Fashionista contributor Long Nguyen is the co-founder/style director of Flaunt.
Just a few minutes past midnight last night Alice Cooper took the stage and performed his perennial hit "School’s Out," released in 1972. This was just moments after ZZ Top sang "Foxy Lady." Darling Stilettos did the CBGB Ramones classics "Blitzkrieg Pop," and Donovan Leitch--with Camp Freddy and Perry Farrell--closed the show with the Jane Addiction classic "The Mountain Song." And that’s only a partial line up of the rockers that came out to perform in celebration of the launch of Original Moonshine and the tenth anniversary of John Varvatos’ menswear collection at the former CBGB space on Bowery, now Varvatos' store selling his main, USA and Converse collections. Rock & Roll, whiskey and fashion.
Designer fashion requires a narrative--a way of telling a story or relating a lifestyle that the clothes are mere accoutrements. For Mr. Varvatos, it’s his early affection for rock music that has provided the blood that has flowed through his work since launching his first collection for fall 2000. In his office it’s hard to locate a book on fashion, but the piles on his long coffee table include The Illustrated Biography of Bob Dylan, Rock Record 7, CBGB: Decade of Graffiti History and Punk, Made in the U.K – The Music Attitude 1977-1983, Who Shot Rock & Roll, and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals: A View of Other Windows. And off course a tome on The Doors, just to name a few. In reconnecting with his adolescent obsession with rock music Mr. Varvatos gives the brand a soul, or what we call "fashion."
“I grew up listening to rock music,” John told me as I visited him one afternoon to talk about, well, his fashion work. On the walls are two large framed triple gold records that Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin given to him as gratitude for his collaboration. Right next to his desk is more rock memorabilia--a large blue electric guitar from Velvet Revolver. Looking at the books in front of me at his office , and the memorabilia that surrounded me, I realized that through fashion, Mr. Varvatos has finally been able to find the way to express his love and genuine devotion to rock music.
“I bought my first leather biker [jacket] in 11th grade,” he said recalling the days of his youth driving to rock concerts, dressing up just like those rock musicians he went to see. Now, he casts both young talents and venerable rock musicians in his advertising campaigns--Franz Ferdinand, Alice Cooper, Perry Farrell, Cheap Trick, Velvet Revolver, Ryan Adams and even ZZ Top. And he nurtures new bands with the monthly concert series at the Bowery store, the former CBGB performance space.
Born and raised in the suburb of Detroit, Michigan, a city with a long history of music legends, John Varvatos worked at different odds and ends jobs in fashion as sales clerks to support himself through Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan, earning a degree in education. With a friend, he co-owned a store in Grand Rapids selling Polo Ralph Lauren. Having great success with Polo, he eventually joined Ralph Lauren in 1983 first as a Midwest sales representative, then was transferred to New York where he worked in merchandising. Eventually, he moved to the design department. In 1990, he went to Calvin Klein as head of menswear, working on the main collection and launching the CK brand. He returned to Ralph Lauren in 1995 as head of menswear design for Polo and launched the separate Polo Jeans Company.
With the financial backing of the Nautica Company, which he joined in 1998 to head up special projects and the Nautica Jeans launch, he started his own brand in late 1999 and showed the first collection on the runway during New York Fashion Week in 2000. Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys bought the collection. Later that year, the company opened its flagship store in SoHo, the first of nine stores operating today. Today, Mr, Varvatos owned 20% of the company after VF Corporation purchased Nautica in 2003.
A first collection is rarely a definite statement of the designer’s ethos, but Mr. Varvatos’s debut collection runway show was a sure indication of his own particular approach to fashion, or more precisely to shaping American fashion. That fall collection--a loosely fitted charcoal single-breasted suit, a cotton belted parka, a belted wool poncho, double-breasted coats and fine knitwear all worn with flat front pants with flare legs--combined high quality fabrics like cashmere, flannel wool, wool twill, wool melton, and vintage wool herringbone. The pristine manufacturing gave the designer a foundation for a business.
