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The Ballad of John Varvatos

The improbable tale of a boy who loved music, wisely applied his late-blooming talents and succeeded beyond his imagination.

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WWD Special Report issue 09/08/2010

John Varvatos could have become the coolest high school science teacher in Michigan. And that would have been a significant accomplishment for a self-made man. But thanks to his fashion sense and his nose for opportunity, Varvatos instead became the men’s wear designer he is, building a diverse business over the past 10 years, and blazing his own trail between the stylistic superhighways of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

 

But as everyone quickly discerns, Varvatos’ first love was music, not fashion. As a young boy, Varvatos, who was born in 1955, absorbed the sounds of Detroit flowing from a small portable radio, and it filled him with a sense of spaciousness despite growing up poor in a family of seven, crowded together in a small bungalow with one bathroom.

 

“First of all, we had a lot of great radio stations. There was everything — Motown, pop, blues, rock ’n’ roll, the British Invasion. My father liked jazz. So even though people think of me as a rock ’n’ roll guy, on weekends I listen to everything. I remember hearing “I Can See for Miles” by The Who when I was eight or something, and I had never heard a guitar sound like that before…. That’s when I really got sucked in,” he said, reminiscing in his memorabilia-packed New York office.

 

His appetite for records and audio equipment molded him into a thrifty and industrious kid. “Every penny I could earn by cutting lawns or delivering newspapers or whatever went to buy record albums,” he said. A bit later he played guitar in a teenage rock band, and when they performed he wanted to dress the part.

 

“Again, we had no money, so I just had a few cool things I saved up for. And when I’d wear those things, I got a great reaction from girls. I got this job at a clothing store so I could get a discount. And I had a real affinity for selling, and for the clothes. So I started putting a wardrobe together, and emulating guys in magazines, and then I started wanting to style things in my own way,” he recalled.

 

When Varvatos moved to Ann Arbor to study medicine and later, secondary education — eventually graduating from the University of Michigan — he paid his way through college by continuing to work in retail six days a week.

 

“I didn’t have the freedom to party in college the way a lot of kids did,” he said. But he kept discovering music. “In college I was into more what we’d call classic rock today, because it was the Seventies. I liked some of the glam rock. Then in the later Seventies the punk thing was coming in, and I really liked that move- ment because I grew up in Detroit with Iggy and The Stooges and the MC5, who were the forerunners of punk. We just didn’t know it was punk at the time. So I already knew that brutal, three-chord sound when it started coming out of the U.K. and the U.S.”

 

 

After graduation, he looked for a teaching job, but found that it didn’t pay as well as selling clothes. In 1980, he partnered in a new store in Grand Rapids, where his then-wife had been offered a job.

 

“It’s still there, Fitzgerald’s. We created a unique store. We carried Polo before it got big. A guy named Lance Isham, who eventually became the president of Polo Ralph Lauren, was my sales rep. And he must have liked me and what he thought I could do, because he asked me, kind of out of the blue, if I would be interested in being a regional sales manager for them out of Chicago. Polo was becoming a really big deal. So I came to New York and interviewed with Edwin Lewis, who later became president of Tommy Hilfiger, and with Peter Strom, who was the president and Ralph’s partner. And they offered me the job. My sales took off; the business was great,” he said.

 

When he got promoted to vice president of sales, he moved from Chicago to New York. “At that point I really got the bug for design. Polo was still a small group of people in a brownstone on West 55th Street. I was involved in merchandising, and going to design meetings, and I thought it was cool, so I took [Fashion Institute of Technology] classes at night in illustration and patternmaking.” He had already learned to sketch from his sister, a gifted illustrator. “I also had spent a lot of time with tailors. If someone ever came into the store and the tailor wasn’t there, I knew how to fit everybody, and I could do basic alterations. I wanted to learn more of that. So I went back to school,” Varvatos said.

 

After a short-lived start-up venture called Keaton Chase, Varvatos landed at Calvin Klein in 1990.

 

“It was so different from Ralph Lauren, which is kind of about excess, because the stores are overwhelming, and the windows are crazy beautiful, and I mean that in a very complimentary way. It takes you on a journey. And Calvin is the complete opposite. It’s minimal and sleek. And those are interesting philosophies to run through your head when you think about life and designing.

