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A.P.C.’s Jean Touitou: ‘I’m Ready for a War’

The French designer talks to Tim Blanks about how he’s navigating the crisis and why the coronavirus can’t kill fashion.
Jean Touitou, founder of A.P.C. | Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

LONDONJean Touitou felt like the loneliest man in Paris during fashion week at the end of February. The day before the shows started in the French capital, he got a message from his daughter’s school. Anyone — teachers, students — who had been in Northern Italy should not come in the next day. But that directive could equally apply to the huge number of fashion industry insiders winging in from the shows in Milan: designers, photographers, journalists, the hair and makeup teams and all the young models who would soon be lining up for castings. “If something is right for a school, why is it not right for us?” Touitou tortured himself with that question. Three days before his A.P.C. show was due to take place, on March 2nd, he cancelled.

“It was a terrible feeling, but I didn’t want to be responsible for a fashion cluster.” In his industry, he was almost alone in his decision. His son Pierre, the chef-patron of Vivant, one of the hottest eateries in Paris right now, was also the first restaurateur to close. The responsibility gene clearly runs deep.

Obviously, in such a situation, all you would really want is for history to prove you wrong. There is no easy answer to that, especially when, even now, the over-reaction lobbyists who contend things aren't as bad as they seem are still so vocal. "Fashion is like North Korea communications-wise," Touitou says darkly. "One day the truth will be told." But even if subsequent illness amongst industry figures in London suggested there was a fashion cluster in Paris, its significance paled against the much bigger story of a global economy whose collapse is dragging the fashion sector down with it. To put it mildly, Jean Touitou has other things on his mind.

When there is danger like this... I'm ready for a war... I have this weird personality where I'm good in heavy weather.

Like Spring/Summer 2020. It’s in stores now, but they’re all closed. E-commerce is similarly compromised. “That’s a lot of pieces in deep sleep,” Touitou says on the phone from his wife Judith’s parents’ house in the countryside outside Paris. He’s ready to push the button on production for Pre-Fall and Autumn/Winter 2020, but a huge proportion of A.P.C.’s stock is made in Europe. When will those factories even re-open? And how much does production need to be reduced to adjust to a post-virus retail reality of unsold goods and unknown demand from consumers?

Next up, the Resort and Spring/Summer 2021 collections, already designed and sampled. Clearly, they won’t be presented during the traditional June selling season if Europe is still on lockdown. Touitou wonders about massive video selling sessions. But he also asks himself how it will be possible to shoot a look book under social distancing strictures.

And all of this against a problematic backdrop of cash flow, overhead costs like staff and rent, taxes and a shifting tapestry of global legislation. A.P.C. directly employs 450 people around the world. Add in contractors and the total is more like 3000. Touitou says anyone can reach him, through phone or mail or Instagram. Some factories are still delivering, some markets still want merch, so he’s maintained a team of seven in the warehouse. He speaks to them twice a day. And there’s a permanent team on anti-bacterial cleaning.

But then there's the looming spectre of Autumn/Winter 2021. "A fisherman can go fish, a baker can make bread, but in fashion we have to make something new every six months," says Touitou, "and that means we need to find new fabrics. But all the weaving plants were closed as of last week. How do you develop the next collection? You have to be creative, find a substitute in countries that still have weavers. Maybe Japan could replace Italy fabric-wise but there will still be less time to develop fabrics, patterns… and we're supposed to launch prototypes for the next season within two months. How can you do that if you don't have an atelier anymore?"

I’d like to say it’s all worst-case-scenario stuff, but after a trawl of the latest updates, my gut says otherwise. Touitou, on the other hand, sounds quite sanguine on the phone. “I have this strange personality where the heavier the situation is, the calmer I am. When the situation is good, I might turn into a very neurotic person. But when there is danger like this — a meeting of the board at five o’clock sharp to discuss cutting the expenses, making plans for six months, what if there are no more workshops in France? Where do we go? I’m ready for a war. I don’t enjoy it. It’s just that I have this weird personality where I’m good in heavy weather.” And if the heavy weather leads to a reset, Touitou has been ready for a while.

My ideal would be one fashion week a year. I don't think I will want to belong to the circus anymore.

