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Men’s Corner: Varvatos to Make Skin Care Statement

John Varvatos will introduce a men’s skin care collection, called John Varvatos Skin, in October, meant to appeal to affluent men.

NEW YORK — Ultra-high-end, designer skin care for men may sound like an oxymoron — but John Varvatos is out to change that.

The designer will introduce a men’s skin care collection, called John Varvatos Skin, in October. Varvatos hopes the 12-item assortment will appeal to affluent 25- to 45-year-old men concerned about their looks, a demographic that’s been helping to drive sales in one of the beauty industry’s fastest-growing sectors.

During a recent interview at his Chelsea showroom here — where Varvatos was juggling preparations for his spring 2005 apparel collection and ideas for an eventual women’s fragrance — the veteran designer said that even before launching his first signature collection in 1999, skin care was on his mind. “I’ve just been thinking about the need for it,” he said. “I watch people all the time and when I’m in Duane Reade, I see guys looking at things over in the women’s skin [care] area. In department stores, a lot of guys are a little uncomfortable going to the women’s counter.”

Within the beauty industry, there’s no shortage of upscale brands catering to men, namely Aramis and Clinique from the Estée Lauder Cos. and Kiehl’s Since 1851 and Biotherm Homme from L’Oréal. In contrast, while a number of designers have men’s grooming ancillaries as extensions of their fragrances, few have attempted to enter the men’s grooming arena with a separate, core collection. At least one recent entry was Jean Paul Gaultier’s Tout Beau Tout Propre, a men’s cosmetics range marketed by Beauté Prestige International, a unit of Shiseido Co. Ltd. Still, that was officially attached to his Le Male fragrance.

“There’s a different customer who is going to buy our product than a Gaultier customer,” said Varvatos. “We stand for such different things that there’s definitely room out there for it.”

Positioned as anything but an ancillary collection, Skin includes seven “core” products: cleanser, scrub, eye serum, facial moisturizer, shaving cream, shaving gel and post-shave cooling gel. There are five more specialty products: Pore Refining Mattifier, Face Revitalizing Gel, Even Tone Skin Cream, Multi Vitamin Facial Serum and a concealer. The assortment will range in price from $26 to $75, making it more expensive than many upscale men’s grooming brands.

Moreover, Varvatos said he’s the first designer to do a men’s skin care collection this complete and technologically advanced, featuring formulations developed by Shiseido. The Tokyo-based cosmetics giant owns 79 percent of Varvatos’ licensee for the line, Zirh International Corp., which introduced Varvatos’ inaugural scent earlier this year.

To be sure, John Varvatos Skin is an uncommon step. As opposed to concentrating on a full-fledged men’s skin care collection, “What we’ve seen with designers is typically they [only] go from fashion to fragrance,” said Timra Carlson, president of NPD Beauty, which tracks sales and trends in the industry. Other observers speculate men’s skin care would be a difficult thing even for a high-volume, widely known designer to do, let alone a young fashion label in limited distribution of about 130 doors worldwide.

In any event, a picture of the consumer who will spend $75 on a bottle of designer face serum has yet to emerge. While the men’s grooming arena is hot in both the mass and prestige markets due to a number of factors — stepped-up vendor marketing initiatives, more editorial coverage of the category by existing and new men’s consumer magazines and retailer support — some marketers contend guys are hesitant to buy expensive grooming products. But others say men aren’t afraid to part with a buck if they perceive efficacy from a product.

It’s the latter consumer Varvatos is betting on.

“[Skin] is really geared at an upscale customer who is already into luxury,” the designer remarked, “the guy who’s very discerning in terms of what he uses. He may be using Neutrogena right now and say, ‘I’m going to try John Varvatos and see what it’s like.’”

Shiseido is known for its strides in research, efforts that have included ongoing collaborations with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, as well as the development of at least one concept that purports to employ the human olfactory system for weight loss. Zirh claims there’s no shortage of technology in the John Varvatos Skin products, which are designed to reduce the appearance of pores, dark circles under the eyes, blotchiness, lines and imperfections — not to mention tighten, even, brighten and soften the skin.

Zirh is in last-minute negotiations with retailers to determine a launch venue for Skin. Zirh president Brian Robinson expects to introduce the assortment in eight to 15 doors initially — either via a launch at one “key” specialty retailer, he said, or by way of a regional distribution model with several retailers in different markets. A deal could come within the next two to three weeks, Robinson said. Varvatos’ four stores in the U.S. will carry the line.

John Varvatos Skin could generate $2 million at retail in its first year, according to industry estimates, starting what Varvatos and Zirh are hoping will be a gradual building process. “Skin care is a slow build,” said Robinson, who also presides over the men’s grooming brand called Zirh and FCUK’s fragrance brand. For Zirh International, the Varvatos brand represents the stratosphere of retail distribution, while the Zirh brand is in limited upscale department store distribution and the French Connection scents are in wider department store distribution.

Plans call for the launch of five more John Varvatos Skin products next year, when the collection could be carried in as many as 80 to 100 doors, according to Robinson.

Varvatos’ first fragrance, a men’s scent that was launched at Saks Fifth Avenue in early March, is reportedly running 66.8 percent ahead of plan on average across Saks Fifth Avenue, Marshall Field’s, Sephora, Nordstrom, Macy’s West and Parisians. While the fragrance was originally projected to do $5 million in first-year retail sales volume, sources indicated it was approaching $2.2 million after four months.

Varvatos believes beauty is an integral part of his four-year-old “lifestyle” label, which, sources estimate, has a total wholesale volume of $30 million a year. He would like to launch his first women’s scent next fall, on the heels of his first women’s wear collection, which is going into stores this week. Varvatos thinks his fragrance and treatment businesses could account for more than 10 percent of John Varvatos as a company by year-end, a number that he feels could grow to represent 20 percent of the business after another four years.

“It’s not about what we call in the apparel industry ‘the stack-’em-high-let-’em-fly philosophy,’ where you just put a lot of goods out there in a lot of stores,” he said of beauty. “That’s not our long- or short-term goal.”

Editor’s note: Men’s Corner is a new regular feature focusing on the men’s grooming market.