The subdivision of cell populations in compartments is a key event during animal development. In Drosophila, the gene apterous (ap) divides the wing imaginal disc in dorsal vs ventral cell lineages and is required for wing formation. ap function as a dorsal selector gene has been extensively studied. However, the regulation of its expression during wing development is poorly understood. In this study, we analyzed ap transcriptional regulation at the endogenous locus and identified three cis-regulatory modules (CRMs) essential for wing development. Only when the three CRMs are combined, robust ap expression is obtained. In addition, we genetically and molecularly analyzed the trans-factors that regulate these CRMs. Our results propose a three-step mechanism for the cell lineage compartment expression of ap that includes initial activation, positive autoregulation and Trithorax-mediated maintenance through separable CRMs.