For a designer as calm and collected as John Varvatos — a big fish in that littler pond of men’s wear?— picking this moment to jump into the ocean of women’s wear seems about as well calculated as swimming naked with sharks.
The 49-year-old designer was already a seasoned hand, with experience at Polo Ralph Lauren and CK Calvin Klein, before he launched his signature label in 2000 in partnership with Nautica Enterprises, and he shot to fame in men’s wear right off the bat. With his down-the-middle formula of classic haberdashery spiced up with a minute dose of fashion-forwardness, Varvatos won two consecutive men’s wear awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, beginning with his very first collection. He seemed to be on the fast track for expansion, one that already encompasses four stores across the country and prime real estate in the best department stores.
The designer has continued to rack up a series of accolades, as he’s dressed every top male celebrity from Tom Cruise to the future Mr. Demi Moore. Along the way, he’s been pulling a soft tease about trying his hand at designing for their wives. But instead of throwing a few women’s looks into a collection here and there, or testing them in his stores, as is the norm, Varvatos is launching a full line during his runway show on Wednesday.
The launch comes at the same time that his company’s very future is, to put it lightly, in limbo.
Last July, Nautica was acquired by VF Corp. for $586 million, a deal in which the mass apparel giant was looking to attain Nautica’s retail omnipresence in men’s, but not necessarily Varvatos’ designer cachet or the expense of running a high-end business. Within weeks, the publicly traded companies announced that VF would be looking at offers for the Varvatos brand and later acknowledged that the designer himself — along with Harvey Saunders, the former chief executive of Nautica — is a potential buyer.
VF also has since said it will stop producing Nautica’s women’s apparel, just as Varvatos is getting into the game.
During an interview at his Chelsea headquarters, the designer expressed no concerns that the dealings to separate Varvatos from VF would have an impact on his plans to expand his collection, which, sources estimate, has a wholesale volume in men’s of $30 million a year. Within a few seasons, Varvatos expects women’s wear will be even bigger than his men’s wear.“This is really more about the changing complexion of what we’re doing here,” Varvatos said. “I think it would work better as an independent company. And it’s a pivotal point for me in a designer industry where women’s really drives the bus. I’m at the point where I want to take this company to the next level.”
The launch of Varvatos women’s wear is widely anticipated, with enthusiastic support from retailers like Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue, where Varvatos is the top-performing designer vendor on its men’s floor. His success is largely a result of an aesthetic once described in The Financial Times as being “for men with a low fashion threshold.” He describes his formula as “interesting but wearable.” Most designers wouldn’t want to be described in terms quite so dull, but Varvatos is a designer who knows what actually sells — blazers, textured knits and softly constructed suits where the fashion is to be found in the details — lessons the Detroit native learned upon his arrival in the back rooms of Polo Ralph Lauren in 1983.
In 1990, Varvatos became head of men’s wear design at Calvin Klein Collection and later started the CK brand. He was recruited back to Polo in 1994 as corporate senior vice president in charge of men’s wear design for all Ralph Lauren brands, and stayed there until forming his company with Nautica. In the process, he secured for a contract with several protections in case Nautica ever changed ownership, ensuring him a payout worth as much as $50 million, according to financial filings. He also is launching a men’s fragrance in the next few weeks with Zirh International, followed by a skin care line in about 500 doors in the coming months. Women’s beauty products are not likely to be far behind.
With the addition of a women’s collection, Varvatos could quickly become a credible lifestyle brand rivaling those of Klein and Lauren. Despite his experience at those houses, the designer stands in contrast to his former employers largely in that the most intense thing about Varvatos is his calmness, which is reflected in his clothes. His style is the extreme opposite of someone like Hedi Slimane, another big name in men’s wear now, keeping his silhouettes loose and masculine, rather than skinny and androgynous. His are clothes for the average guy, one just like Varvatos, who has two kids and lives uptown.“On one end of the spectrum, I’m very laid-back, but on another, I’m very…well, someone told me yesterday over drinks that I’m driven, but driven is a funny word,” Varvatos said. “I’m not looking to conquer anything, but I am passionate. I love what I do and I’ll never put out a collection where I just let a team of people do it and I put my name on it.”
