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Fashion / Style File

Fashion’s True Rock Star

How Music and Michigan Made John Varvatos the Coolest Man in Clothes

BY // 04.05.16

It all started with a sweater. A 13-year-old John Varvatos had his eye on one in particular and, with money he had made at a part-time job, bought it. When he wore it to school, it had an immediate impact on his fellow students.

“The girls and the guys gave me a lot of attention because of it, and I knew then that if a piece of clothing had that sort of effect, I wanted to be involved in that world,” the New York-based fashion designer told me.

A job at a men’s clothing store while he was studying at Eastern Michigan University to prepare for a job as a science teacher was the next chapter in the tale. (His dreams of being a rock star were dashed, as with so many teens before him, by a lack of musical talent.) He became a partner at Fitzgerald’s Men’s Store in Grand Rapids when he was 25. The store was one of the few in the state that carried clothing made by a designer named Ralph Lauren, and Varvatos liked the line.

He became head of Midwest sales for Polo Ralph Lauren, was hired away to oversee menswear at Calvin Klein in 1990, and returned to Ralph Lauren in 1995 as head of menswear design for all Polo Ralph Lauren brands. And that was just the beginning.

We were sitting in Varvatos’ spacious hotel suite in Houston. The two-time CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award recipient (2001 and 2005) was in town to attend an event at his Galleria store (one of 20 around the world — soon to be 21, with the imminent opening of a Moscow location), and we were discussing, among other things, his childhood in Allen Park and, of course, rock ’n’ roll. Those two things — his birthplace and music — play crucial roles in Varvatos’ professional and personal lives, and one can’t fully understand the man without keeping that in mind.

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Varvatos in Converse (Photo Clay McBride)

Allen Park is a working-class community 15 miles from Detroit, and the boy who was destined for great success at Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein (and later at his own label, which launched with the 2000 Fall/Winter collection) shared a 1,000-square-foot, one-bathroom home with his parents and four siblings. He worked at a Chrysler plant assembling brake pads, among other jobs.

That upbringing has produced a man refreshingly devoid of pretense — an attribute I noticed mere minutes into our conversation. The guy has created a small empire, which includes his own record label, a flagship boutique at 315 Bowery (the former home of one of my favorite music clubs, the much-missed CBGB) as well as the aforementioned 21 stores worldwide. His personal wealth is reported to be in the $70 million range, but he’s never turned his back on his roots.

And that thing about music? It’s in his blood and bones; it inspires and underpins everything he does. Growing up near Detroit’s seminal rock and punk scene introduced him to, among others, MC5 and The Stooges, and the music’s never stopped. Look at the clothing, and that’s immediately apparent: boots worthy of Keith Richards, scarves that Jimi Hendrix would have coveted, and jackets inspired by Jimmy Page. (And lest I give you the wrong impression, the younger set — including Gary Clark Jr. and Miles Kane — rocks his designs as well.)

His John Varvatos Records label has signed acts including the Zac Brown Band and Amos Lee, and is always in search of new talent. I asked Varvatos to tell me about some favorites, and the names Willie Nelson and Iggy Pop came up. How about the one performer at the top of your pantheon?

“That would have to be Jimi Hendrix; his style and abilities have long been part of my life, and if I had to limit my music collection to one person it would be him.”

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Building an empire requires a certain attention to detail, of course, and Varvatos has a great eye — one that seems to miss nothing. At one point during our conversation, I noticed he was looking at my jacket a bit more attentively than I would have thought normal. I had put it on absentmindedly that morning, mainly because it was the one in my closet with the fewest wrinkles. I stole a glance at the jacket’s label and saw that it was one of his; he slyly smiled, I assured him it was not a conscious decision on my part, and we both laughed. A few minutes later, I looked down at one of my shoes, a monk strap, and saw that I’d neglected to fasten one of its buckles; when I went to do so he said, in a disarming manner, “I thought you had left it like that on purpose, as a style thing.”

Back to the past. I asked Varvatos why he had decided to leave Ralph Lauren; after all, the brand — and the man — are iconic. “I liked working at Ralph Lauren, and I admire him greatly,” Varvatos said. “I learned a lot there about fashion and life in general. But I think that, for most people, there comes a time when you want to go out on your own. I told Ralph about my plans, and he listened and offered to give me my own line. We let it go for a while and, finally, when he saw that I was serious, gave me some advice that I discovered was very wise: Don’t go out on your own unless you really have something original to say.” Varvatos did, and he does. And, yes, he is still friends with Lauren.

For my part, I liked Varvatos’ look. He was wearing a thin scarf, which he had knotted around his neck; one of his trademark jackets (in suede, collar turned up); a T-shirt whose hue — something approaching burnt umber — matched that of the jacket; a pair of slim trousers; and distressed-leather ankle boots. He sat in a high-back chair, one leg crossed over the other. The embodiment of studied, yet relaxed and unassuming composure, the man is cool, in a refined way.

His Fall/Winter 2016 collection is full of that refined cool. It was fêted at the Bowery boutique in a special event in early February, and the exhibition/show opened to the public the next day, following a marketing campaign that had the building boarded up and displaying a huge neon sign that asked, in red letters, “Rock is dead?” You’ll see crushed-velvet trousers, those gorgeous antiqued and buttoned boots, tuxedo jackets, suede bombers and lush shearling. And those scarves — I can’t forget the scarves; they add a touch of sophistication and nonchalance that whispers with gravitas. Varvatos urges men, as his rock heroes did, to forge their own style, and the new collection serves as a catalyst for that journey.

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John Varvatos and Ringo Starr

It was time to leave the suite and prepare for the party at the boutique. As we stood to shake hands, Varvatos bent down and picked up a copy of his book, John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion. Using a thick black marker, he inscribed “You Rock” on its frontispiece. I thanked him, and we walked out the door together. In the elevator, I began leafing through the  thick book, and the first face I saw was Hendrix’s.

FIVE QUESTIONS FOR JOHN VARVATOS
FAVORITE VACATION DESTINATION.
Mustique.

THE RESTAURANT IN MANHATTAN OF WHICH YOU NEVER TIRE.
Lure Fishbar in Soho.

YOUNG DESIGNERS WHO ARE DESTINED TO HIT BIG.
These guys are already a big hit, but Nathan Bogle and Marcus Wainwright from Rag & Bone, and Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School.

WE DISCUSSED YOUR PASSION FOR MUSIC. WHAT ABOUT OTHER ARTS? FROM WHICH OTHER WORLDS DO YOU DRAW INSPIRATION?
Travel. Wherever I go, I visit local flea markets and vintage shops. You can find so many unique and interesting things. I’ve found many of the fixtures and displays we use in our stores from my travels around the world.

THE MOST VALUABLE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE AN ASPIRING DESIGNER.
Be a sponge. Absorb as much information and knowledge as you can. And don’t be afraid to be different. Be authentic. Be real.

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