Jean Touitou has my coat, a vintage sheepskin number, splayed out on a table. He’s prodding it with the practised hand of someone who has worked with clothes for more than 25 years. He asks me which shop it came from and compares it to one on the Chloé catwalk, despite the fact it cost £60. This is typical Touitou: inclusive, alternative and a little bit controversial.
Touitou is a classic case of the designer whose work is far better known than his name. He is founder of APC – the relatively affordable French brand that has been making beautifully boring clothes since 1987, now sold in 63 stores in 10 countries. If his product is discreet to the point of fetishising the unremarkable – a grey sweatshirt, plain jeans, desert boots might be a typical outfit – he is the exact opposite. Gobby might be a good word to describe the 63-year-old founder’s conversational manner. Each season, the fashion press gather in APC’s Paris HQ for him to talk through the brand’s collection. So far, so industry. But increasingly, Touitou has hit the headlines with his no-holds-barred opinions. In the past, subjects obliterated by Touitou’s scorn include normcore, oversexy dressing, retail rent prices in Mayfair and yoga trousers. He sees these little rants as a necessary way to put a spin on clothes that would jar with the bells and whistles of a catwalk show. “I have worked out it [staging a presentation] is the only way I could do something different and be myself,” he says. “But I feel totally naked when I am doing it.”
Touitou was caught with his trousers down at the most recent presentation from the Paris men’s shows at the end of January – when he used the N-word in his commentary, referring to a 2011 track by his friends Kanye West and Jay-Z, Niggas in Paris. Talking about a coat, he said: “I call this one look Last Niggas in Paris. Why? Because it’s the sweet spot when the hood – the ’hood – meets Bertolucci’s movie Last Tango in Paris.” Later, he suggested that Timberland boots, worn with the coat, were a “strong ghetto signifier”. The next day, the American company promptly issued a statement ending its partnership with APC.
Two weeks later, and in London to open a new store in Soho, Touitou is still reeling from what happened. He only meets my eye a few times in the interview, and fiddles with his wedding band throughout. When I ask him about it, he explains that the song enjoyed record encores during the tour for the rappers’ Watch the Throne album. “If all the people had been singing this song, including white people, will they get into trouble for using that word? I was just quoting a song, but I was ignorant of the power of that word, that it would upset so many people, and I deeply regret that.”
That last phrase sounds a familiar formulation, the kind politicians issue as standard. But that would clash with Touitou’s backstory, one that informs his outsider take on fashion. Born in Tunis, he came to France as a 10-year-old and fell into far-left politics as a university student, joining the Trotskyist group OCI in the same period, he says, as former French prime minister Lionel Jospin. “I was a revolutionary, simple as that,” he says. “I was disgusted with money.” Touitou recognises the irony of saying this as the head of a multinational fashion company. “I am comfortable because I did not betray my search for beauty,” he says. “I think the guys in the government betrayed theirs because they are doing nothing good.”
I was just quoting a song, but I was ignorant of the power of that word, that it would upset so many people
Touitou’s “search for beauty” has led APC to stand for a particular type of tasteful cool – something hard to define (“there is a vibe there that isn’t said, but it’s in the air,” is all he will say). The idea of pinning his colours to the mast is a bit gauche and Touitou is anything but – he doesn’t, for example, wear his own designs head to toe. Instead, today he is sporting a sweater that belonged to his father with a fuscia pink Hermès scarf and sneakers he tanned himself in Tuscany. And talking of gauche, the brand famously doesn’t gift clothes to celebrities – Touitou has said in the past he would rather give clothes to teachers – but it still counts Alexa Chung, Keira Knightley, Wes Anderson and Jarvis Cocker among its clientele. West, meanwhile, is such a fanboy that he collaborated with APC on a sell-out range last year. Touitou describes the rapper as the “David Bowie of the 21st century”. Does West get freebies? Yes, but “he gives me something, too – inspiration”.
The recent negative headlines have done little to silence him. His latest focus is the rise of French contemporary brands, including The Kooples and Sandro, which have sprang up in the past five years peddling Parisian chic across the world. “I have absolutely no respect and I don’t give a damn about them,” he says passionately, comparing both brands, variously, to a Ponzi scheme, “a French ungifted musician trying to pretend he’s rock’n’roll”, and a fashion monster regurgitating the work of Céline’s Phoebe Philo. Gobby as ever, but with that edge of cool, it’s business as usual at APC.