As John Varvatos launches a new flagship on New York’s Madison Avenue, part of an ambitious global retail rollout, BoF sits down with the designer to learn how he built his business at the intersection of fashion and rock n’ roll.
John Varvatos | Photo: Dominic Neitz
NEW YORK, United States — “Every guy wants to be a little bit of a rock star,” says John Varvatos, who has built a formidable menswear empire on this very notion. His seasonal advertising campaigns feature music icons like Iggy Pop and Kiss. His downtown New York flagship is housed in the space previously occupied by legendary punk club CBGB. Since 2001, he has collaborated with Converse, a brand beloved by The Ramones and The Clash. And his collection — which includes signatures like attenuated suiting, biker boots and knotted neckerchiefs — comes with a distinct rock n’ roll twist.
Since launch, in 2000, John Varvatos has expanded into a range of new product categories — including eyewear, watches, fragrance. The company now generates a reported $250 million in annual revenue. And the expansion continues.
This year alone, Varvatos is set to almost double his total retail footprint, with entries into Asia and Europe — in Bangkok and London, respectively — due later this year. His new 4,200-square-foot boutique on New York’s Madison Avenue (his third store in New York, but the first on the city’s Upper East Side, a stone’s throw from brands like Lanvin and Hermès) opened yesterday. And just last month, the designer announced the launch of his own record label, John Varvatos Records, in conjunction with Republic Records.
Varvatos’ interest in the intersection of music and style began early on. “From the time as early as I can remember, I was so intrigued by the way music artists dressed, whether it was The Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “When people had great style, their shows always seemed to be stronger. I started understanding that style — not fashion, but style — really had an influence on how people perceived you.”
Though he dabbled in drawing boots as a child, the Detroit native ultimately came to fashion “a little late,” he says. “The light bulb went off at like 27 years old that I wanted to be a designer.”
Thus, in 1983, he left his degree in education behind and joined Ralph Lauren in sales. “I always called my early days at Ralph Lauren ‘Polo University,’” Varvatos says. “I had no formal training at that point in time in design, and it was at Ralph Lauren that I absorbed everything from understanding about building a brand to creating a brand personality to being true to who you are and never worrying about what anybody else does.”
In 1990, Varvatos moved to another American fashion great, Calvin Klein, where he oversaw menswear design. “It was a huge opportunity, because I was not a senior designer at Ralph Lauren at that time,” says Varvatos. “What I learned there [at Calvin Klein] was a sense of myself. Calvin, he just wanted me to deliver the goods. He wanted me to create the concept for the collection and design the collection and invent the brands. I think that having that pressure of being left alone to do it on your own gave me a lot of confidence.”
Varvatos returned to Polo Ralph Lauren in 1995 as head of menswear design, where he stayed until the launch of his eponymous collection in 2000. “I saw a hole in the marketplace,” he says. “I saw a lot of sameness at the time. I was walking through Barneys [New York] on a Sunday afternoon, and everything was black and nylon. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s a time to do something different.’ So my first collection, I didn’t do anything black at all. I wanted to show that you could do something completely different in the marketplace and still look modern and hip.” The collection earned the designer the Perry Ellis Newcomer’s Award for Menswear from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). The following year he was named the CFDA’s Designer of the Year.
“Now, of course, [black is] an important part of what we do,” Varvatos continues. “There are a lot of guys that are really classic [in taste] that have come over to wear our clothes because they feel the heart of it is based in classicism — but it’s the twist that makes them feel a little more unique. They don’t feel like when they go to work or a board meeting or to a dinner that somebody will say, ‘Bill, what are you wearing?’ Most guys don’t move very revolutionary with their wardrobes, they move very evolutionary. Guys are afraid to get out of their comfort zone, so if they do move out of it, they move baby steps.”
A year into business, Converse (since 2003 owned by sportswear giant Nike) came calling. The collaboration, which was originally supposed to last two seasons, has instead lasted 12 years, “and we just signed up another agreement, so we’re continuing on,” Varvatos says. “When we came out with the laceless Chuck Taylor in 2003, it changed everything for us, because we went from selling small quantities in the Converse world, in the Nike world, to selling huge quantities. It put us on the map globally.”
Varvatos’ other long-term relationship — the rock sensibility that has become so closely intertwined in his brand’s DNA — also came about organically, he says. “I didn’t do it with any thought in the beginning. For the first six years, we didn’t market with musicians in our ads. It was all kind of sprinkled throughout, just things that I was influenced by growing up.”
He strengthened that connection in 2008, when he opened a store in the former CBGB space on New York’s Bowery (though the move generated no small amount of protest from those who decried the transformation of The Bowery, once best know for its flophouses and bohemian streak, into a corridor for luxury retail).
“CBGB was a place that I went to in the late 70s and 80s, and [the decision to do the store there was] totally impulsive,” Varvatos says. “I was in the Bowery looking at another space and they were also the landlord for the CBGB space, so I said, ‘Can we take a look?’ I stood there at that space looking around — there was graffiti all over the walls and still some posters that were pretty shredded — and something happened. A couple days later [my management team] came to me and said, ‘Doesn’t sound like the right thing, the neighborhood’s underdeveloped, it’s ten blocks from Soho, it’s too big of a financial risk’ — all these things. That Monday, I came in and called everybody together and said, ‘We’re going to do it. I think we can do something there that’s totally unique that will be a big part of the soul of the company.’”
