The creative director and A.P.C. founder revisits the monuments of his youth on motorbike
Jean Touitou never sought out any middlemen. He likes to take action—to get his hands dirty—with a small, trusted team at his side. That’s the ethos of A.P.C., his iconic minimalist label, and the reason behind its name: Atelier de Production et de Création.
Touitou recently released a short film, which he calls VOX / PHANTOM. It’s a personal project, but one that’s devised in the A.P.C. tradition. “It was utopian to think it could be made without any endless meetings with creative this, finance that, loads of mail and anxiety,” says Touitou. “No strategic committee had to overlook this thing.” The film follows Touitou on a journey through the streets of Paris; he drove his motorcycle, and a friend sat behind him, recording mostly from the creative director’s first-person point of view. Touitou did the soundtrack himself: a mixture of guitar feedback from an old recording and the noise of his engine, turned up in the spirit of those “five or six-year-old kids who clip a small piece of cardboard onto the spokes of their bike with a clothespin.”
VOX / PHANTOM is spliced with captions—written by Touitou, of course—that give context to the film’s various stopping points. It’s an anthology of individual memory: There’s the Hotel Lutetia, where Touitou first lived upon leaving Tunisia, his birthplace, with his family. The street corner, where he’d hang out with middle school “neighborhood delinquents,” and the Champs-Élysées, where he “discovered happiness” one offhand, adolescent evening. There’s the Kenzo office, where he worked as a warehouse assistant, began his education in fashion, and fell in love with a model more than once. His final destination is inevitably the A.P.C. studio, on Rue Madame.
Touitou spoke with Document about his film—its ideation and creation. “I am in search of the forgotten past,” he says. In a sense, the finished product is equally about the present. It’s a reflection of the work Touitou and A.P.C. have done up to this point, and a reflection of their innovation as it carries on today. It’s focused on the refreshing, the simple, and the organically produced: the well-done basics, supported always by a good idea.
“This short movie is also an attainable utopia for me… Utopia for me is doing things from A to Z.”
Morgan Becker: How old were you when you first came to Paris, and how did you feel about leaving Tunisia?
Jean Touitou: I was nine years old. I was happy to discover new things, but always waiting for the next long holiday, to return to Tunis and its endless summers.
I felt that kids in school were speaking French with a weird accent. I had no accent, except when I was pronouncing eight—huit, I would say, ooouit. Those kids, they had this Parisian accent which is a bit aggressive. That might be hard to understand, I shall [elaborate]: People from North Africa—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—happen to speak decent French. Nothing too regional, I’d say. It’s a bit like a Bostonian accent compared to a New York accent, if you will.
I also felt that people weren’t clean enough. French people do not wash enough. Seriously, I felt it was cheap cologne over sweat. Maybe we were too cleanliness-obsessed in Tunisia, [since it’s] a warm country? I don’t know. All I know is that the French didn’t have that obsession. This hasn’t changed.
Morgan: What drove you to create VOX / PHANTOM?
Jean: I was asked to do a filmed music piece for [the A.P.C. team in] Japan, in which I’d play and sing, to make some sort of virtual live [performance]. My Japanese team wanted something to cheer up our co-workers and clients—to get away from the COVID blues. This was too complicated, by all means, so I just decided to do this movie.
It’s slightly inspired by a Marguerite Duras short, to tell you the truth. Title is Aurélia Steiner. I also came across a short by [Claude] Lelouch called C’était un rendez-vous. I wanted to have the intimacy of the Duras film, and the roaring motor used in Lelouch’s. I wanted to use a [piece of] music I recorded ages ago in Brooklyn, called ‘Tribute to Sun Ra,’ with Sonny Sharrock and Bill Laswell. We only used guitar feedback in the A chord.
Morgan: You seem to be very in touch with your childhood self. Did you find that you were able to recover formerly-forgotten aspects of your past, in making the film?
Jean: I am in search of the forgotten past.
