October 4th, 2017
From A.P.C., an “Owner’s Manual” for Minimalist Fashion
The French brand’s new book is a collage of postcards, snapshots, and influential commissions.
By Alistair O’Neill
A.P.C. is a French clothing company known for producing well-made, casual separates which have become the choice of creative people who care what their understated, minimalist clothes say about them. Founder Jean Touitou, who started the brand in 1987, has in recent years come to front the collection presentations, offering a running commentary on the looks shown to the audience in a manner indebted to the way clothes were once introduced in couture shows. His idiosyncratic comments on a variety of subjects including normcore, yoga trousers, and the intersections between black style and brand culture have lost him collaborations and customers along the way, but it has not dimmed the broad appeal of his clothes or his take on the world.
Now comes A.P.C. Transmission (2017), a deceptive book that looks like a standard survey of the brand’s output over the last thirty years. Which it is, but Transmission is also a personally-motivated project that Touitou describes as “some sort of owner’s manual of life instructions I wanted to leave to my children explaining our family’s origins and a bit of my feelings about being a human being. I had imagined that I would use a copy machine to print it, maybe fifty copies to give inside my family.” The book is split into three parts. The first pastes down Touitou’s early life, cut-out fragments of photographs, postcards, and doodles; the second reproduces typed-out texts by Touitou (including some of the presentation speeches); and the third is a chronological catalog raisonné of A.P.C. products and campaigns.
Transmission gives a sense of putting things in order, in the way a fashion brand might establish an archive, but Touitou’s impassioned address, his presence in little autoportraits and in the small details he pays attention to, override the organization. Transmission is more an ode to the materiality of print culture, as something that could be pinned to a wall—to a period when “transmission” could mean a music program listened to on a portable transistor radio, and to younger days when a favorite shirt could be worn too many times. For Touitou, this is not an exercise in nostalgia, but a means of challenging his “feeling that a machine is erasing the past,” that the digital is blurring reality. “For me, this triggers a will of surviving, and I chose to do it with a book.”
Reading the book from front to back—the “1>2>3 way,” as Touitou describes it in the preface, or from 3>1>2, “from fashion to psychoanalysis to concepts,” or 3>2>1 “the Japanese way … going from the shallower to the deeper”—makes clear that Touitou narrates his interests and ideas by ordering images. The roll call of photographers he has keenly enlisted for A.P.C. campaigns, such as Collier Schorr, Alasdair McLellan, Inez & Vinoodh, Walter Pfeiffer, Bruce Weber, and Venetia Scott, only underscores the consistency of his way of working. Touitou is adamant that there is no strategy to how he commissions photographers: “I sort of run into people in a chaotic fashion.” And when laid out in part 3 of Transmission, the campaigns do have a collaged quality about them, as if they’re snapshots and keepsakes of a life that extends from Touitou’s own in part 1.
Transmission makes you realize that Atelier de Production et de Création is primarily a vehicle for Touitou. Its bestselling line is raw denim Japanese selvedge jeans, their slim fit reflecting Touitou’s distaste for the loose-fitting clothes of his contemporaries; the denim comes from the same factory Touitou first sourced in 1987, in Hiroshima, Japan. When I asked Touitou what fascinated him about growing up in Paris in the early ’60s, at a time of rapid change in France, he spoke of the shadow of the Second World War, growing up near the Hotel Lutecia in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the Left Bank, once a repatriation center for concentration camp survivors. That reminded me of Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, released in 1962 and composed from a montage of still images with a voiceover narrating a story, set in the future, of a man exploring his memories in the wake of a war. The film is a rumination on time, memory, and what the writer Brian Dillon has termed “the lure of images.” Like La Jetée, Transmission is also a sequence of still images narrated by a voice. It should be a much less compelling account of the banal nature of ordinary-looking clothes, but fashion, perversely, also marks time’s passing.
Alistair O’Neill is professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, London.
A.P.C. Transmission was published by Phaidon in September 2017.