Rock Steady: An Interview With Menswear Designer John Varvatos
At a party celebrating his newest store opening in Boston, menswear designer John Varvatos greets guests out front as he nurses a Starbucks cup. Inside, the new boutique is packed full of Pretty Young Things - men with perfectly tailored jackets and perfectly rumpled hair, and their equally well-heeled arm candy. Rajon Rondo, the fashion-loving Celtics point-guard, is bartending, and there’s a buzz among the locals that they must’ve shipped people up from New York to populate Beantown with such a display of well-groomed dudes.
A real industry veteran, Varvatos has been in fashion for 30 years - longer than many of the evening’s guests have been alive. He’s accumulated more rock star devotees than any other menswear designer, and his ad campaigns have featured a range of musicians from Willy Nelson to Dave Matthews. His clothing has become something of a uniform for Hall-of-Famers, up-and-comers, and urban dandies alike. Varvatos knows menswear inside and out, but he’s just as happy to talk about music. His eyes light up with delight when he recounts the musicians and bands that he’s shared the stage with, reliving the rush of his oldest and fondest dream - being a Rock Star.
Born and raised in a crowded but nurturing Greek home in Detroit, Varvatos got his start in fashion at 29 - much later than most of the still wet-behind-the-ears wunderkind that these days tend to be more of a flash in the pan than someone with the same staying power as the perpetually leather jacket-clad designer.
With a handful of new stores in Asia slated to open in 2014 - his first outside of the USA - we wanted to know: What’s Varvatos’ key to longevity? Passion, a solid Greek work ethic, and a whole lot of Rock and Roll.
Above: Celtics player Rajon Rondo bartending for JV at the party this fall; Below: The interior of the new store. Photos by Paul Marotta/Getty Images for John Varvatos
RENATA CERTO-WARE: My questions might be out of order, just warning you.
JOHN VARVATOS: Doesn’t matter, I’m out of order.
RCW: Hey, we all are - You’re Greek, I’m Sicilian, we’re all a little crazy. So, you’ve got a flagship store in NYC, an outdoor concert series at the Sunset Marquis in LA, and roots in Detroit Rock City. Where’s your main base?
JV: New York!
RCW: What’s your second home, Detroit or LA?
JV: Well I grew up in Detroit, but today, I would say probably LA - I have more friends in LA than I do in New York.
RCW: Where do you go to just relax when you need to get away from the whole fashion scene?
JV: I have a little house in upstate New York on a lake. It’s not in a fashionable area, not in the Hamptons. It’s out in farm country - I’m with real people, and the minute I open up the door to my lake house, I’m in another world; I shut everything else out.
RCW: Is there anything in fashion that you find men are afraid to try? Have you been surprised by your customers embracing something you put out there that you thought was a little bit risky?
JV: I think in general, men have always been a little more cautious than women - proportions in womenswear change all the time, and they go with it, they love everything new. Guys are more about an evolution than a revolution - most guys. But, it’s changing, and guys are much more willing to try things today. I will definitely say that in shoes, guys are really willing to try new things. Guys used to have a black pair of shoes, a brown pair of shoes, and sneakers. Now they have shoe closets - they’re like girls now! That’s the biggest thing - now guys want boots, they want wingtips, they want this and that - they love shoes! I love shoes...
RCW: What will we never see on your runway? Is there anything that you know just doesn’t work for you or your line?
JV: I’ll never put fur on the runway - I’m not ever going to do fur.
RCW: Is that because of your personal beliefs, or you just don’t like the way it looks on men?
JV: It’s kind of a belief thing, I guess. I don’t feel that I need to show fur, there are things that we do show that we don’t need to kill an animal just for their fur. And, I’ll never have square-toed shoes.
RCW: Not even after Marc Jacobs’ square-toed shoe revival?
JV: Especially not after that! Those were pilgrim shoes!
RCW: Would you ever consider casting a female rocker in your ads?
JV: I’ve thought about it many times, and it may happen at some point.
RCW: Who’s your go-to gal?
JV: I don’t really want to say, because the ads are always surprises. I did just finish a book about Rock and Roll and fashion that’s coming out on October 15th and there’s a whole section on female rockers in there - there aren’t near as many, as you know, but I love chick rockers.
RCW: How do you feel about women wearing menswear? Love it or hate it?
JV: I love Patti Smith. Patti Smith was an icon for me, I love what she did. I even love when Madonna wears menswear-inspired clothing, and I just saw Rihanna wearing what looked like a men’s suit and she looked amazing! She can look good in everything.
RCW: You’re so inspired by Rock and Roll, you’re from Detroit Rock City, and you have a store in the former CBGB space. Do you have any musical talent of your own? Have you ever thought about starting a rock band?
JV: Oh, yeah - when I was a kid I always wanted to start a band. Not anymore, because what ends up happening as you’re around all these amazing musicians is you start to know that you’re not really very good! I do play guitar, but I don’t play very well. I collect guitars, and I just bought a beautiful vintage guitar - a 1962 Gretsch, and I showed it to my wife and she said “You need to take lessons again.” She knows I’m really passionate and I keep telling her I want to take lessons. When she sees me play she’s always very surprised that I’m better than she thinks I am. And, I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of big artists.
RCW: Which is worse - playing on stage, or being backstage right before a runway show is about to start?
JV: Actually, being backstage at my runway show! I don’t know why, I guess it’s in the whole excitement of the concert and not expecting to be asked to play. It’s one thing if they were to tell me beforehand “Ok, on the fourth song, you’re going to sing or play”, but it’s always been when I’m in the audience, like “John, you gotta get up here and do this song with me!” I’ve played with ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, KISS. Cheap Trick - I played guitar and sang with those guys. I sang “Surrender”: “Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright”. There’s more, many more. Guns and Roses - doesn’t get any better than that!
RCW: And that wasn’t more nerve-racking than a runway show?
JV: It happens so quickly and it’s just so loud they really can’t tell if I’m good or not.
RCW: Do you ever find that your Greek roots come through in any of your collections, or the way you do business?
JV: I don’t know if they come through in my collections, but they definitely come through in my passion for what I do and my humility for what I do. I grew up in a 100% Greek family that was very humble - seven people in an 800 square foot house with one bathroom - and family was very important, relatives were important, the heritage was important. And now, I am very true to the heritage of my brand and have a respect for the heritage of menswear.
RCW: So how did your traditional Greek family react when you told them you were going to be in fashion? Did they accept it or did they want you to be a doctor or lawyer?
JV: Well, it’s funny because I have a degree in Education, so I didn’t go back to school to be in fashion until I was 29, but I worked in fashion - I paid my way through school by working in retail, so my parents already knew I was very into it. My father was not alive, sadly, when I really started my career, and my mother only lived for a short time after I launched my own brand, but she was unbelievably proud when I was head of design at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.
RCW: Who let you in? Was there one moment of pure luck where someone gave you a chance that really opened up doors and set your career in motion?
JV: I think it was working for Ralph Lauren. I wasn’t in design, I was in sales, and I really was so intrigued by the whole design process that I actually started going back to school at night, at 29 years old, and Ralph gave me the opportunity to let me in the door because he loved my sense of style and it was a huge opportunity to be in design with I would say a really limited resume but lots of passion, a good artistic hand and a good eye.