In lieu of making some trendy fashion statements that most designers clamored around, the collection presented choices, concrete choices with the base on a loose silhouette that a customer can pick and choose to mix with their existing wardrobe. That’s a harder road to take in fashion, where the commercial is often shunned, basically an afterthought to spectacular runway shows. Yet Mr. Varvatos persisted with his vision, and over the course of several seasons gained a voice because his singular approach to menswear. At a time when a tight fit and black clothes ruled the runway, he proposed wide legged, loose suits in white, ice blue and light grey in a collection for spring 2003, and a large lapel on a slouchy suits for fall 2005. More importantly, these collections were a base for a building solid business: Today, the label generates over $125 million in yearly sales.
In September 2001, Mr. Varvatos initiated a partnership with Converse, a shoe company that had never worked with designers, to design limited edition Chuck Taylor All-Stars and Jack Purcell sneakers. It became the most successful collaboration for Converse and continued with the best selling lace-less Chuck Taylor in January 2004 and the launch of a full range collection of apparel for Converse in March 2006. To complete his range of products, he added the USA Collection of vintage denim and woven in 2006. Along the way, he picked up three CFDA menswear designers of the year awards and cemented his fashion credentials.
But of all the success, he is most proud of his Bowery store project.
“I remember one time I was at the store last year and there was this kid from Sweden with his backpack who just wandered in and spent an hour looking at the walls, the records, the clothes. And there’s no pressure to buy anything,” John said, mentioning also how he had persisted with his vision for the store when no one in the company saw things his way. Once a month, on the first Thursday, the store serves as a convert venue for bands like Young Lord, Semi Precious Weapons and Michael Monroe. At the entrance of the store is a shrine like-space with three rows of red glass candle holders. The clothes are neatly and discreetly hung on the racks, blending among the artifacts around the store that are also for sale--a shortwave Hallicrafters S-120 radio, a Grade SR 125 headphone, a National NC 125 All Tube Receiver, an area of old vinyl. Above a row of leather and suede jackets on one side and some charcoal suits on the other are walls of old concert posters and films and a framed collage of memorabilia from CBGB. In the middle of the store is a fully-equipped concert stage. These ingredients bring in customers, old rock fans, and just curious on-lookers. If former boss Ralph Lauren owns preppy America, it’s safe to say that Mr. Varvatos now owns Rock & Roll America.
How did growing up in Detroit that affected your sense of fashion? At a young age I never thought about fashion, really other than that I was very intrigued by what I saw on musicians when watching television. Detroit wasn’t an environment that was very fashionable. When I was in high school, I started to think about what I’d wear because sometimes girls would say to me how they like certain things I wear or how this look great. My parents had no money. I grew up in a a very small little house around 900 square feet, with seven people and one little bathroom. I had really no money so I got a job at a men’s store first doing stockroom work and eventually selling. I was able to earn money to buy clothes. When I started working in the men’s store, I really got much more interested in fashion as well.
How did you come up with your first collection? I started the company in 1999, but a few years earlier, I started forming the thoughts. I was walking around Barney’s on a Sunday in the fall of ’98 and at that time it was fashion brands like Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, Gucci, Prada. Then below that there was Hugo Boss. Everything that season was black, charcoal and I felt like men’s fashion was a little bit of a uniform.
It was the era of really big logo brands. Yeah. I felt a little bit like it’s time to do something that isn’t about the uniform, that’s more eclectic, that’s more about helping guys create their own sense of style and personality instead of looking like the look from the ad campaigns. I did something kind of unique our first season, even though we do a lot of black today, at the time I said “I’m going to do the first season, fall 2000, with no black.