[My] childhood and adolescence happened in the ’60s. It was ontologically loaded with tons of creative energy that one doesn’t have to fight so much to remember. It was a creatively exploding period of time.
Morgan: What came first: the writing, or the filming from your motorcycle? Did you drive spontaneously?
Jean: I wrote this thing in one hour maybe, one morning before my shower and breakfast. I didn’t have to write, really—my brain was dictating words to my hand. It was more like harvesting. I thought about the places first.
Morgan: Can you tell me more about how you came to be involved with the Basic Vietnam Committee and the Union of Communist Youth?
Jean: I was in a school that was a mix of haute bourgeoisie rich kids, with bourgeoisie intellectuals and artists. People wanted to ‘do something’ about the Vietnam War, so I ended up in some anti-war organization that was actually a Maoist party in disguise. Before I know it, I’m a member of some goofy, Stalinian youth organization. When I read pages by Stalin and Mao about art, I just ran away and joined some anti-Stalin communist party.
“I didn’t have to write, really—my brain was dictating words to my hand. It was more like harvesting.”
Morgan: You mention in your film, ‘I got kicked out of this school. They said it was because I had painted the cannon in the courtyard pink.’ Did you?
Jean: Yes, I did. Color was pink. I didn’t remember it, as a matter of fact. A friend of mine reminded me of that while I was editing.
I painted only the end of that sacred cannon, because I did it in a rush. I was scared to get caught, someone must have seen me. I remember the exact shade of this pink. It was like smashed strawberries with a lot of sour cream.
Morgan: You hint at many things happening between the Place des Victoires and Rue Madame. Could you tell me just one?
Jean: Hey, I’m happy with this gap. I want things to be short and effective. I thought that was enough ‘me, myself and I,’ so I intentionally created that memory hole.
I could have used that time—when I was a ghost designer and manufacturer for major brands—to accumulate the money to start my own brand. I liked the secret agent part of that. But then the short would have been longer.
Morgan: You say the following about the A.P.C. studio: ‘It’s like a different film plays here every day.’ Could you elaborate on that statement? Would you say that you often see life through a cinematic perspective?
Jean: It wasn’t metaphoric. This is the way [A.P.C.] is. It always changes. There could be a massive fitting one morning, and the place could turn into a photo studio the next day, or a collection explanation session to retail teams.
To be more clear, I do not have a cinematic imagination at all. This place—the studio on Rue Madame—is sometimes like a hive. There’s nothing to elaborate, really. It’s a hive.
Morgan: What makes you say that the studio is an ‘attainable utopia?’
Jean: I comfortably can say that, because so many impossible missions get accomplished in this one place. One should know that it’s a full-on atelier: pattern-making, cutting, stitching, steaming. If one idea happens to be designed in the morning, one could see it in real life at the end of the day. To me, this is a doable utopia. That’s what I meant. It isn’t so conceptual—it’s just facts.
This short movie is also an attainable utopia for me. It was utopian to think it could be made without any endless meetings with creative this, finance that, loads of mail and anxiety. No strategic committee had to overlook this thing. Of course, a quick look-over by my team happened, because I do need their approval to feel more comfortable. Utopia for me is doing things from A to Z.
Morgan: Is the Paris you live in now different from the one you came to in your youth?
Jean: Buildings have been cleaned up over the years, so it’s not that charcoal color anymore. There’s still a spirit of freedom—but it’s a dirty, old town. I can deal with that if I go away to the south a few times a year.
Morgan: Tell me about your notion of home. Is it a place, a feeling, a group of people?
Jean: My home is the French language. I am deterritorialized. I’m happy to live in a pretty town, but everything ‘national pride’ related makes me sick. I do feel more at home in Pantelleria, because I look like everybody else there—and I can see the Tunisian car lights at night.
“This is the way [A.P.C.] is. It always changes. There could be a massive fitting one morning, and the place could turn into a photo studio the next day, or a collection explanation session to retail teams.”