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Jean Touitou, 1997


You could walk into A.P.C. on Mercer Street and go, "A hundred and ten dollars for a pair of jeans? I think not." To the uninitiated, many of designer Jean Touitou's clothes are, shall we say, on the unassuming side: cotton shirts in the softest Liberty lawn, poplin trenchcoats, tropical-wool jackets and pants. But that's the idea. Hang around the shop and notice how cute all the salesgirls and -boys look in head-to-toe Jean. See how everything fits and looks just so. Even if you've never joined the in-store shoving matches in search of the perfect-fitting flat-front hipster pants, you've surely felt the influence of Jean Touitou: Have you had a deep craving for cardboard-stiff dark denim jeans lately? (The man is obsessed with denim.) What about that cute fitted pinwale cord shirt you got from J. Crew last year? As a late convert to the cult of A.P.C., I didn't make my first — and only — purchase until the store had been open for a couple of years. But two days after this interview I practically ran back to Mercer Street for some black stretch New Iggy Bootleg Pop pants, and I already have my eye on some grey clamdiggers for spring.

MARY: So when you first started back in 1987, did you have to do a lot of explaining?
JEAN: Yes, people were saying, "Oh, you're doing basics." And I just hate that word. Because for me, a basic is when you're starving and you grab anything to cover your body against the cold or against the heat. That's a basic for me. So I had to explain that I put my hysteria into trying not to be exceptional. I put my hysteria into trying to be normal. And that takes a while to explain. Because that's totally hysterical, to work that much, to do something that just looks invisible.

MARY: Is it true you'd like to do only one collection a year.
JEAN: Yes, maybe one and a half a year would be right. We have to create a new year that will have 15 months. Because this rhythm of producing something every six months is just insane. It's just too fast. You're just finishing one collection and you enter the next one. It's too quick.

MARY: Is it harder to design for winter or summer?
JEAN: Summer is very hard for me because I love heavy, military pieces. Basically that's what I love. People don't follow me too much in my choices for summer, but I'm pretty satisfied with this particular collection because I sort of hated the winter I did before. I think I went out of control. I did too much.

MARY: You're talking about the winter stuff that's in the store right now?
JEAN: Yes. Now I have such a good team, one morning I could say, "I want to do this printed wool thing," and then they go, "Jean wants to do printed wool." So they run everywhere and all the information is on my table two days later. So now, whatever I say gets done. And that's a catastrophe because it's impossible for a store to look good with so many styles, even if one by one they are nice.

MARY: We're sitting here in the press room surrounded by spring samples. Do you also do runway shows?
JEAN: No, I just stopped, I just stopped. At one time I did a few little shows in some strange places, but I just think it's impossible to show clothes in the proper fashion. One has 85 shows and everybody is exhausted and everybody is fabulous: "Where am I seated, what should I wear today?" And those gimmicks are so pathetic. The only thing amusing about the shows I did was that there was no specific seating. The chairs were not in line, and there were no names on the chairs. So it was interesting to see who was going to sit where.

MARY: Are there people you think about when you design?
JEAN: Yes, of course, sometimes … But less and less. I have fewer and fewer heros. I keep getting older.

MARY: Didn't you once mention Brian Jones?
JEAN: Yes, because Brian Jones was a prototype of this mixture of a horrible person who could look like an aristocrat. I mean, he had terrible respect with his personality, but he was also an incredible musician and would look really good. He had a very good style. I was also watching not only musicians like Ray Davies and Brian Jones, but also a lot of Samuel Beckett. His attitude with clothes, I totally appreciated. Because he was at the same time very austere and very, very elegant.

MARY: A lot of what you do reminds me of stuff Bob Dylan wore in the mid-'60s "Don't Look Back" era.
JEAN: Sure, it's true. But it's more than that. I mean, I was an adolescent during the '60s, and that's when it hits you. So, yes, it's always there. People say, "Oh, a '60s revival," but I've always thought that was the last elegant period in fashion.

MARY: In addition to your team, you collaborate with other designers sometimes, right?
JEAN: Yes, yes, yes. Because I'm very jealous of the music world where people record something and send it to another artist, who basically is also a competitor. They say, "Why don't you mess around with my tape?" They're competitors, but also there is a community thing. And through my mail-order catalogue, every season I invite a designer to use me as a producer, as a publisher. I say, here's my fabrics, please give me your colors and your design, and we'll cut the pattern and we'll make the samples, and we'll give you a very decent royalty. I did it with X-Girl, Anna Sui, Martine Sibon, Xuly Bet, with Milk Fed, too. And I really like working this way.

MARY: How is the catalogue doing?
JEAN: I'm really happy the way it started in America. You know, I'm not an industry person. I don't get high on big figures and stuff. I'm totally satisfied. It's only a five-digit figure for this year. But I'm very happy. It's soon going to be a six-digit figure. I don't think it's fun to have a huge catalogue with zillions of girls on the front, so it's doing fine. In France, it's the same. And then in Japan it's extremely big.

