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Jean Touitou of A.P.C. Says Be Cautious, Expect the Worst and Be Ready to Die

BoF sat down with the irreverent and principled Jean Touitou to learn how he built the pioneering and independently owned French contemporary label A.P.C.
Jean Touitou, founder of A.P.C. | Photo: Katja Rahlwes
  • Julien Neuville

PARIS, France — "I think A.P.C. is some sort of unique case, the utopia of a brand being able to be in business while not giving up its principles," Jean Touitou, the label's founder and owner, told BoF. "When you're in business you're told by a lot of people that if you want to do better, or simply to be alive, you have to design things in a way they work better; that you have to accept a bit of ugliness. I don't."

Jean Touitou has often been portrayed as a difficult and grumpy man, who actively courts controversy and can be harsh and contemptuous. But, in the flesh, he comes across quite differently: highly thoughtful, and simply unafraid to speak his mind.

The one thing I learned is never trust a banker. Never need a banker. Make your own money.

Perhaps Touitou isn’t afraid of what anyone thinks of him because he doesn’t depend on anyone. Indeed, since 1987, when he founded A.P.C. (Atelier de Production et de Création), he has fiercely maintained the company’s independence. The approach has paid off. Twenty-seven years later, A.P.C. has over 50 own stores and over 300 total points of sale. Last year, the company’s turnover was €42 million (about $58 million), a 7 percent increase from the previous year.

But if these numbers aren’t as high as you might expect, it’s worth remembering that not chasing growth is a critical part of why A.P.C. still resonates so many years later. Jean Touitou’s original goal was simple: create a discreet brand with a down-to-earth aesthetic, offering simple, well-cut clothes in quality fabrics, at an affordable price. No large accessory or beauty lines, no big advertising campaigns, and no fantastic fashion shows. But in delivering a better price-to-quality ratio than traditional designer brands, A.P.C. was one of the first companies to pioneer the fast-growing contemporary market, filling the gap between high street chains and high fashion houses.

“I used to do everything, now I do nothing,” jokes Touitou, looking back at the last 27 years. “Today, I’m the spiritual guide, I guess,” says the founder, though he is still very much actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. “In some technical fields, I’m the best, as a clothes engineer, at the source of creativity. I believe I’m good with fibers, threads. I’m also good with leather. In some cases, I don’t think they could replace me.”

Touitou’s well of knowledge comes from his tanner grandfather, his leatherwear-worker father and books. Lots of books. “I have a very simple method of working: when I don’t know something I buy a book and I read it — I read a lot about cotton. Then you know things that nobody would teach you, even in fashion schools.” Touitou’s love of reading has also armed him with a deep knowledge of history, politics and philosophy.

Born in 1951 in Tunis, Tunisia, Touitou arrived in Paris in 1960. After studying at the prestigious L’Ecole Alsacienne, he attended the Sorbonne and earned a degree in history. Following university, he went on a year-long road trip in South America and, on his return in 1975, he got his first job in fashion at Kenzo — working in the warehouse. “I wanted to be with cool people. Whatever those cool people would have been doing, whatever their trade was, I would have joined them,” he confesses.

But more than fashion, Touitou’s true passion was music. With help from his boss at Kenzo, he launched a record label, Roadrunner Records. But the business lost money and, two years later, was shuttered. “I failed. Then, I went back to Kenzo and they gave me an accountant position.”

In 1983, Jean Touitou helped French designer Agnès B launch her first store outside of France, on New York’s Prince Street. “I was friends with her husband; we were in school together. I also helped [Agnès B] to go from an artisanal brand to a more industrial company, finding factories so that she could develop her ideas,” he continues. “Then I incorporated a company for Kenzo’s assistant, Irié. It was very successful, but eventually I decided I wanted to create my own label.”

Touitou envisioned his brand as a response to the brash, brand-conscious fashion of the 1980s. He wanted to make simple, cool, minimal clothes, without logos. “My father would import leather from a Swedish tannery. And doing business with Swedish people, he discovered Swedish design and our house was full of it — it was a mix of the very sunny culture of Tunisia and this very minimal aesthetic.” This unique blend comes through in A.P.C.’s collections, which are light, simple and discreet. At presentations, Touitou often describes his womenswear as “sexed-down.”

Right from the start, one product in particular did extremely well and became one of the key pillars of the business: denim. Touitou approached a denim specialist from Japan and asked for fabrics he used to wear in the 60s: very raw denim his parents found in army surplus stores. They worked together and came up with the perfect recipe. "It's a combination of fabric, cult, cut, price, image and dopeness," says Touitou. Today, denim makes up 16 percent of A.P.C.'s business.

In building the brand, “the one thing I learned is never trust a banker. Never need a banker. Make your own money,” continues Touitou. “This is my thing. I make business plans and I forecast losses. You have to face the fact that you might not be successful and that’s it’s going to cost you some money for a few years.”

In fact, a cautious approach might be one of the most important elements of A.P.C.'s success. Reading about Yves Saint Laurent, Touitou learned that for the first ten years of his company, the legendary French couturier wasn't making money. So, he decided he, too, needed to have enough money to keep the brand afloat for many years of "non-success." To do this, he became a "ghost designer" for a number of brands, including Joseph, where he was involved in design and headed their production team.

