Nothing Personal

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PHOTO-OF-JEAN-TOUITOU by Sophie Laffont

Those crisp, dark denims you love were in fact launched by A.P.C. more than ten years ago (long before the world-takeover denim trend). Shortly after they surfaced, the straightforward, long-lasting jeans quickly became the must-have item for Vogue staffers and other members of the fashion-minded.

A.P.C. (Atelier Production Creation) was started in 1987 by Jean Touitou. Reacting to the trend of stamping one's own name on design labels, Touitou decided to give his brand a more impersonal, almost generic moniker. Without advertising or visible branding, A.P.C. slowly took form as a cult brand synonymous with understated cool. The first collection was menswear, but it was the ladies who began wearing A.P.C., falling for lean, body-skimming cuts that popularized the brand. And, well, after almost 20 years, you still have to "know" A.P.C. to "get" it.

On a recent sunny Sunday morning in New York City, Refinery29 met up with Touitou in his loft-like outpost on Mercer Street to discuss just how that famously enigmatic brand made a name for itself.

When did A.P.C. emerge? Tell us about the original vision.
When A.P.C. started in 1987, the vision was: We are living in a Warholian nightmare; everyone really believes that no skill is necessary to be a star. To just communicate and have a name was enough to build a brand. So, my vision was: Do not communicate, do some real work instead, and do not have a name, just have a group name.

Your aesthetic has remained so consistent for so long. What's the trick to keeping it fresh?
Here is the trick: Die, get killed, and manage to get born again. In other words, everything that lives should die. And also mainly, be surrounded by good and intelligent people-and just avoid the others.

Describe the A.P.C. customer?
Sorry, can't do it. I could describe a fantasy, but that would be wrong. That I cannot control, let's say: You gets the customer you deserve to have.

How does A.P.C. fit into the retail landscape of New York City?
It kind of doesn't fit at all. Maybe that is why it's popular to a certain kind of people, looking for anything else than what's out there. When something gets popular, it's all over the place-Japan being an exception-but that could take a few pages to explain.

Tell us about the design process, when you're planning for a season?
The design process is to start with no designs. It starts by finding [fabric], partly, and creating fabric, mainly. The fabric offer is very weak, so we have to work on that first. Then I write style ideas on a big blackboard with chalk. Then this master plan gets reviewed, changed, destroyed, remade. Then, the designing part starts. We start planning for a season, exactly one year ahead.

What are your inspirations?
I have no "inspiration" or "themes." I do what I think I should do. In that, of course, I believe that my team and I are guided by our past and our culture.

Can you tell us about the specifics of what's in stores for fall?
This fall: A reaction to that cheap, inelegant bitch, who makes too much noise on the sidewalk with her shoes and who walks like a gay vision of a woman. So we tried to get some elegant dignity in there, and this does not mean austerity.

What does A.P.C. mean?
There was a whole trend of turning everyone into a celebrity. Everyone was starting their own fashion label. You made a white shirt and you said, "I am a designer." The idea was to have a name comprised only of initials. Its significance does not matter. For a while, I even used to randomly say [that A.P.C. stood for] "Atchoum Party Communist." It was just the idea of not having a personal name as a reaction to this cult of personality where people called themselves "designers" even though they have never designed anything. I just wanted to put things back in their due place.

How did A.P.C. start?
At the beginning, A.P.C. was only a menswear line. This was during the years when men's clothes had no structure, sort of like the Talking Heads lead singer who wore those baggy suits. I wanted to introduce rigidity, shape, and form And actually, the menswear sold little and women started wearing the clothes. It's extremely complicated to design menswear. So many men have toned bodies because they work out and then they wear clothes that are just too big. I am not saying that they should wear skintight clothing, but I think it's too bad to dress like that.

Anyway, so we started in 1987, men dressed really badly at the time, and wore blazers with massive shoulder pads. You know, I always work from the interior of the clothing, on the fabric. I think that people have a tendency to only look at the design and not the structure of the clothes. It' s a bit like the architects who made post-modernist work as a revolt against Le Corbusier, but who did not know how to build anything in concrete. That was the '80s; there were some absolutely horrible architects.

