A Study in Simplicity: A Look at A.P.C.
A Study in Simplicity: A Look at A.P.C.
- Words Andrew Craig
- Date February 20, 2018
"A very strong statement against almost everything."
That's how Jean Touitou, the founder and owner of French fashion label A.P.C., described the beginnings of his brand in an interview to discuss the company's 30 year history. Browse through the racks of pared-down clothes at any of its warm but sparsely decorated shops, though, and you may not see the connection.
A.P.C. clothes have always been what the fashion crowd likes to call "basics.” handsome, but unassuming garments; trim, but not tight—thoughtful design, but in a way that's directed towards the wearer rather than his audience, with a uniquely French feeling of insouciance. A.P.C.'s offerings have a way of looking and feeling right, without ever quite providing a clear why. The same words tend to appear in any description of the brand: basic, simple, minimal. They're apt, but don't quite capture the full story.
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A.P.C. garments were born out of Touitou's desire to make clothes that were handsome, but, more importantly, wearable. Not conceptual or attention-grabbing or overly sophisticated—"defiantly normal," The New York Times says of the brand. The clothes are chic-but-unassuming in what has since become the stereotype of Parisian fashion, shaped in no small part by A.P.C. since the company's founding in 1987.
It started, at least partially, with a pair of jeans. A.P.C. denim is, for many, both an entry into the brand's pared-down aesthetic and a rite of passage for the budding menswear enthusiast. Its stiff, inky blue, raw denim jeans—with now-signature Japanese selvedge fabric that produced high-contrast fades the longer they were worn—became a runaway success. A pair of the jeans, whether beautifully faded and worn-in or still dark and crisp, became a go-to for both fashion insiders and everyday men, helping to spark what would become a massive menswear obsession with selvedge denim in the '00s.
Touitou made the first pair in 1989 after being dismayed by the acid-washed options on every shelf when he was in need of new jeans for himself. The fabric he used, a beautiful Japanese selvedge (then quite an uncommon thing), was a gift from a designer he was working for at the time (though the designer refused to reveal the name of the weaver to Touitou). "So, of course I do two things," he told GQ. "I make a pair of jeans—which took me like 15 days—and then we go Japan and I do the inspector Touitou thing and we find the weaver." He was successful. The Japanese weaver had an offer, too: he had a special recipe, even better than the denim that Touitou had been gifted, that A.P.C. could have exclusive use of. "A lot of brands have asked for the 'A.P.C. denim' and he's never given it to them," Touitou says. Hedi Slimane, the enigmatic god of high-end denim (first at Dior Homme and later at Saint Laurent) himself, consulted with Touitou about A.P.C. jeans as he was formulating his own line.
They're still a classic item in the modern fashion world, and make up a strong percentage of the brand's sales. But while A.P.C. denim is undeniably good, the playing field has greatly expanded since its introduction, and denim obsessives often say that there are now far superior jeans available with better weaves or dyes or detailing (albeit often with much higher price tags). "I don't want to know how other people are trying to knock me off," Touitou responds. "That's a bit disturbing. But I don't give a fuck. I don't care. There's nothing that could make me jealous."
Touitou is obviously an outspoken figure in the fashion world (just read a single interview with the designer), perhaps as well known for his strong opinions and his musings on style—often contrarian and infused with tangents that jump from art to politics to philosophy to literature and back again—as he is for his designs themselves. Originally from Tunisia, he emigrated to France as a child and spent his youth enmeshed in the far-left Trotskyist political circles and rock music scene of Paris in the '60s and '70s while beginning work in the fashion world at Kenzo and, later, Agnès B. In the winter of 1987, after an ill-fated attempt to launch a record label but with a well-established fashion career, Touitou began his own line of clothes. The label read, simply "HIVER 87," followed by "ÉTÉ 88" and so on, a nod to the new label's ethos of unassuming fashion that focused on the wearer rather than the clothing tag behind his neck. In hindsight, it was a noble idea, but it didn't last. As the company saw success and continued, Touitou gave it a formal name: A.P.C., or Atélier de Production et Création.
If the company was founded to be revolutionary, as Mr. Touitou says, it would do so quietly, through restraint rather than riot. Classic garments—crewneck sweaters, macintosh coats, unassuming T-shirts, dark blazers, casual jackets and, of course, stiff raw denim—are made with modestly flattering cuts and designs that are refined yet unassuming. Having struggled to find the kind of tasteful, well-fitting, quality-driven ("normal," he tells The New Yorker) clothes he wanted to wear, Touitou created them himself. In doing so, A.P.C. grew into a a kind of “anti-fashion” fashion brand.
It's a position that has served Touitou well over the years, though with exception. Perhaps most notable was in 2015 when, while presenting his Fall/Winter collection, Touitou casually used a slur while referencing a Kanye West and Jay-Z song in describing one of his collection's looks. “I call this one look Last Ni*gas in Paris,” he said, as noted by Complex. “Why? Because it's the sweet spot when the hood—the 'hood—meets Bertolucci's movie Last Tango in Paris. So that's 'Ni*gas in Paris' and Last Ni*gas in Paris.... In the ghetto, it is all the Timberlands, all the big chain.”