Going completely against the trends must have been a very difficult thing to do. I think the retailers embraced the collection because it felt new and exciting to them. We launched really big. I really thought that to have your own voice, you have to do something that’s different. When I hear someone say "that’s very Varvatos" that means we have a look of our own. And in this industry I think it’s the hardest thing to achieve, to create your own personality. At the time pants were getting quite narrow and we started with very wide pants in 2000; I mean they were very wide. Trend isn’t something you would consider when you design? No I mean if it’s something right: if I see you on the street and you’re wearing a certain look and I think it’s a good look. Someone said to me the other day cargo is coming back--it's a really strong trend right now--and I’m like wow we better not be doing any cargo.
Your shows never had specific themes but were always a show about clothes. Exactly. I grew up in a world, especially 8 years at Ralph, where it’s always about a thing. We’re in the Hamptons, we’re in the Bahamas, we’re in the south of France, we’re in—and I always felt like it sounded like you were doing a play. Are you really going to wear that sarong, are you really going to wear that piece, whatever. I felt like if it got too thematic for me, and guys don’t really in general buy into that. It looks beautiful in the store, it tells a beautiful story. It was about great clothes, about quality, great craftsmanship, great fabrics that were well designed but not over designed. In the end, I want what we designed to be in the stores, I want what we designed to be on the streets. So I think a lot about that.
What do you think is like the most important clothing item that a man should have? For me it’s a great fitting suit that’s versatile. Something that you can wear a lot, and that you can throw on with a pair of jeans if you want. You need a great fitting pair of jeans rather than having eight pair. It’s like how women have always zeroed in to what looks great with their butt. Guys are now starting to feel the same way.
Music has always been part of your life, and you’ve worked with a lot of musicians. How does that affect your design? For me, music might even be a little more important in my life than fashion, even though fashion is my livelihood--music in my energy. When I get up in the morning I put music on. When I came to the office here this morning, I put music on. I can’t design without it, it’s like a stimulus to me and an influence in designing my collections. Generally there’s always just a little bit of the rock and roll that I grew up with that I always want to include, but I don’t want to do a rock and roll collection.
What is the rock element? It’s a certain kind of boots or it’s a cut on a suit. Fashion and rock and roll have always been intertwined: they’re a huge part of pop culture, a huge part of society. What got me into fashion was the whole rock and roll mix of music and fashion, and I’m also very lucky that somehow I’ve been able to blend the two in my business without really thinking about it. It wasn’t like I had this big plan to use these artists in my ad campaign, to own rock and roll, to have a radio show,--it wasn’t any of those things. It just kind of organically happened. And I think the reason we have the credibility in the music industry, and even in the fashion industry, is because it’s not fake. It’s not about pretending to be trendy for the moment. It’s something very real, something that's part of my inner soul and the soul of the company that I love and I’m passionate about. The campaign for the past four to five years have always been with rock musicians. But the collection don’t seem to consist of rock derived clothes. How do you reconcile between the image and the products? You can’t just show rock and roll every season because on the runway you have to tell a new story. We don’t just put the clothes on the rock guys for the ad campaign: they’re customers of ours, they’re fans of the brand. I am not designing for rock and roll. What are rock and roll clothes anyway? Black leather jackets and skinny jeans like the Ramones or the grungy mix of vintage clothes? These musicians are actually looking to us--they’re looking to us for what they want to wear. It isn’t the stereotypical rock and roll cliché thing. When we asked musicians we worked with to say something about us for our tenth year anniversary, from what we got back, we realized how we’ve influenced their style.
So your fashion is now changing the style of rock musicians? I think about how at one time they influenced my style, but today we’re influencing them. Even young bands like Kings of Leon and those kinds of bands, they don’t in their mind have a preconceived idea that it has got to be about torn jeans and leather jackets. They want to wear a suit, but it has got to be the right cut, it can’t be the suit their father wore. If you look at those campaigns, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, Joe Perry all those people--they’re all wearing suits. ZZ Top put some leather jackets on, but they’re like dressed up suede jackets and a topcoat. For the campaigns, it’s what they want to wear. It’s not me forcing my look on them; most of those people have come to us first.
