In 1987, the Tunis-born, Paris-based Jean Touitou founded A.P.C. Understated, calm, and representative of a new minimalism in the midst of the very brash, very loud fashion of the 80s, Touitou developed the label after years spent channeling Che Guevara (his initial aspirations were entirely political and by no means commercial), working behind the scenes at Kenzo in Paris and later Agnès B. in New York, and a brief foray into the music business. Touitou introduced his brand as a small menswear line, but it turned out the designer’s simple offerings filled a far larger hole in the market. The confidently “normal,” self-aware in its low-key quirk label turns 30 this year, and the anniversary is no small feat. Longevity is a rare, challenging accomplishment in today’s market, especially when measures of integrity and brand identity are taken into consideration. For a brand like A.P.C. that veers away from trends and commits to affordability, this moment means even more. Touitou has debuted many now-staples over these years—raw denim being the most consistently desired—and is perhaps just as well-known for his unedited tongue as any garment he’s crafted.
An actress, singer, model, and daughter of Jane Birkin and Jacques Doillon, Lou Doillon has managed to make a name for herself outside of her famous family with her own brand of intimate, soulful folk. Friends for quite some time (the two collaborated together on several A.P.C. campaigns some 18 years ago), here the duo call each other to talk about the humiliation of surfing, making music no one listens to, and how it feels to be non-fabulous in an industry of look-at-me glamor.
Jean Touitou—Where are you now, Lou?
Lou Doillon—I’m in Biarritz with all the surfers.
Jean—Are you into that culture?
Lou—Not really, but I tried. I have a teenage son who discovered his love for surfing two days ago.
Jean—One has to start very, very young…
Lou—You feel quite stupid when you’re surrounded by children who can do it very well. I only do it when people are far away.
Jean—That’s the one reason Winston Churchill said he would never play golf—because he had a problem with humiliation. Humiliation is really a part of today’s culture, though it begins [in our] youth. I remember in France there was this movie about a wannabe surfer named Brice de Nice. The guy was from Nice, where there are no waves, but he still pretended he was a surfer. I saw it with the kids. I was a little bit of a surfer myself. I went to Brazil when I was 24 and traveled around with a surfboard on my car.
Jean—Yeah, I really was humiliated there. I thought that because I came from the Mediterranean that I could easily become a surfer. But I was more like Brice de Nice, actually.
Lou—I was about to say, were you surfing as a child? Because there are no waves [in the Mediterranean].
Jean—No, no. But I just thought, “I will go to Brazil, there are a lot of surfers there. I love the Beach Boys’s music. So hey, I’m a surfer.” But no. [Laughing.]
Lou—You’re celebrating 30 years of A.P.C. How did you decide to start in fashion? Where did your desire to work in this crazy world come from?
Jean—I had no desire for any of it. Before Brazil I wanted to be a history teacher, so I went to school for that. I’m actually licensed. I also wanted to do politics; I fancied being in gray suits and being a union guy. I thought I could be part of the working class. After that crazy, year-long trip to South America, I came back to Paris and I didn’t want to teach anymore. I just wanted to be around funny people. By chance, I met some people working at Kenzo in 1977. I would have joined them even if they were manufacturing screwdrivers or if they were at a law firm. There were a lot of people from many countries who acted very professionally, but at the same time were extremely, extremely crazy. There are things that were done in those years that I wouldn’t be able to repeat publicly. [Laughing.] You cannot imagine. If I put them into a script for a movie, nobody would believe that those kinds of things actually happened! I just wanted to be around those people. I wanted any kind of job that would give me that. So I started out in the shipping department, and little by little I learned things.
Lou—Wasn’t it a bit in opposition to what was being done in fashion at the time? When I think of things in the 80s, everything was just so wild and so over the top.
Jean—Yes, because I was against the idea of easy fashion. At that time, one would just organize a dinner at the Les Bains Douches. I call it a “Warholian nightmare” because everybody wanted to be famous. Everybody would do a loud fashion show and eventually become famous. I am not against fashion in general, I just do fashion in my own way. People said I was doing minimalism, but that was my way of doing fashion. I don’t do those runway shows; I’m not fabulous. They call it the “fashion industry.” It’s more entitled to be called the “bag industry.”
Lou—Absolutely, the accessories.
Jean—The actual fashion we present is only 10 percent of the money being made in this “fashion industry.” They are happy when they reach even 15 percent. So it’s only the accessory industry.
Jean—People are buying the very cheap, fast-fashion thing. And sometimes they buy a bag.
“I don’t do those runway shows; I’m not fabulous. They call it the ‘fashion industry.’ It’s more entitled to be called the ‘bag industry.’”—Jean Touitou
Lou—How did you start the A.P.C. Section Musicale? I remember the first time I came into your store: I was 16 and I saw great short movies [like] Zoe Cassavetes’s “Men Make Women Crazy Theory,” which I loved and bought right there.
Jean—Well, thank you. The music is very precise. Actually, when I was young I dreamt about being Phil Spector. After I saw the [political] revolution would never happen, I decided that I could be Phil Spector. So I would dress like Phil—I would buy a lot of equipment and I would try to spot young artists in New York. But that was a total disaster. Just like the surfing! When I got some success and money from the clothes that I was making, the first thing I did was build a recording studio. Then I started to make recordings. Some of them actually did very well. The Cuban recording that I did reached 100,000 plays, which is huge. But don’t worry, I still do things that do not sell at all. I wrote a very good bossa nova piece, which I sang in Portuguese, called “Samba de Merda.”
