When you think of American menswear designers, John Varvatos is one of the first names that comes to mind. And yet, for the past eight years, he's shown his full season collections at Men's Fashion Week in Milan rather than in New York — until this week, that is. Varvatos will show his spring 2016 collection on Thursday, closing the inaugural New York Fashion Week: Men's — an event that may not have had the same weight without his involvement.
When his participation was announced, CFDA CEO Steven Kolb described Varvatos as a "tentpost," suggesting he was instrumental in bringing other designers on board and lending the event more legitimacy in its first season. That's been no easy task, with the long-established men's fashion weeks in Paris, Milan and London to compete against.
To kick off NYFW: Men's, we chatted with Varvatos about his reasons for moving his show to New York, why he opened a store in downtown Detroit this spring and what musician he'd most like to cast in an ad campaign. Read on for our interview.
How did you decide to move your show from Milan to New York?
[Showing in Milan] was great for us to support our global expansion. At the same time, when I started the company in 2000, I used to show in New York — there wasn't a real Men’s Fashion Week and it was always part of women’s. The CFDA finally got it together, which is fantastic, and they of course wanted me to be supportive and part of it. Emotionally, I wanted to, but business-wise I was still kind of connected with Milan. But then I opened up a store in Detroit in March or April. It’s my hometown... everybody said, 'Why would you open in downtown Detroit? There’s nothing there." I wanted to support the city and its rebirth and all these things. So when I was there for the opening, I was thinking about the CFDA question and I thought, I’m an American designer, I got my start here, my market's here, I need to come out and support.
Are you nervous that this event won't be as beneficial business-wise as Milan was?
I think it’s going to be great, but I don’t know what to expect. My thing is that it’s the right thing. It’s kind of like opening the store in Detroit; it’s been fantastic and our expectations weren't that high because the market is so underdeveloped downtown. I kind of felt the same thing here. Everything that works for me in Milan may not work 100 percent here in New York, but there’s going to be other magical stuff.
Steven Kolb described you as a "tentpost" of the week. Do you think you were a deciding factor for other designers?
I did it for what I feel are the right reasons, which was to support Men’s Fashion Week in New York, and also to hopefully attract some people who were on the fence about coming. If I did any of that I’m happy. In the end, I think when the stronger American designers show, it shows that there’s something happening. I think we have a good turnout.
Do you intend to show at the next NYFW: Men's?
It’s hard to say because I need to look at it both from the business side as well as the fashion part, so I need to evaluate it after the show. I think I’d be able to tell you that a lot better at the end of the month.
Can you tell me a bit more about the decision to open up a store in Detroit this spring?
I grew up in Detroit and I’ve always been a big supporter. My family’s still there. I traveled there with my CEO who is Italian and had been living in the U.S. for about three years and never been to Detroit. It was the coldest day of the year, like 35 below, and we walked around downtown. We were headed to the airport and he said, 'I have one thing to say.' I thought he was going to say, 'Are you out of your mind?' but he said exactly what I was thinking: 'We need to do something here.' We felt an excitement and a buzz, so we opened the store in March.
The city’s been behind us; the consumers came out and supported the store in a big way... And they’re attracting additional people downtown because of it now. There, I feel we were definitely an impetus because we went on the main drag where there’s no retail at all and we really did kind of plant our flag in there. It wasn’t a strictly business decision — it was a lot of an emotional decision. At this point in time, after the first four months, it seems that it was a great decision — business has been terrific, better than we ever expected. It’s reminiscent of Brooklyn 10 or 15 years ago when it was starting to cook. I truly believe in the next five years it will be the most talked about city in the world for urban renewal and opportunity, so it’s an exciting thing to be part of.
Do you see Detroit ever becoming a destination for fashion retail?
It’s a pretty blue collar city in general, but there’s also a lot of money there because of the automobile industry. I think it takes a little bit of convincing for some fashion people to understand it when they go there; we have a little bit more of an ear to the street and we like a bit of grit. The clientele that’s been shopping is interesting: it’s people who work downtown, it’s people from the suburbs, it’s tourists that are in town and business people that are visiting. I think if you have an open mind it will definitely be a much bigger opportunity. Will it ever be a fashion destination? It's not going to be New York or L.A. or London, but it will be a destination for additional retail to grow from a fashion point of view — I already see that starting to happen.
You've cast a number of big-name musicians in your ad campaigns — Iggy Pop, Willie Nelson, Franz Ferdinand, Jimmy Page. Who would you want to have in a campaign that you haven't yet?
I’d love to have Jack White, he’s the one outstanding musician. We have a list of people that want to be in it — we no longer really have to ask because it’s become such an iconic campaign. But Jack White’s one person who is a fan and wears the clothes but he’s never done anything at all connected commercially, so he’s a tougher one to [get]. I think he’s such an innovator and he’s very rebellious. He’s a musical genius and our campaigns have always been about these iconic artists that created their own path, and he’s one of the leaders of all time.
What's next expansion-wise?
More stores. San Diego in a few weeks, we have our fourth store coming up the beginning of next year at the World Trade Center in New York, and by then we’ll be around 26 stores. We’re also going to Palo Alto, so we have those things planned for 2016. Continuing to grow on the global side, we’re discussing stores in the Middle East and Russia and we’re now in Bangkok and looking to expand in the Far East.
Is retail or wholesale growing more quickly?
Percentage-wise, we’re about 60 percent vertical retail and 40 percent wholesale, both growing between 20 and 30 percent a year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Homepage photo: Loreen Sarkis/Getty Images for John Varvatos