MARY: Yeah, well, I would assume that in Japan you're probably really well known, whereas here, you're probably well known in New York and L.A. I remember your catalogue was mentioned in Glamour magazine, but I'm thinking, if somebody from Kansas got the catalogue, they might wonder …
JEAN: They might send me an insulting letter, which they do sometimes. We have some very nice letters with people saying our catalogue is propaganda from Eastern Europe.

MARY: Really?
JEAN: Yeah. They say, "Your aesthetics of pureness is totally horrible — we hate it." They don't understand. They want to see a model in a stupid pose like this. People just see clothes on a piece of paper and they freak. So a lot of people receive the catalogue and never order. And I prefer it that way, because it's too bad for them.

MARY: Yeah, but in their defense …
JEAN: It's difficult to see.

MARY: The clothes look so simple, and if you can't feel the fabric …
JEAN: I know, but what can I do? It's a mail-order catalogue. But you're making a good point. In the beginning of the century some mail order catalogues in France had fabric swatches, and that could be a good idea. Very costly, but we could do that. I'd be happy to develop a service like this because really, I hate stores. I mean, there's way too many stores. You cannot walk the street.

MARY: Are they any differences in what you sell here in New York versus France and Japan?
JEAN: Oh, no, it's all the same. I do no changes at all. I don't even alter the pattern. Nothing. The Japanese choose the smaller sizes but … no, I totally refuse to do that. I think it's a pity. It's totally horrible.

MARY: What's horrible?
JEAN: To change something for a different country. I think that's horrible.

MARY: But are there different buying patterns? Do Americans like certain things that …
JEAN: No, it's surprising. All over the world it's the same thing that people love the best. One thing that's done so well is our unwashed denim. I mean, all I did was … I wanted jeans like the way I used to buy them when I was 12 years old — a little bit stiff and dark. And that's all I did.

MARY: And look what you started!
JEAN: Yeah, it's a monster. And that's so obvious. To wash things before wearing them seems such a waste of time and money, and didn't look good to me. To tell you the truth, I'd be happy if more people did it, because the idea doesn't belong to me anyway. But I'm telling you, nobody will do denim the way we do because nobody is willing to pay this price for a yard of fabric. It was made in Japan. It's woven on a narrow loom with a special yarn. It's an incredibly expensive fabric, as expensive as wool suiting fabric. It's crazy. But I wanted to do it, and nobody can do it the way we do it because nobody is crazy enough to pay $18.00 for a yard of denim. You know it's the narrow width which is very important for the cut.

MARY: Why does that make your denim better?
JEAN: Oh, that's very simple. With a narrow width fabric, you cut one side here and one side there. So you have what's called a droit de fil — in English it means …

MARY: A right something — the true grain? The selvage?
JEAN: Yes, you sew the selvage to selvage, so it never twists …

MARY: Yeah, that's a big problem with jeans, when the leg seams twist around. So are you going to keep doing your denim? Will that be a constant even though so many people have jumped on that trend?
JEAN: Oh, yeah. The problem of copies is that when it's out of this context and a different quality, it just doesn't matter. Sometimes it's just inelegant the way they do it. They come here, they even ask for a receipt to be deductible. They buy tons of things, and they just reproduce them. And that's not very stimulating for their brain. Frankly, it doesn't disturb me at all. I just think it's inelegant. I don't go in the stores, I don't belong to this world, so never mind. We're all going to be ashes anyway.

MARY: Would you ever design clothing that's more fancy, more formal?
JEAN: No, I don't know if I can. I can't, I can't. I wish, maybe one day. Well, this black leather dress is fancy and formal enough for me. There's too much signification if you go into the formal and the fancy. Too much like the fantasy of a princess and stuff like that, which I'm not into.

MARY: What's your favorite color? Do you have a favorite color?
JEAN: You're serious? No, I'm sorry I'm disappointing you, but no, I don't have a favorite color.

MARY: But sometimes you throw one or two really oddball colors into your collection…
JEAN: Sometimes. I like dark navy a lot. But I don't use too much green, that's for sure.

MARY: Because you don't like green, or because people don't buy it?
JEAN: I'm not into it. I prefer reds and many different blacks — blue/black, brown/black. But sorry, no, no favorite color.

MARY: Aside from the jeans, are there other pieces you like to repeat from season to season?
JEAN: Yes, but that's rare, because something has to be extremely good to be repeated. I'm trying to, but it's difficult to say, "Oh, this is the ultimate piece; I'm going to do it for five years." I'm not that strong yet. There's always a slight change because when we discover something is not well done, we work on the pattern again.
People think I don't design anything. If I don't, if it looks all the same all the time, that's totally fine by me. There's always a lot of work. What I'm trying to say is that there's not a different attitude and gimmick every six months. I think you have one thing to say, and you keep saying the same thing all your life, basically.


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Jean Touitou by Lucas Michael, 1997


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