So they are coming to you now? Lenny Kravitz is a big customer of ours. There’s a part of what we do that he’s never going to wear, but he edits it down to this group of coats, and suits, and leathers. Today musicians are looking to us for another way for them to dress because they’re also tired of the same old stereotypical rock and roll style. When young bands come into your store and want us to dress them for their tour, the first thing they want to get is great fitting suits. You think they’re looking for jeans and leathers and tees; they don’t care about that. Plus they’ve worn that already. Bands like the Killers don’t want to be the cliché rock and roll guys.
In the ten years that you’ve done menswear, how do you think men’s fashion has changed? Menswear changes in an evolutionary not a revolutionary way. Now more guys are interested in fashion than there were in 2000. In 2000 there were definitely more guys than in 1990, but in 2010, that’s an evolution. In the last ten years guys have tons of shoes in their closet, ten years ago they had a black pair and a brown pair.
Are shoes an important item in men’s wardrobe? It’s one of the most important. Why is that? Maybe men are following women. A right shoe can change their whole look--they can wear the same pair of boots or sneakers with jeans or a suit. And the rules aren’t strict like they used to be.
How has your company changed in the last ten years? How has the company adapted to all the changes--the recession, the internet? We have Collection being the best, better being Star USA, and then Converse being good. But beyond that, the second season we were in business, there was 9/11: we had the recession, we’ve had wars, we’ve lived through a lot and as you say the whole growth of the internet, and social media, and everything else. We’ve been lucky that through all of it, we’ve continued to grow very nicely. Most brands don’t make it ten years in the fashion world. I think we’ve stayed true to who we are. How did your involvement with Converse come along? It started with shoes in 2001 began selling a limited collection in 2002.They had never worked with a designer before, and they saw my respect for old world, heritage, pop culture, and my affinity to music. Now we’re in our eighth year working together. It’s definitely the most successful collaboration ever in the footwear industry.
So you are taking their traditional shoe and updating it every single time, and evolving within a traditional form? It's called respect. Respecting the integrity of the original product--Chuck Taylor, Jack Purcell or whatever,--and now making it your own. And sometimes that’s more difficult than designing something totally new. We created the laceless sneaker, which sold 4 million pair in a year. As a kid I wanted to wear that shoe without laces. I sat in the design studio one day and sewed in some elastic. Sometimes it’s those little things that no one else really thought of and it’s truly been like a mark for what we’ve done in the industry too. The Bowery store is sort of like a special vision for the company, not just selling the clothes, and collection--I found records, I found books. And you try to preserve the atmosphere of the old club that was there? I was a fan growing up of CBGB’s. I think it closed in 2006 or 2007. One day when I was over in the neighborhood looking at something else, and I walked into the space with the landlord and everything had been torn out. The stage it was just raw space. I still felt that there was still a soul living there. You preserved the walls as they were. So the idea was to create this cultural space that of course it has to be commercial enough, you have to make money. We sell clothing, we sell both new and vintage clothing, we sell vintage audio equipment, vintage vinyl records, books, but you don’t have to spend a penny.
Management didn’t think the store is a good idea, the neighborhood’s not developed, its too close to our SoHo store. I listened, which sometimes I don’t do, and I always try to be democratic but I can’t always be democratic. We had the opening show and all the artists came out and played. Now we do free shows at least once a month in there like Semi Precious Weapons. The reason it works really is that is has that soul. You can’t fake what happens when Guns & Roses showed up. I think there were definitely some doubters in the beginning, a fashion company taking over CBGB, but not anymore. You do it with convictions, not because it’s trendy. When we do these shows on Thursday nights we do it for the fans. You don’t have to be a customer of ours; we love doing rock and roll music. To see Michael Monroe for free with free drinks; how much better does it get than that?