And the jeans?
I wanted to make jeans [so] I asked someone I knew in the Sentier [French garment district] if he could give me a little denim [fabric]. I knew whom to ask from my days of designing anonymously for other collections. So, this guy in the Sentier said to me, "I will give you some fabric so you can make a pair of jeans." The guy gave me a narrow roll of denim. The denim was made just like they did in the '50s. It had been re-issued by a Japanese guy. I asked for the name of the factory to get more fabric and was told it would be near impossible to get more of it. The quality of this denim was completely unbelievable! You know, when something has good ingredients, it's so much better. The denim was made of very good Egyptian cotton and the dye was a mixture of synthetic and natural so it washed and aged really well. It was really fantastic. And we gave it a great cut (shape). At that time, we had started making a small name for ourselves. Well-known designers were selling jeans for about 200-250 Euros (at the time) and we wanted to sell the jeans at about the same price as Levi's. I have always insisted that the price remain reasonable.

Did the popularity of the jeans help bring about awareness?
Yes, in terms of the volume of the sales. It gave us "brand recognition." Nobody could copy [the jean]. I didn't invent anything. Levi's had done it before, but they used bad fabric and the jeans faded poorly.

Describe A.P.C.
Naturally, it's quite minimalist. To be minimalist is to impose a clear vision. I feel that in the past, designers made thousands of very simple clothes, and that's what it meant to be minimalist. Now, I think, I design fewer items but [ones] that are more complicated [in design]. I'm saying, "Here is my vision and there is no other." It's a bit like when a sound engineer tells you, "Yes, there are other ways to mix your song, but this is the right mix. And if you want to work with me, then this is it." I don't give too many options. It's necessary to really think hard about what you're doing. In our profession, yes, you do have to design [draw], but you also have to put a lot of thought into what you're doing. Right now, I'm designing the Fall/Winter 2007 collection, and it will be available in shops in August 2006. Therefore, we have to think about what will happen from now to August 2006, whether or not people will be bored with a certain thing. It's good to be ahead of the trend, but to be too far ahead is bad, especially from a commercial point of view. The trick is to have perfect timing, to be right. That's what requires so much thought. And by the way, it doesn't all come from me alone. I just hope that no one makes the same thing as me. Otherwise, I wouldn't do it.

And you launched Madras in collaboration with designer Jessica Ogden. How is that?
Jessica and I share an obsession with fabric; we are moved by it. I don't want to sound too mystical, but fabric really speaks to us. We get to the heart of the fabric, to the heart of clothing.

And the [Madras] patchwork is quite different than what you usually do?
My mother used to make quilts. I have many of them at home. Madras is my "coming out" because it is the first time that I put my name on a label. The clothing label says: Madras Jessica Ogden Jean Touitou. I've been doing quite a bit of "coming out" recently. I just created a drawing for the first "couture" dress. By couture, I mean with draping, very feminine. I had thought about it in much the same way that philosophers spend years learning before generating their own idea. Now, I consider myself mature. It is rather easy to [design a dress]. There are so many designers who make dresses, so I wanted to keep away from that. Designers say that it's a Spring/Summer collection or a Fall/Winter collection, but really they just make elegant dresses. Only dresses. It doesn't make sense to me. It's great training, but it's not ready to wear. Then, recently, I thought to myself maybe I have something to say with the little black dress. So, I bought some fabric. I sought advice from Alaia. He gave me great advice, and I used it. It's like an exercise where you put the fabric on a model, you pin it, exactly like the fantasy image of a designer.

Can we see the dress?
It sold out. I am so happy! It is made of crepe and leather. I am going to make only two dresses per season. People are so blasé. Everything is so much about the image of the brand and not about the skill, the trade. There are very few competent journalists who know a little about the history of the trade.

So, which designers do you like? I like Marc by Marc Jacobs; it is very well made-very, very good work. Exemplary. It astonishes me that it does not do better [in France]. It does well, but [it] should do much better. [Translated from the French]

Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe

And you thought generic was a bad word. But when it's translated the A.P.C. way - through chic trim denim and timeless navy top-coats - who wouldn't want to pare things down a bit. Thanks to owner Jean Touitou, a Warholian nightmare has yielded a fashion phenomenon to last.