In John Varvatos’s world, music and fashion combine to create a lifestyle brand for those about to rock.
by Deborah L. Martin photography by Andrew Matusik
JOHN VARVATOS IS A ROCK AND ROLL guy, and he arrives at his Bowery flagship store
for our 8 am call time looking the part: skinny jeans, leather jacket, stone-cold stare. It’s clear that he hasn’t been in the store in a while and he busies himself with his team, doing some merchandising. “I don’t want these shirts like this. People don’t shop this way.” He’s walking around the store doing something that people who know retail understand. He is shaking things up. When we sit down to talk, I nd that this is a phrase he uses often, and it’s something he is proud of. “In my company, we hire a lot of young people, in the design studio, in sales, in the stores. It’s inspiring to be around. I’m someone who loves change and I’m so in there with them. I just want to shake shit up. I say it all the time, it’s in my DNA.”
As it turns out, the stone-cold stare is the public face, and behind that is a warm, funny guy who is a bit verklempt, and grateful, for the way his life has turned out.
John Varvatos the brand, and John Varvatos the man are both known for their rock and roll edge—from the musicians who have appeared in his ad campaigns to the New York flagship location in the former home of CBGBs, Varvatos has managed to weave his passions together in a way that eschews the normal ebb and ow of “fashion.” He says, “Music was my energy force as a young kid growing up in Detroit, in a 900-square-foot home with seven people. My escape was to put my headphones on—it transported me someplace else.” That love of music is the baseline for everything he does.
“I don’t really use the word fashion,” he says. “I talk about style. Our designs are inspired by my sense of rebelliousness and toughness, which is what rock and roll stands for.” He knows his customer. “Our guys range from Wall Street and business people to music artists, but they all have that creative bone.” He continues, “We don’t think about fashion of the moment. For me, style is more timeless. Our customer doesn’t need something obvious. They are the anti-obvious.”
And what about those musicians?
“They are probably the smallest part of our business, but thank goodness we have them, because they add a cool vibe.” Varvatos has called on some of those rockers to star in his ad campaigns. “All those people have become friends. They do it because they want to be associated with the brand. There’s no real money of any consequence attached to it, but they like the association, they like me, and we have a relationship. Like anything else, it has to be good for everyone. and it is good for them, as well.”
The list of names who have appeared reads like a list of inductees at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ziggy Marley, Ringo Starr, Kiss, Iggy Pop, Chris Cornell, Alice Cooper, Dave Matthews, Questlove, ZZ Top, Jimmy Page—the star-studded roster goes on and on. Varvatos says, “The guys from Kiss invited me to their farewell tour, and it’s the friendship that’s important. The thing I’m proudest and most humble about is that they consider me one of their own, and not just some fashion guy that’s trying to get rock stars to be in his ads.”Varvatos isn’t just “some fashion guy.” He started in Midwest sales for Ralph Lauren in 1983, and moved his way up the ladder, eventually taking a design post in New York. In 1990, he joined Calvin Klein, where he launched the menswear collection, the cK brand, and the hugely successful underwear line, in the process gifting the world with Mark Wahlberg in boxer briefs (which he invented by cutting the legs o long johns). After a short stint at London Fog, he rejoined Ralph Lauren as vice president in charge of men’s design for all Polo Ralph Lauren brands. In 1998 he joined Nautica Enterprises, who agreed to back his own brand, which launched in 1999
“These were great learning places for me.
I’m still close with Ralph and Calvin, and they respect what I do. When your mentors give you cred, it’s a humbling thing.” He chokes up a little when he says, “My wife ran into Ralph in the park and he told her, ‘I’m so proud of John, he really did what he said he was going to do.’”
He views the brand as a culture, and the Bowery store—once the site of one of the most infamous clubs in music history, CBGB & OMFUG—is a big part of that culture. “We are really thrilled with the people who come to visit the store because of its history. They want to come in and hang out and it’s all about the culture. That’s why we do concerts in the space. We clear out all of the clothes and turn it into a club again.”
In addition to the clothing, there is also the punk documentary produced with Iggy Pop, a music label, the annual Love Rocks concert for Gods Love We Deliver, relationships with AMFAR and Stuart House in LA, and a brand new tequila launch with friend, Nick Jonas. “I started the music label about four years ago, with Universal and Republic records. We signed the Zac Brown Band, and we had a multi-platinum album right out of the gate.” After leaving Universal, Varvatos teamed up with Scott Borchetta and created Big Machine John Varvatos Records. The label’s first band is a young group called Bad ower. Varvatos says, “They are one of the most incredible bands I’ve heard over the last 10 years. I was in LA in the spring and the kids were lining up for four hours before the show because they wanted to get the best place in the theater. When I saw that I had goosebumps. For me, it’s about helping young artists and their voice.” The label has just added another band out of Wales called Pretty vicious.
Varvatos friendship with Nick Jonas goes back to a dinner party where they were seated together.
“We realized we had a lot in common, including a love of tequila. The next day he called me and said ‘I’m in the recording studio and I’d like to play you some of the new music.’ When I got to the studio, there was a bottle of tequila sitting on the soundboard. For the next few hours, we drank tequila and talked about life.” The friendship developed into a fashion and fragrance collaboration and just this summer, villa One tequila was born. Varvatos says, “I’m proud of it, and of my friendship with Nick. He’s half my age but he has the heart and soul of someone who is much older.”
The success of the brand, and his passion for music have taken him on a wild ride. “To quote the Grateful Dead, it’s been a long strange trip. It was never a plan.
I wanted to be a musician but I wasn’t a good musician, I didn’t have a great voice. But I lived through the music and organically this happened.” He continues, “We didn’t even talk about rock and roll when we started the brand. And then suddenly Jimmy Page is calling and telling me he’s coming to New York and says he loves my stuff and wants to meet up. These people become friends because we have a similar core ethos.”
Varvatos is at the top of his game, enjoying the adventure, challenging himself and his brand. “Success isn’t just about the product. It’s about what you do that’s different from the rest. If you don’t do something different, there’s no reason for being. I am so blessed. I get to do all of these cool things that I never could have dreamed of as a kid. I’m so blessed.”