOU — A voice to help them understand what we mean when we make these kinds of garments. I am trying to show the sense of what we are doing because there is some, as well as the desire to actually glimpse beauty.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s quite a different kind of fashion show. Are you not risking being seen as extremely French?
JEAN TOUITOU — Certainly. I risk being very French, being annoying, condescending. But no one is forced to show up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I mean it positively. It’s a risk. But it’s also part of your charm. We haven’t spoken about your style because style has evolved over the years. But A.P.C.’s style really is very French. So aren’t you the creator of Saint-Germain-des-Prés today?
JEAN TOUITOU — Okay, I accept the qualification. For me it’s a compliment. But it works for America, too. A.P.C. does very well there. I am more comfortable now with the idea of deterritorialization. In fact I come from a different country, Tunisia. I live in France, and I have no idea what my geographical future holds. And honestly, Paris is too conservative a city. Too many things are impossible here for me to say I’m from here. In America there’s a need to free oneself from something — but in Paris, all we have left is literature.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a specifically French trait, this relationship to the book, to writing? It’s true we don’t see that in New York. They have some nice bookstores, but you don’t get the feeling that people read, that they’re interested in books.
JEAN TOUITOU — Sorry Olivier, but I’m tired of the myth of French excellence. Everyone knows that it’s in America that you find the intellectual communities. Here we create extremely minoritarian elites.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A.P.C. is not marketed to celebrities. And there isn’t an A.P.C. muse, but there does seem to be an A.P.C. family.
JEAN TOUITOU — Celebrities live their lives, and I don’t see why I should be trying to reach into their business, which is their person, just to sell myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you don’t do any of that kind of marketing?
JEAN TOUITOU — No, I find it undignified.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you do have a tremendous sense of family, of friendship. And over the years I’ve seen you close to Wes Anderson, Kanye West, and Sofia Coppola. And it seems you are really friends. These are not manufactured rela- tionships or attempts at marketing.
JEAN TOUITOU — Yes, they are real friendships.
OLIVIER ZAHM — People who have a particular affinity for A.P.C. do not feel they are part of a marketing machine.
JEAN TOUITOU — I don’t think you can work like that. We try to be free people moving forward together. When you meet people whose only merit is that of being famous, you have to wonder about their substance. It’s this contemporary world that unfortunately values celebrity so much, but we manage to live without that kind of marketing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A.P.C. advertising seems more an accompaniment to an image, something quite light.
JEAN TOUITOU — The goal of the little advertising we do is not so much to sell, but to send a message.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of mes- sage are your sending in your seasonal advertising?
JEAN TOUITOU — A friendly sign. It’s true that I feel I have succeeded in constructing a political party with A.P.C., but without ever having been in politics. Sometimes I say to myself, “I wish I had had one-twentieth the success I have now back when I was a revolutionary — we would have stormed the Élysée Palace!” See, I still have my student ideals.
[Table of contents]
The Fall/Winter 2014 collections
by Terry Richardson
Richard PrinceRead the article
Rafael de CárdenasRead the article
1968Read the article
JacquemusRead the article
Barbara KrugerRead the article
Terry Winters x Edward FrenkelRead the article
Jean-Luc Godard Sound ArchivesRead the article
Purple AccessoriesRead the article
Bionic YarnRead the article
Francesco RussoRead the article
Nicolas GodinRead the article
Andre WalkerRead the article
Umit BenanRead the article
Chris MartinRead the article
by Sabine Heller
by Sven Schumann
by Giasco Bertoli
by Simon Liberati
by Terry Richardson
by Patrick Mauriès
by Takashi Homma
by Olivier Zahm and Stéphane Feugère with a portfolio by Christopher Wool
by Olivier Zahm
by Caroline Gaimari
Don’t Be Cruel
by Donna Trope
by Olivier Zahm
by Michel Compte
by Johan Sandberg
by Benjamin Alexander Huseby
by Drew Jarrett
by Katja Rahlwes
by Ola Rindal
Best of Men’s Fashion
by Andreas Larsson
by Paul Wetherell
by Giasco Bertoli
by Maxime Ballesteros
DarksideRead the article
by Chikashi Suzuki
by Camille Bidault Waddington
by Sandy Kim
by Olivier Zahm
by Donatien Grau
Tomoo GokitaRead the article
by Max Farago
by Olivier Zahm
Casper Mueller Kneer
by Charles-Edmond Henry
Ragnar KjartanssonRead the article
Pier-Gabriel LajoieRead the article
Cédric RivrainRead the article
Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2014/15Read the article
Aaron De Mey
by Theo Wenner
Thadée Klossowski De Rola
by Benoit Peverelli