Mr honors the game changers, part four, john varvatos

by Karen Alberg Grossman




John Varvatos brings genuine cool to men’s apparel


Growing up in Detroit, John Varvatos has always had a passion for music: his downtown Manhattan office is filled with signed guitars, music memorabilia, photography books and fabulous images of music icons. But unlike many comparably cool fashion designers, Varvatos is soft-spoken, humble, and totally unpretentious. (Proud of his working-class background, he recently took a reporter from the New York Times to visit the modest, 1,000 sq. ft. family home in Detroit where he grew up. After the interview, he treated her to a hotdog rather than a fancy lunch.)

“It’s been a long journey,” he acknowledges, when asked how he got to this point in his career. “I first got interested in fashion in junior high, when I noticed that 7th grade girls paid more attention to me when I wore something interesting. So I did, and over the years, I got more into clothes and eventually took a job at an independent menswear store where I worked through college. (I was premed, intending to go to veterinary school but ultimately used those science credits for a teaching degree.) It wasn’t until much later that I became interested in design and took a few classes (pattern-making, illustration) at FIT while working for Ralph Lauren (where I started out in sales, not design).”

To put the resume in proper order: Varvatos first opened a store with a partner in 1980 (Fitzgerald’s in Grand Rapids, Mich.), then joined Ralph Lauren in 1984 where he became VP of sales, left there in 1987 to found Keaton Chase, a wholesale business where he mastered the art of tailoring. He then joined Calvin Klein in 1990 as head of men’s design (where he learned sourcing, licensing, marketing), and then in 1994 went back to Ralph where he took over men’s design with Ralph’s brother Jerry.

“I had a great run with Ralph,” Varvatos recalls.“He is a true visionary, with an ear to the ground and a pulse on popular culture. He has a broad view of the world, without blinders, but no matter what goes on around him, he stays true to his vision. I respect him tremendously and remain close to him and his family to this day. Although he didn’t want me to resign, he gave me his blessing once he saw my first collection; his approval meant the world to me.”

Although he had never intended to leave Ralph, Varvatos had an aha moment one summer day in 1999 while walking through Barneys. “Everything on the selling floor was black—Prada’s black nylon, Gucci, Helmut Lang—and I knew I could offer something different. So I invested what little money I had (with some help from Harvey Sanders at Nautica) and we started a business. First it was just me, then we grew it to seven employees, put together a collection and staged a runway show in January 2000. For some reason, I wasn’t scared, maybe because I was 43 years old and felt confident about what I’d learned in my career. When you’re 25, it’s about a vision and a dream, but no expertise or practical knowledge. I knew I could execute, and I surrounded myself with people who could execute. I also felt that my design aesthetic—modern sensibility meets old world artisanship—was new to the market at the time, and could catch on.”

Of course, a great marketing campaign featuring fabulous images of music icons didn’t hurt, nor did performances by famous musicians in the stores. Most importantly, although Varvatos doesn’t mention this, these concerts often support social service agencies, defining a designer with a very big heart. (Ziggy Marley recently performed at a West Coast event for Stuart House, which raised $1.2 million toward providing homes for abused children.)

With his extensive collection of vintage guitars, Varvatos admits that he’s not a great musician. “I play, but not really well. I remember the first time I was called on stage to join a band (which happens often), my wife told me she never knew I could play. I told her I might look good up there, but in truth, I turn down my sound and get drowned out by the rest of the band so you can’t really tell how bad I am.”

As the first name designer to support this year’s New York Fashion Week: Men’s, Varvatos is strongly committed to America. “I’d always supported the New York shows, but when the timing was off (too late for buyers to actually place orders), I dropped out. I’m now delighted to be back: as an American designer, it’s important to show in New York.”

Ironically, the idea to re-join Fashion Week came when he was opening his new store in Detroit. “The Detroit experience has been magical: we’ve been so embraced, not just by Detroit but around the country, for doing something good, for trying to help start something. Because that’s why we went there in the first place: to put a stake in the ground and inspire others to open there. And I thought if I can ignite something here in my home city, why not try to do the same in my second city?”

But for Varvatos, the Detroit thing is much bigger. “My dream is to start manufacturing there. They’ve got the will, the drive, the labor force; they just need to be taught. Already, there are amazing young people who started a movement called Empowerment Detroit. They teach homeless people how to sew; they’re making coats that turn into sleeping bags… These are kids in their 20s who started this and already there are former homeless people who now have skills. And jobs… We’re working closely with them and hope to find ways to do some manufacturing there. I’m also hoping to put a recording studio for our new label right in downtown Detroit.” [Editor’s note: his new label with Universal Music has already signed Zack Brown Band (which jumped to #1 on the Billboard charts), Amos Lee, Andrew Watt, Tyler Bryan & the Shakedown, and other promising young talent.]

The Varvatos brand is now in 16 countries (Converse by John Varvatos in 35). Total company volume is half wholesale, half retail; Star USA is 90 percent wholesale, with tremendous growth potential in company-owned stores. All told, Varvatos owns 22 stores (four outside the U.S.), with three more opening this year. Many sell music paraphernalia, audio equipment and vinyl records in addition to apparel. Several have a concert stage for performances; all are designed as much for hanging out as for shopping. Asked about growth, Varvatos projects it will come from company-owned stores, both here in the States (middle America rather than the Coasts) and internationally. International growth will likely be company-owned stores since they’re already in the top 75 multibrand stores. Confirms Lion Capital partner Lyndon Lea, “Behind John’s unique style and uncompromising vision, the Varvatos brand is one of the most exciting to enter men’s luxury apparel in years…we look forward to unlocking the substantial potential.”

With all his accomplishments, Varvatos describes himself as first and foremost a family man. He talks with pride about his wife and three children: a son and daughter in their 20s and another daughter who turns seven in August (ask to see the pictures…). He truly regrets that his parents did not live to see his success.

“Actually my mom got a bit of it: she was still alive when I first won a CFDA award although her health didn’t allow her to get to NYC. But my dad died when I was in my teens and I often wish he could be here now. We had a great relationship but he always thought I was a smartass. He’d probably still think I’m a smartass, but at least a successful one.
“You know, as time goes by, I appreciate my parents more and more. They lived a simple lifestyle: materially they had very little, but their family and friends were everything to them. And the older I get, the more I realize that their values and priorities were right on target.”



John Varvatos Gets Personal

Born: Detroit Michigan, one of five siblings of Greek-American parents
Mentors: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein
Honors: Three CFDA awards in 2000, 2001, 2005; GQ in 2007, MR in 2015
Current acclaim: First name designer to support New York Fashion Week: Men’s
Passion: Music, collecting vintage guitars
Musician friends (a few of many): Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson. Alice Cooper, Ziggy Marley
Favorite vacation spot: Mustique
Favorite movie: Pulp Fiction
Favorite restaurant: Tre Eme, a tiny eatery in a tiny town in Tuscany; Lure Fish Bar in NYC
Favorite food: Mexican
Favorite drink: Margarita
Lessons learned over the years: Humility, patience
What makes him angriest: “A lack of common sense”
What makes him happiest: “Family, especially my 7-year-old daughter”
Little known fact: He started a record company this year with Universal Music


Fast Facts on John Varvatos Inc.:

Brand launched: 2000
Owned by: Lion Capital LLP since 2012, (Varvatos is chairman and chief creative officer)
Sales volume: $250 million (industry estimates)
Aesthetic: Modern sensibility meets old world craftsmanship
Stores: 22 (including the famed Bowery boutique, formerly CBGB, an underground music club)
Collaborations: Converse, Chrysler
Divisions: Star USA (younger, more affordable)