Now, the designer is adding another layer of music to his brand — with John Varvatos Records. “My mission statement with the label is to really nurture young artists and create a forum for music that is iconic again,” Varvatos says. “I want it to be quite democratic. I grew up in Detroit, in what I think is the most musical city in the world — we had Motown and gospel and jazz and blues and for sure rock and roll. People think I’m only going to be going after rock and roll. That’s not really what I’m totally intrigued by. I’m intrigued by great music.”
Although Varvatos experimented briefly with a women’s line in 2004, he says “it’s not in our three-year plan. The men’s business is a lot bigger than we ever thought it was going to be, and I think taking your eye off what got you to where you are is the wrong thing for us to do.” Plus, he notes, “the guy that shops in our store, from what we understand from him, he loves this place that’s only about him. He’s not sharing it with his wife or girlfriend. I don’t think there’s a lot of places for guys like that, especially [in the] designer [fashion category].”
“If we focus focus focus focus on the people that we do business with, the stores that we’re in, we can have a very big business,” Varvatos continues. Currently, sixty percent of his business comes from his designer Collection, while forty percent comes from Star USA, the more youthful, contemporary priced second line he launched in 2006. “It’s about how people really dress today: Great jeans and great easy pieces to mix in with [the more expensive designer pieces],” he says. “The last few years, [Star USA has] really been a big fire in our business, to the point that we really have to control our growth there because we want to make sure that it’s a long-term growth and that it isn’t just loading up stores with product.”
Ultimately, Varvatos likes his clothes like his music: timeless and iconic. “I want to create clothes that last through the generations,” he says, “so when you go back in your closet 10 years from now, you go, ‘This jacket looks better today than when I bought it.’”
Colin’s Column | What Fashion Can Learn from Vidal, Hughes and Piaggi
LONDON, United Kingdom — To lose three people of great cultural value in a couple of weeks seems a cruel deprivation. First, Gore Vidal, then Robert Hughes and, finally, Anna Piaggi — belles lettres, art criticism and fashion knowledge lightly worn. They will be missed in their different ways. But each one of them had something to contribute to fashion, though I suspect that many, inside and outside the fashion industry, may not instantly see what unites the three.
They were all fearless. They refused to temper their originality of mind to fit with what others were thinking. In the case of Vidal, he deliberately set out to frighten and annoy those he saw as having dumbed down and destroyed the culture of America, which he delighted in calling The United States of Amnesia. He felt American society had betrayed itself and sold out to the culture of money and materialism — and he largely blamed commercial filibustering and the lemming-like way that the media followed its lead. Looking at today’s fashion scene alone, who can argue?
If Gore Vidal was a corrective rapier in our sides, Robert Hughes, Time magazine’s Australian-born art critic, was the essential scythe, slashing away at the rubbish, as in his dismissal of Damien Hirst (“Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce?”), Jean-Michel Basquiat (“a featherweight”) and Julian Schnabel (“a lurching display of oily pectorals”). His book The Shock of the Newshould be compulsory reading for every fashion student, especially those studying journalism, but I doubt if there is even one copy in most college libraries, which prefer to spend their tiny budgets on buying fashion magazines.
Like Vidal, Hughes was fearless in his appraisals. And even though artists and galleries hated what he said, they could not silence him. How different to fashion commentary where any attempt at honest criticism results in outrage and blacklisting from future shows. Sad and silly, showing terrible insecurity on the part of the fashion house, it is counterproductive in that nothing can grow and develop without informed commentary, no matter how fierce it might be.
And so to our own critic, Anna Piaggi. Her path was gentler than that of both Vidal and Hughes. But it was just as important. What she taught us about contemporary fashion was done subtly, by omission rather than accusation. Her knowledge was lightly worn, not only on her back but also in her two page spreads in Italian Voguewhere she used her encyclopaedic awareness of the history of clothing to illuminate what she felt was the best of modern fashion. These monthly bulletins were visual statements but they spoke as strongly as any words by Vidal and Hughes and they frequently highlighted what a friend said to me recently: that modern fashion has lost its brain. Flicking through most fashion magazines, what thinking person could deny that?
Unlike mere attention-seekers who use silly clothes to attract paparazzi, Anna Piaggi was a walking, living costume history lesson. Once, long ago, I asked her why she didn’t put her exceptionally wide-ranging knowledge of fashion into a book.
And, of course, it was. Not a sterile historic page, but a brilliantly judged gallimaufry of the modern designers she found of interest — not that many, it has to be said — with streetwear and clothes from many time periods and cultures about which she had learned from her great mentor, the Australian costume expert Vern Lambert, who left his collection of clothes to Anna. She told me that her hope for the future of the collection would be to give it to Australian aborigines to join Western dress culture and native Australian culture to create something entirely new and exciting. It was an inspired dream and I hope it happens.And although, at a later date, she did allow many of her Italian Vogue “doppie pagine” (double-page spreads) to be published in book form, at the time she smiled and said: “But I do. Every day when I dress it is a new page.”
But even more, I hope the death of these three visionaries — Vidal, Hughes and Piaggi — will remind us that there are always alternative paths for those prepared to think and it is always those paths that lead to the real crock of gold. We must be wary of the merchants of hyperbole. We must refuse to be swept along by artificial excitements. And we must learn that the best thing that any of us can do for fashion is to think for ourselves.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.