Down-to-earth and inviting: John Varvatos, the man and the brand

The rain falling on the open-air catwalk seemed to complement John Varvatos’s gray palette recently, as the American menswear designer’s spring/summer 2008 collection opened the sixth edition of the Diners Athens Collections InStyle at Zappeion Hall on October 24. «From being nervous at first, it added something unique to the whole aura, like the sky opened up and the gods released the rain,» said Varvatos, Greek fashion week’s official guest, the following day. «I thought, ‘let it go,’ I told all the models: ‘We’re going to have fun with this.’» At the helm of a constantly growing, international menswear brand, Varvatos is a second-generation Greek whose family roots hark from Thessaloniki, Sparta and Athens. Moved by an invitation extended by the Hellenic Fashion Designers Association to show in Athens, his thoughts turned to his late parents and grandparents. «There’s definitely something with the culture,» said Varvatos. «I grew up in a Greek community in Detroit, and I think that there is a humility and a humbleness in terms of how I approach my company and how we design.» Reflecting its founder, John Varvatos the brand, is down-to-earth and inviting, while maintaining an identity of «easy elegance.» Whether at his own stores, upscale US department stores or in 16 countries around the globe, Varvatos’s style includes tailored apparel, sportswear, accessories and footwear. He also designs a boys’ and girls’ collection for Converse. How does the arrival of Tom Ford into the exclusive, high-end end of menswear, affect the field? «I don’t want to be as untouchable as that, I want to be much more accessible,» said the designer, citing 400- to 500-euro suits in the Star USA collection. «Young guys want to wear suits, all the musicians we work with, for instance, the first thing they want is a suit. They might wear it a bit differently, not with a standard shirt and tie. » These days Varvatos is excited about the opening of his new New York boutique in spring next year. The store will take over a space that used to be home to the underground music club CBGB in the East Village in NYC and reveals the designer’s unrelenting passion for music. A die-hard fan of Led Zeppelin and The Who, among others, since the days he was growing up in Detroit, Varvatos now gets to rub shoulders with his idols – since 2005, the brand’s ad campaigns have featured the likes of Iggy Pop, Joe Perry, Chris Cornell, Velvet Revolver and more recently Alice Cooper – the latter clad in a tux and embraced by an anaconda. Besides rockers, the brand is also popular with star actors and sportsmen – from Viggo Mortensen and Ralph Fiennes to Tony Parker. Not bad at all for a young man who entered sales at Polo Ralph Lauren in 1983, and rose to VP for menswear design in 1995, with an in-between stint at Calvin Klein in 1990. «When I told Ralph [Lauren] that I was leaving the company in 1999, he said: ‘OK, the only way that you can leave is if you have something new to say.’» The result was a debut fall/winter collection in 2000, which earned him his first Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) award for New Menswear Designer. Subsequently, he has twice been honored (in 2001 and 2005) and is currently a member of its board. Are these exciting times for menswear? «I think so. In a way, it might be more exciting than women because there is so much more ground to cover that’s been lost over time,» said the designer. «And I think that men are finally coming out of their shells and being interested in fashion, whether it’s a businessman who just wants to know what’s going on, or the really young guy who wants to be aware. In the last five to six years, I’ve seen a big shift. Up until a few years ago, guys had one pair of black shoes and a pair of brown shoes. And they just polished them.» For women Though attempts to develop a women’s department were made in 2003, the collection met with limited success. Plans for a new collection are now in the cards again – partly because the business has reached a level that can sustain this kind of growth. «If you asked me five years ago, I would have said I need to do women because I need it for the business,» said the designer. «Now I feel that creatively it’s something I want to do. And so many women see our men’s brand, the detail, the quality, the personality – there are enough women out there who would like a feminine version, though I definitely don’t want to do masculine clothes for women.» While 2009 appears to be the target year for womenswear, Varvatos and his team keep themselves busy with developing business in markets including Japan, Taiwan and Korea, while contemplating the right strategy for going solo in China. In the last two years, Eastern European countries like Croatia, for instance, have been the fastest growing areas for the brand. Besides the hype, the exciting business prospects, building an impressive music collection and hanging out with the guys who make it in the first place, is Varvatos still getting a kick as a designer? «With all sincerity, it’s my stimulus every day. I never not want to go to work, every day is exciting to me for what we can do next.» Widening distribution, product range The John Varvatos debut collection was unveiled in fall/winter 2000. The brand is currently distributed in 16 countries, including Canada, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Britain. In the United States, the brand is available at five freestanding outlets in New York’s Soho, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Costa Mesa and East Hampton, New York. The collection is also distributed to department stores, including Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. In partnership with Zirh International, John Varvatos launched the first John Varvatos fragrance in 2004. The following year, Zirh International launched John Varvatos Skin, a collection of skin-care products, while Vintage, a second fragrance, was launched in 2006. That same year, John Varvatos introduced Converse by John Varvatos, a men’s and women’s athletic-inspired collection in collaboration with Converse, as well as John Varvatos Eyewear, in partnership with REM Eyewear, a company based in Japan. In Greece, John Varvatos apparel is available at Carouzos outlets, while John Varvatos fragrances and Skin are on sale at selected stores.