The designer had long been known for his devil-may-care attitude and indifference to social norms. But while his attempt to describe the the influence of modern hip-hop style in the fashion world (and vice versa) was not necessarily off-base, his attempted pun—at best, poorly considered and at worst, overtly racist—earned him a round of vehement media disdain and led to the cancellation of the highly anticipated collaboration with Timberland he mentioned in the presentation.
Compared to the larger fashion houses, A.P.C. is small in scale. Earlier this year the company estimated 62 million Euros in sales for 2017. It’s certainly a healthy figure, but is an order of magnitude, at least, below its glossier, more luxury-focused fashion brand neighbors in Paris. While Saint Laurent, Givenchy and their contemporaries see success with the moneyed fashion crowd, though, A.P.C. extends its appeal to the trend-conscious (but not trend-beholden) style-aware everyman.
Touitou has created a middle ground for men and women interested in apparel, but wary of the wallet-draining prices and ostentation of luxury labels. Its prices, while not what most would call "affordable," are not too great a step up from the mall brands of the world, and are balanced by an attention to detail in both design and quality that are quickly lost once price drops much lower. A.P.C. is for those who are willing to spend $125 on a striped T-shirt or $295 on a simple grey alpaca sweater but want their purchases to be smart and lasting—pieces that will survive season after season without risk of becoming passé or worn out. They occupy both the upscale fashion world and the grounded day-to-day one, seeming to subtly excel at both.
That said, it is possible to see A.P.C. at a glance as a kind of simple, stripped-down apparel brand—practical, but not necessarily interesting.Touitou and his team, including his wife and the company's artistic director, Judith Touitou, disagree. Not only are A.P.C. clothes driven by a sharp yet restrained eye for style that has resonated with the fashion world for the past 30 years, but much of the magic behind the brand's success—both financial and creative—flies under the radar. “I’m not obsessed with being a billionaire. I don’t have those dreams of power," Touitou told Business of Fashion. He built A.P.C. slowly and carefully, ghost designing for other brands to earn money in order to keep his own company financially stable and free from outside investment. Its growth may have been relatively slow and its revenue relatively small given the creative acclaim, but Touitou remains the company's owner to this day and is adamant to never sacrifice his creative control for the sake of bookkeeping.
That same thought process separates A.P.C. clothes from those of and its newer French contemporaries, like Sandro and The Kooples, too. "They get high on profits. If something cost $1 and they can’t sell it for $8, they’re not happy," he says, reflecting both his relaxed attitude towards money-making but also a deep commitment to cut and quality that underpin the allure of A.P.C.'s clothes. "At the end of the day," he says," the quality will never be there [with these other brands]. 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 [a] game changer.”
The brand has done its share of work outside of the "basics" comfort zone of raw denim, contemporary base tailoring and trim sweaters, too.
Two widely hyped collaborations with Kanye West in 2013 and 2014 pushed the brand somewhat outside its traditional comfort zone, and brought it a massive influx of attention from a streetwear audience that was previously not particularly interested in APC's pared-down clothes. "A visitor to the A.P.C. studio was announced to me as 'Kenny.' He wanted my advice on the fashion industry," Touitou told GQ of the collaboration's origin. "I introduced him to the A.P.C. design studio, and he kept asking how he could start something in that fashion industry. This is when we all advised him to start that something in France, and keep quiet about fashion noise while learning about it. Over the months, we kept hanging out and finally came up with the idea of doing a small capsule collection of clothes together."
The collaborations were West's first full foray into the fashion establishment, and brought a bold streetwear influence to A.P.C.'s simple aesthetic. The first capsule was modest—two pairs of jeans, three hoodies, and three T-shirts—but a noteworthy departure from the standard APC aesthetic, with thinner denim in a tapered fit designed to stack heavily on the ankles (a major departure from the brand's standard stiff raw jeans) and oversized tops with a slouchy hang. The duo's second collection a year later was fuller and more boundary-pushing, with pieces like military twill cargo pants with knee fastenings and a loosely tapered leg, bold fur- and shearling-lined outerwear, and layer-able sweaters and tees in oversized fits. Both collections generated massive hype and demand despite the garments' fairly high prices, and though the collaboration didn't continue beyond 2014, brought A.P.C. into a completely new light for younger, more streetwear-focused menswear types.
Aside from its highly-publicized work with Kanye West, A collaboration with Carhartt WIP mixed A.P.C.'s French minimalism with American workwear. Longtime A.P.C. designer Louis W. has his own sub-label that leans more towards luxury. They have a long-running collection of limited-edition quilts that are made from patchworks of previous A.P.C. collections ("They are made from yesterday’s fabrics, fabrics that we used and had leftovers of. In a way, quilts are to contemporary history what pottery is to ancient history," Touitou says). Of course, these aren’t the only brands to have been blessed with Touitou’s touch; Nike and Outdoor Voices (the later of which A.P.C. has invested in) add a bit of athleticism to the A.P.C. portfolio and widen the brand’s already generous general appeal.
But no matter which direction the reaches its aesthetic, A.P.C. always stays firmly planted in its entrenched idea of beauty: "Something deep and exciting with boring elements," Touitou says. So while the collaborations may change and the context might shift, A.P.C.'s perfectly dialed-in sense of ease-meets-elegance won't waver.