When gathering seed capital to fund A.P.C., Touitou didn’t have a specific number in mind, he says. “The number was dictated by how successful my private labeling was. It was an economic model dictated by available resources. I would get money from Joseph and ask myself: ‘What am I going to use it for? Open a store? Hire a good pattern cutter?’”

“The first step was building a small shop with a very little budget. One year later, a Japanese textiles guy came [into the store] and told me he liked what I was doing. He invited me to Japan and suggested that we open a store in Japan. So I did the joint venture with this fellow.”

It was a hit. “At the time French fashion had been squeezing the Japanese milk too hard,” says Touitou. “They were overpricing things and I came when they needed an honest product with a very strong image and reasonable prices.” According to Touitou, Japan still accounts for almost one third of the A.P.C. business. The company’s second biggest market is France, which accounts for 30 percent of the business, followed by the US, which accounts for 20 percent.

The label’s initial success allowed Touitou to open a store in New York, and to acquire the building in which the company’s headquarters are still situated. “Without that, I wouldn’t be have been able to keep being arrogant with bankers, which is my little pleasure in life. I have to say I have this weakness,” he says, smiling.

“In this business the greatest challenges are to accept being weak, to question yourself and to be ready to die to start again. If you have one formula of aesthetics and you carry on again and again, at some point you lose respect for yourself and the market loses respect for you. You have to be able, even if something is doing very well to foresee that it’s going to be a failure soon and you have to take a new direction,” advises Touitou.

“I watched my father going bankrupt and having to sell everything, because people wouldn’t pay him. So I became very strict with money. In 27 years, there is nobody who didn’t pay me, even if they were in Australia. I would wake up in the middle of the night and call.”

Slowly, the unusual combination of caution and risk-taking at the core of A.P.C. becomes more clear. For Touitou, it seems that new ideas are often expected to be a failure. But, as a result, experiments are structured so if they do indeed fail, the company can withstand it. Paradoxically, this allows Touitou and his company to take risks.

"You have to put your life in danger all the time. If I do a collection with Kanye West, obviously I'm taking risks. When I do a very feminine capsule collection with Vanessa Seward, I took the risk that some people would criticise it and say I'm losing my minimalist foundation," he says. Apparently both decisions paid off, as Touitou confirms that A.P.C. will collaborate with both Kanye West and Vanessa Seward again.

When asked how he has managed to maintain A.P.C.'s relevance over the years, Touitou answers: "I'm not obsessed with being a billionaire. I don't have those dreams of power. I feel lucky. I'm not fascinated by money. To gain more power and money, you can do bad things," he says. Comparing A.P.C. to the new wave of French contemporary brands — The Kooples, Sandro, Maje, and others — he says: "They get high on profits. If something cost $1 and they can't sell it for $8, they're not happy. At the end of the day, the quality will never be there. Same thing with the cutting, because you have to spend so many hours on a pattern cutters and it looks like a money hole for them, but if you work hours and wait for the cut to be perfect, it's game changer."

“What also matters, I think, is the life you have lived. My experiences, being an immigrant, having been a revolutionary militant for a few years, the people I met… I guess I have some ideas that [other people] could never have.”

So what would happen to A.P.C. if one day Jean Touitou decided to leave?

It almost happened in 2007, when the Japanese distributor Itochu was set to pay €38 million (about $52 million) to take control of the company, but Touitou backed out at the last minute. “When I asked the guy if he really knew what we were doing at A.P.C. he said, “Not really but my wife thinks you’re cool. And, you know what? You should do more bags.” That was it for me.”

Last year, the news that A.P.C. had taken on a €2.5 million investment (in exchange for 14 percent of the company) from Audacia, owned by Charles Beigbeder, was a surprise. Was A.P.C. aiming to expand more quickly than usual? Was the company in trouble? None of the above, apparently. Touitou, having forecasted an economic crisis, thought it was wise to have some extra financial padding. “It’s the same story again. Everyone around me was talking about a credit crunch, so I thought there was going to be a crisis, a big banking problem and that nobody would loan us money,” he says. “I don’t want to be short of money. Ever.”

The terms of the investment were quite simple. “I look at it as a loan. I never see them. They don’t control anything. They gave us money; they took an interest and in 2 or 3 years they’re out. It’s written. I didn’t need it, but I thought I could need it.” Caution, again.

Touitou seems aware that one day A.P.C. might lose its relevance. But when asked who would take its place, he has a change of heart: “in the fashion industry, frankly, no-one. I would love if someone better than us could kill us. I would respect them. But it’s not happening, I’m sorry. We question ourselves so much, we work so much. Almost all our profits are reinvested in research.”

“We will grow A.P.C. steadily, but we do not have the ambition to take over the world. I don’t feel the need to buy art or mega-yachts like other fashion houses.” Indeed, Touitou's plan has always been quite different.

“Make money so that you can snob the banks, expect the worst to happen and be ready for five years of no success.”

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