"For ten years, people have been saying this has to stop," he says emphatically. "When you looked at the faces of people in the front row at fashion shows, it seemed like everyone was about to throw up. They were exhausted. 'Oh no, not again.'" I beg to differ. I don't think my face ever looked like that in the front row (I'd say I was more an unsettled hybrid of pensive and enthusiastic), though I accept Touitou's premise that the industry was capsizing with excess. "I find exciting things that are happening, but just too much," he qualifies. He attributes that to what he calls "the system of cyber-mercantilism."

As happens often with a man who loves music as much as he loves fashion (God willing he and his band get to perform their note-perfect rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” for you), Touitou applies a musical analogy to his business. “The problem is not so much volume, it’s profit margin. Like that Jimi Hendrix song ‘If Six Was Nine.’ If something cost you one, you sell it for six and you can pay all your salaries, your rent, everything, and at end of the year you might have a little profit. But the industry is looking for nine. This is where they stretch. Do the prints in this country, the finishing in that country to save a few cents. There is too much merchandise going round the world like crazy, searching for bigger profit. It’s not Marxist theory here. There should be a reasonable amount of money-making that can be tolerated, and after that there is a red line. And they all passed the red line.”

Glaringly obvious in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic is how difficult travel has become. A new awareness of borders may be one legacy of the crisis, which could stop the free and easy internationalism of fashion in its tracks. "Think about fashion shoots," says Touitou. "Why schlepp ten people from the studio to a location in Arkansas when you can just shoot in Paris? I can see how this will inspire a different kind of creativity. Let's not travel so much. We have to shrink down everything we do." Same with fashion shows. "There's probably going to be less fashion," Touitou muses. "My ideal would be one fashion week a year. I don't think I will want to belong to the circus anymore. I have some bitterness, I must say — people saying, 'continue dancing' when the boat was sinking — but if I hate the circus, I don't hate fashion shows. I get high on them. I love to prepare the looks with Judith and Suzanne [Koller, A.P.C.'s stylist]. So maybe we won't do shows, but we're going to do the look of a show, because we ourselves need to dream about fashion. So, we'll finish the collection and take it somewhere else, maybe once every two years, create a new format around the schedule. Look at Azzedine Alaïa. He succeeded in doing exactly what he wanted."

There is too much merchandise going round the world like crazy, searching for bigger profit.

Alaïa’s reaction to industry diktats was a model that very few designers had the uniqueness, nerve and talent to adopt. In his own way, Touitou has also always marched to the beat of his own drum, and excess has certainly never been an accusation that could be levelled against A.P.C. When savants talk about fashion being called into action to comfort and reassure people in the aftermath of whatever this is, A.P.C. is the kind of brand they might be talking about. “I could enjoy this moment and say, ‘I told you so,’ but I’m not that perverse,” says Touitou. “I’ve been swimming in waters of uncertainty all my life, when I was a kid, when I was a student into politics. To be confronted by it now in fashion, I can really say, ‘Been there, done that,’ like my brain was waiting for it. Maybe historians in 50 years will say, ‘Well, that period of cyber-mercantilism had to go at some point. Maybe humanity will be wise enough to think, ‘That was part of our history, we did something wrong.’ Let’s go back to the good measure, like in that Beatles song. ‘You get a shot of rhythm and blues with just a little rock and roll on the side, just for good measure.’ It’s the extra extra extra everything that has killed us.”

Yes, he’s aware of the hypothesis that humankind’s callous interaction with nature has finally produced a toxic collision between dogma and karma. But Touitou still wants to enjoy more days on his boat, more good wine. He has his Beatles and his Stones, and Jimi and Dylan and Lou Reed. And he still considers A.P.C. his “doable Utopia,” though he acknowledges it’s going to be more difficult now.

At the unknown end of it all, he has faith in fashion’s continuity. “Desire cannot disappear,” Touitou declares. He recently unearthed a 1996 clip of himself from MTV’s House of Style. He’s wearing a worker’s jacket in Japanese denim. “It could last another three generations,” he says proudly. When I watch the clip, I want that jacket. I guess that’s desire. And I guess that means Jean is right. About a lot of things.

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