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Easy as APC: The 'French Gap'

It's been described as the 'French Gap' and is the style insider's little secret. As APC launches a store on these shores, Cath Clarke meets its founder

There was no glitzy fanfare, no celebrity opening with Peaches Geldof and champagne. That would be much too vulgar. Instead APC's new shop has just slipped on to Dover Street in Mayfair with the same minimal fuss that gives its clothes a cult following.

The influential French label's appeal has always defied neat description. When it opened in 1988 it was dubbed "the French Gap" for its clean-cut twists on classics. It sometimes looks a bit unisex, uniform-like, with coats and knitwear that do for boys and girls. But that's not the whole story. Women say they feel cute without being cutesy in its shifts and shirt-dresses (Sofia Coppola and Alexa Chung are fans), while men never look too fashionable or like they tried too hard (Jarvis Cocker wears it).

Unlike the clothes he designs, you wouldn't call Jean Touitou, APC's founder, understated. He's known for being outspoken and doesn't disappoint on the phone from his holiday. Here he is on Italians: "Basically they have terrible taste." Or designer handbags: "You make more money with a 'hit-bag' than if you were a international cocaine dealer." He was a teenager in 1960s Paris and his anti-authoritarian my-way-or-the-highway attitude makes him a refreshing figure in the fashion world (a little of that Left Bank cool always has a place in APC's collections too).

If Touitou comes over a bit, well, arrogant at times, you've got to admire his integrity. Over the years he has turned down numerous offers from the big boys to expand (there are around 35 APC outlets worldwide): "I prefer to be very precise in what I do." He wouldn't dream of name-checking his famous customers and is often quoted saying there are already too many shops in the world.

Too many or not, on a Saturday morning late in August, his new shop on Dover Street was five minutes late opening. Already a small gaggle had formed by the door: a French woman and her daughter, a cool-looking Japanese lady in her 50s with a pixie hair-cut and a young London trendy. Apart from their general chic-ness they didn't seem to have much in common, which says something about the label's draw across size, age and fashion tribes.

Jacqui Edenbrow is a film producer and APC convert: "There's always something I want every season, and whatever I buy I know I'll wear it year after year," she explains. When she was looking for a cape a couple of seasons ago everyone else's looked "trashy and over-detailed". She adds that APC know how to use pockets: "They understand that women need pockets. For your Oyster card and whatever, but also to feel safe. Somewhere to put your hand if you're nervous."

You don't get earth-shattering changes from season to season with APC. Its autumn/winter collection features beautifully textured knitwear, some of it with a nautical anchor motif. As ever, the coats are impeccable: a herringbone women's wool trench and, for men, a stylish parka with a removable shearling lining. Plaid is an APC staple and there's a great shirt, which for boys comes in a pyjama cut with rounded collars. For girls it's ruffled on the front (paired in the catalogue with a tight leather zip-up skirt for a bit of vroom).

Touitou dismisses criticism that APC can be a bit same-ish. He compares what he does to a tailor's approach: "They would do the same thing all the time but change it slightly. Things evolve."

One constant, however, is the jeans. Denim fanatics go crazy for APC raw jeans: cardboard-stiff till you get some wear into them, they fit like a dream thereafter. Fashion designer Hussein Chalayan recently told style.com he wears APC slim fits until "they can walk off on their own".

There used to be an APC shop in west London, on Ledbury Road, which shut says Touitou when the landlord put the rent up by 500 per cent. "I was stupid enough to close it," he explains. "Maybe I should have been more of a cynical person, and think, 'OK, I will make the client pay.' But I never want prices to be too high." That said, APC isn't cheap; priced slightly below secondary lines such as Marc by Jacobs, and See by Chloé.

Touitou also works with the designer Jessica Ogden on a range called Madras, which incorporates her colourful prints. "He gives me a lot of room to have my signature, which I think is very unusual with a company," says Ogden, and adds that the intensity of research that goes into the choice of cloths at APC is impressive: "It's not just fashion for fashion's sake."

The credit crunch, says Jean Touitou, has made the process of leasing a shop much less painful this time around. "Real estate agents started to be human beings again," he says. "They used to be so snotty. Now it's more human. They talk to you." The new shop is elegant and perfectly APC (its architect Laurent Deroo's style has been described as "enthusiastic minimalism"). Touitou himself will be coming to London in a couple of weeks for a belated party to mark its opening. The return to London will delight the APC faithful. As well as finding an edited selection in a larger store such as Liberty or Aimé in Notting Hill, or browsing the company's website (Touitou pioneered selling online back in 1995), they will be able to try on the label's full range in a chic new shop.

Jean Touitou might be critical of parts of the industry he works in – its fuss and pageantry – but he clearly loves fashion and style. "I love elegance in general. But there is something that comes and goes too quickly in fashion for me. Like when people say, 'This is so 2008'." He shudders. He doesn't bother with catwalk shows anymore. When he did, he was typically provocative, doing away with the usual hierarchical seating arrangement whereby VIPs and editors always sit on the front row.

A few years ago American GQ called Touitou "the coolest man in France". They probably had his sidelines in mind as much as the clothes, which run from book publishing to a record company (he installed a recording studio in his Paris HQ).

Not that his latest project is what you'd call rock'n'roll. Last year Touitou opened a pre-school, APE (Atelier pour les Petit Enfants) with mini-chairs by Alvar Aalto and a logo designed by Jessica Ogden, who steps in from time to time to teach art. When the manager of his daughter's then daycare centre first suggested he put money into a school, Touitou had been thinking about investing in a friend's furniture company. "But I said to myself I'd rather know I've done something in my day, than do another chic thing. Because chic comes and goes." He has a point there. Chic in 1988, when he opened APC's first shop, was all shoulder pads and sequins. Here we are 20 years later, and that look has gone out and come back in – but it's reassuring to know that APC style is not going anywhere.

APC, 35 Dover Street, London W1, 020 7409 0121; Buy online at Apc.fr