Lou—I’m gonna go and get it.
Jean—I still do music, it makes me happy. I’m thinking of doing some more. It saves you five sessions at the shrink—it’s good for that. I just gave up trying to make a business of music.
Lou—It’s true. Now that the big money in music is gone—at least for people that do folk, blues, rock, or everything that they now name “alternative”—what’s beautiful is that it’s brought everyone back to the real reasons [for creating music]. I was having a very interesting conversation with [Jean-Baptiste] Mondino, who said that he always felt guilty because it was his generation that took all of the budget from the music studios and put it into videos. What’s lovely today is that no one can really make a living [in the recording studio]. If you want to survive you need to perform. Big money is gone and I’m slightly worried. In the fashion industry you see, again, the majority of the budget is being put into the image, not the creation.
Jean—That’s an excellent comparison. My natural inclination would be to say they will die like the music industry died. Remember music back then? People were so arrogant.
Lou—They were! And so cynical. It was terrible.
Jean—It was terrible, and it is just the way fashion people are right now. They get high on this thing they call E.B.I.T.D.A., which is a calculation of profit. That’s their religion, the huge money they make, but one day that will collapse. The same way the music industry has given birth to a new breed of musician, maybe it will give birth to a new breed of designer.
Lou—In a way, that’s what you started doing in the 80s. Your campaigns weren’t about shoving a brand in people’s faces. Of course, it’s easy for me to say because I did campaigns with you, but they were always very beautiful, and very normal.
Jean—I remember when you did that. You were 16, weren’t you?
Lou—Absolutely, I was a baby. I saw the pictures in your book and yes, I’d say I was 16 or 17.
Jean—The thing is, I don’t feel that old, but when I decide that the next song that I’m going to do is a cover of “Route 66,” because I’m going to turn 66 this year, I just cannot believe it. I’m vintage.
Lou—But we all are, darling. Now kids are asking, “When did you buy that?” I say, “Oh, two years ago.” They go, “Whoa, it’s a vintage t-shirt!” [Laughing.] When you tell them that we managed to live in a world where there wasn’t internet they look at us like we’re dinosaurs. [Now] we’re all thinking of our image in a strange way—whether we have an image or not. We’ve become so self-conscious. There was something wonderful in letting go and dancing like a crazy person. Now you’re too worried what people will think. You can feel that the freedom has gone a bit.
Jean—Totally. Maybe there will be a comeback.
Lou—I think so. When you see the kids that are 16 getting back to buying old cameras, getting back to Polaroids, you can feel that the they might be quite fed up and want things to last longer and have more meaning. I’m an optimist because I don’t see the point in being anything else.
Jean—If you’re not an optimist, you might as well kill yourself right away. The hell with being nostalgic and pessimistic. Maybe it’s one of the possible ways for the youth to answer back to the culture. For example, the young people are interested in natural wine. That’s a real discovery, and maybe now people will rediscover that if they need a bassline, instead of just sampling a bassline, they could actually use a bass player. At the end of the day, I do have a problem with using only samples in music. People should be able to play like Prince.
“We’ve become so self-conscious. There was something wonderful in letting go and dancing like a crazy person. Now you’re too worried what people will think. You can feel that the freedom has gone a bit.”—Lou Doillon
Lou—There’s a limit; it’s like photocopying. You start to lose quality after a moment passes. There is a beautiful feeling of empowerment when you learn. The whole process is so much healthier than just this kind of patchwork of things that have already been done.
Jean—The patchwork is only good when you do an actual quilt.
Lou—You have beautiful quilts at A.P.C., don’t you?
Jean—We do. My mom was into [it] in the 60s and 70s, and I would bring her leftover fabric from Kenzo. I have some very beautiful quilts with Kenzo fabric at home.
Lou—You have some denim quilts, no?
Jean—Yes. Just one. I asked all my friends for their used denim and we did a one-off piece. Denim is precious. People never give away their jeans, only if they are totally destroyed. Even the destroyed jeans are loved! I did not realize your English was so perfect. There is no trace?
Lou—It’s very old-fashioned because I was raised by an immigrant. All my references and even my accent is from [my mother]. When I go to England, people are horrified by it because now everyone is so cool. Even all the aristocratic kids in London speak like they were in the suburbs. When I used to do acting in England I would only get period movies for the BBC because I was so old-fashioned. They call it the Queen’s English. What’s funny is that when I sing I suddenly have an American accent, which is absolutely subconscious because I only listened to American and Canadian music [growing up]. My mother laughed because I did the concert in London and someone came to me after asking, “Where are you from in America—Alabama?” I thought, “Wow.” [Laughing.] I don’t know how people believe that I’m actually modern.
Jean—It’s funny. I really wonder how a song will sound in, as you say, “Queen’s English.”
Lou—I started singing because I was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and with country singers in America. Back in that time the country music lyrics were so fancy. Today people wouldn’t believe it. You listen to the song “Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry and her mother is telling her to become a prostitute to make it in life. It’s insane and it’s wonderful, much freer than how people think today. I was about to say: Be wary of the French when they get talking. In 10 minutes I’m having a glass of wine and this could last for another two hours.
“Transmission”, the new book celebrating 30 years of A.P.C. and published by Phaidon Press Limited, is available to purchase online.