Rock sensibility lies behind John Varvatos’s work: Beker
John Varvatos’s passion for music has driven him from the get-go — a constant inspiration since his early days growing up in Detroit.
John Varvatos is a Greek American men’s sportswear designer who cut his teeth at Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. These “chukkas” in trendy oxblood suede with tire treads, are from his pre-fall Star USA collection, the lower priced line, landing at $225 at Harry Rosen. Snag now to wear late summer with denim, chino or corduroy.
George Pimentel / GETTY IMAGES
Fashion Designer John Varvatos attends the opening of his new Toronto store and the launch of John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion book at the Yorkdale store.
If ever there was a brilliant study in the role attitude plays in style, “Rock in Fashion,” the hip new coffee table book by designer John Varvatos, is it.
Based on a spectacular collection of photographs from rock’s golden age, with an emphasis on the ’70s, this meaty array of imagery is a celebration of the kind of cool many of us aspired to in our youth — still aspire to, perhaps — at a time when music was fresh and raw and not digitally downloadable.
As one of the most successful and arguably best menswear designers in America, John Varvatos’s passion for music has driven him from the get-go — a constant inspiration since his early days growing up in Detroit.
And though he pursued a career in fashion, first with Ralph Lauren, and then with Calvin Klein, launching his own label in 2000, Varvatos’s rock sensibility not only spills over into his edgy designs, but informs his chic style emporiums.
The best examples are his New York Bowery boutique, home of the former legendary CBGB’s club, and now his newest store, at Yorkdale. This is his first shop outside the U.S., and Varvatos says he chose Toronto because it feels more international than any other North American city, next to New York. He’s also always had a penchant for the music scene here, and even dated a Torontonian for three years in his college days.
John Varvatos paid a visit to Toronto recently, and I caught up with him at his new Yorkdale store to talk about music, shopping, and how to achieve rock star style.
What was the first band you fell in love with?
Probably the Rolling Stones. Only because I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show. I was 7 or 8, and my sister was a year older, and she liked The Beatles. I liked them, but they didn’t connect with me as much. When I look back, I think it was because The Stones seemed a little more rough around the edges, a little more bad boy. Something about the music connected with me. It wasn’t as sweet. And then I heard The Kinks on the radio with “You Really Got Me” and I’d never heard anything like that electric guitar. It kind of put a lightning bolt through me. And then it was The Who, with “I Can See For Miles.”
What about the role of image in all this? That’s something that really did escalate with the advent of music television. How did you first become aware of rock imagery?
Our first source for that imagery was magazines. That’s all we had back then. There was a music magazine out of Detroit called Creem, and from the time I was 12 I was addicted to it. Every month when it came out I’d sit on the floor of this record store, Sam’s Jams, and I would study every page, always asking Sam to tell me about the various musicians. And then I’d follow the British magazines, like New Musical Express, and those images were my insights into who these musicians were. Those photographers were capturing something in the moment, something intriguing. Later it moved on to music television, where it became alive. It was the first time that you could really see something move. And those images were on my bedroom walls. Those musicians were my icons: I wanted to look like them, to be them.
Yeah, didn’t we all! But in terms of you wanting to be a designer… You didn’t know at the time that you’d one day want to be dressing these rock stars!
No… I started working in a men’s store when I was about 15 years old. I did that so I could get a discount and buy clothes! My parents had no money, and I did know that a few of things I did get, that had a little edge to them, really did work with the girls, for sure. I’d get a great reaction! And I was a shy kid. So I thought, “Well, if that works … then I need more of that!” ’Cause attention was not going to come because my personality was so outgoing! So I became one of the coolest dressed kids at school ’cause I spent every penny I earned on the clothes. Other than working at men’s stores, I never really thought about getting into fashion. But then I got a job at Ralph Lauren in sales, and when I came to NY and started spending time in the design studio, because I was involved with the merchandising, and started to see how the product was coming together … Well the lightbulb really went off. I was 29 years old, and I finally realized what it was that I wanted to do.
When you look at the eclecticism of style that rock stars had, it’s amazing. But was there one particular iconic rock star that made you think, “Wow…This guy really has it down!”?
Growing up in Detroit, there was a band called The Stooges with Iggy Pop. And they continue to be one of my favourite bands of all time. In those days, they were so against the grain of everything else. But stylistically, both musically and in terms of their persona, they were so different. Then the other one that blew my mind from the minute I saw him was Jimi Hendrix. It was like he kind of came from another planet. He wasn’t wearing a spacesuit but he had this look about him that scared everyone in the music industry… Not that he was scary-looking. But people were afraid that he was taking the baton and he was going to own it. Suddenly, everybody wanted to look like him and be like him and be around him.
Let’s talk about the importance of attitude versus the importance of the actual clothes themselves. What truly does give someone great style?
It’s how people carry things. My first great style icon was Steve McQueen. He wasn’t a fashionista by any stretch. But it was the way he’d wear a suit, or a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt. There was something about the fit… But it’s the way you carry it, the way you walk into a room with it.
You really have taken the retail experience to a whole other level. What’s your philosophy about the fun inherent in shopping?
Everybody was talking about shopping “experiences” for years, but I never thought most of these new stores I was seeing were much of an experience. They were just about buying the clothes. But things changed when we took over the old CBGB’s club in The Bowery and turned that into a store. I started thinking that it had to be cultural, to give you an experience that just made you feel you wanted to be there, no matter where in the world you were coming from. And it wouldn’t bother me if people left the store without a bag. If they went back and talked about the space and really enjoyed it, then I knew I did my job. At The Bowery store in New York, we do live shows, which we’re hoping to do here at Yorkdale as well. We do the shows once a month and don’t charge for them: everyone from stadium artists to young up-and-comers. It’s that cultural experience of turning people on to new things and things that you’re bringing from the past to the forefront as well.
It’s kind of like the way we used to hang out at record stores as kids.
If you had to give advice to aspiring groovy guys out there who want to emulate that rock star vibe, what would you suggest?
First thing, it’s not about how much you spend, it’s about great fit. Whether you spend $500 on a suit or $5000, it’s just got to fit you great — no matter what size you are. If you start with that premise, then it’s finding things that you feel comfortable in. And I’m not talking about whether it’s loose or soft… It’s about when you look in the mirror, if you feel sexy or strong or powerful. That’s really what it’s about. Because if you look in the mirror and say, “That’s not me!” you have to figure out if it’s “not you” because it’s new to you or just because it doesn’t suit your personality. Because the first thing that you want to create is your own style. My key word is individuality. Be yourself. Don’t try to be a mirror of somebody else.