Approaching his first women’s collection has freed up Varvatos to experiment a bit more with fashion than he has in the past. Women are already among his biggest customers, putting their boyfriends or spouses into snugly port-colored velvet blazers and cashmere sweaters, and frequently asking Varvatos when he would design for them. But it was a key point to the designer that whatever he came up with for women would not be simply a modification of how he designs for men. It should have its own look, he theorized, yet one that still reflects his signature.
“The handwriting is unmistakably John Varvatos,” he said. “But it doesn’t look like men’s wear at all. There’s been very little influence from the men’s collection, other than all the little details and the types of fabric, which is something that we spend so much time on. I’ve missed the freedom of working on women’s wear. The walls are much closer in men’s.”
Varvatos began conceiving the collection, originally planned to debut only in his signature stores, while sitting in front of his Mercer Street store last summer, watching women walk through SoHo. These women, creative thinkers “with the freedom to mix it up,” became his inspiration, leading Varvatos to call the collection “The Streets of SoHo.” As he will show both his men’s and women’s collections on the same runway, it is interesting to note that in the end, Varvatos felt his men’s wear was more influenced by the women’s design, rather than vice versa.
He described the collection as “feminine and sexy, but with mixed elements of rustic and refined, as well as modern and vintage.” Varvatos developed several fabrics and paisley prints for the season, as well as interesting finishes for silk charmeuse and shearling made to look somewhat vintage, but with a contemporary silhouette. He also focused on the details, much as he is known for in men’s. There are unusual linings, antique chain hooks along the necklines and embroidery or rickrack sewn into a jacket’s lining —?all details that will be invisible to a runway audience.“It’s not something obvious,” Varvatos said. “But this gives us our stamp. I make beautiful, simple things that are not overdesigned. They are very wearable, but have a fashion edge to them, it’s a modern edge with a vintage twist that gives us our own look, and whether you like it or not, that’s the most important thing. The biggest compliment to me is for someone to say that it looks very John Varvatos.”
Although he may be somewhat modest in describing his impact, the red carpet would tell a different story, where Adrien Brody, Brad Pitt, Bruce Springsteen and Brendan Fraser go on about Varvatos as much as they do Armani or Zegna. His women’s wear, with a strong component for evening, is likely to follow suit. Much of his celebrity following stemmed from the 2002 opening of a signature store in West Hollywood, which will be refitted to accommodate his women’s wear. (In New York, Varvatos is looking for a location to open a women’s-only store, probably in SoHo and definitely downtown.)
“We’re never going to be the JLo brand, and by that I don’t mean like her collection, but what she’s going to wear to the Oscars,” Varvatos said. “There’s a lot of beautiful women out there who want to look sexy, feminine and new at the same time. We were going to do just a small, tight collection for our own stores, and then it just evolved and turned into a monster. It’s definitely a bigger part of what we thought we would be.”
Much of the collection has already been edited out of the designer’s show — for both efficiency’s sake and to make a coherent story — but Varvatos said he will maintain an equal focus on his men’s designs, which he feels have improved significantly as a result.
“I’m so comfortable with my handwriting in men’s wear,” he said. “I know where I’ve been and what I’m not, what I’m happy with and what I’m most proud of. I’m looking at women’s as a breath of fresh air. I needed to be more open in men’s, as well. There’s no reason to compromise right now. While we have this opportunity in front of us, we’re going to make it work.”
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“Azzedine has been one of the biggest influences in my life. He has always been such a strong, loving, fatherly figure to me. I call him Papa. His designs are indescribably unique, they are pieces of art. He knew how to make the female form look its loveliest. I have so many memories of him; my favorite might be during my first show with him in Paris. He liked me and he wanted to help me get more work. He called all his friends at Kenzo and Comme des Garcons, and asked them to book me. They said, ‘But she can’t walk!’ And he said, ‘but she has such a great ass!' His friendship and support has been the great privilege of my career. I can't imagine life without him. Repose en paix mon Papa.” - @stephanieseymour tells @wwd. #wwdfashion (📷: @steveeichner) #alaia #azzedinealaia
Azzedine Alaïa, flanked by two of his closest friends, models Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell.
He designed Seymour’s dress for her 1995 wedding to Peter Brant, and treated Campbell (who famously called him Papa), like a daughter. For more on the legendary designer, tap the link in bio. #wwdfashion #alaia #azzedinealaia