 

“Calvin gave me a chance to do something a bit closer to my personal sense of style. He only had a brand called Calvin Klein Sport for men, and it actually looked a lot like Polo. Calvin wanted to shut that down and reinvent the men’s business. We started Calvin Klein Collection for men, and we launched the CK brand to have something more accessible. That was, for me, a big jump. It was amazing that he believed in me to do that, because I didn’t have experience managing that many people or creating a whole new brand direction. He treated me with so much respect. Both he and Barry Schwartz were fantastic. I stayed there for four years. We rebuilt the underwear into a huge business, we rebuilt the jeans into the CK brand, and we built the men’s Calvin Klein Collection,” said Varvatos.

 

Next, he was presented with two options, both of them enviable. He could go to Nautica and start his own collection, or he could go back to Ralph Lauren and head up men’s design. He chose the latter.

 

“It was really decided from a personal standpoint, because I loved the culture there. I loved Ralph, I loved his leadership and vision. I always got along with him great. Peter Strom told me Ralph needed someone young and strong in there. Ralph sat me down and said, ‘I know you’ll be happy here. You can do anything you want in this company.’ And I believed him.”

 

Varvatos stayed five years.

 

 

“It was never totally my personal style, and maybe that’s why I did well there, because my style was more eclectic. But I love what Ralph does. I love that he has such a definitive point of view. I thought he was an amazing visionary, an inspiration, like no one I’d ever been around. He also was tough, but very clear about what his point of view was, and what his handwriting was. When I joined from Calvin Klein, people were glad because they thought I could modernize things. And Ralph was open to that at first, but the reality was, that’s not what Ralph Lauren is. He’d look at stuff and say, ‘But it’s not me.’ So I learned to be true to who you are and stay your path. Preppy wasn’t so big in that period, but look at him today, how he’s exploded and grown and grown. It’s incredible to me.

 

“I was never obsessed with starting my own collection, I really wasn’t,” the designer continued. “I enjoyed designing for other people, and I understood brands well enough to do that. But back in 1999 I was in Barneys [New York] on a Sunday, walking the store in the fall season, and looking at the product on the designer floor. It was Jil Sander, Helmut Lang, Prada. Everything was black and charcoal. And there was so much nylon. And I thought, wow, what a time to try something different. So that Sunday, the switch flipped in my head, and I decided to do it. I decided I would call Harvey Sanders, the chairman of Nautica, who had offered me funding before, because he saw what I did at Calvin and he believed in me.”

 

He entered his office early Monday morning to discover a message from Sanders, coincidentally, letting him know that the offer still stood. They agreed to move forward.

 

But Lauren didn’t accept Varvatos’ resignation easily. 

 

“He said if, and only if, I really had something new to say, then I should do it. I said I did, and he let me go. And he has been so complimenting and congratulatory over time, which is such a major thing for me, from my mentor. The biggest thing I learned from him is to always raise the bar. Always elevate the brand. I have to make this company better every year. Not necessarily bigger, but better.”

 

First, Varvatos got down to work in a little office at Nautica, and starting filling the walls with sketches. After proving himself so adaptable to the visions of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, he created his own concept, a marriage of vintage craftsmanship and refined tailoring for a modern lifestyle.

 

“When we officially launched, we had seven people. Five of them are still here,” he said. The burgeoning company moved into a loft on West 17th Street, in an old perfume factory, and remains there today. “December ’99, we were getting ready to show in Bryant Park. I previewed with Tom Kalenderian from Barneys, and he was so excited. The next day I had Peter Rizzo from Bergdorf Goodman, and he was excited. And Neiman Marcus. DNR came up and gave us the cover immediately, in color. Then we showed on the runway, and we got raves from people like Jim Moore at GQ. It was truly special. I think I was old enough at that time — I was in my 40s — I was mature enough to be able to execute something at the level we do, both from a concept and a quality standpoint,” he said.

 

 

At the outset, Varvatos impressed by launching a complete line that included tailored clothing, sportswear, outerwear, accessories and shoes. He racked up the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s junior and senior awards for men’s wear design in his first two years in business. He opened his first boutique in New York’s SoHo, now one of nine nationwide, which are all decorated with an eclectic mix of masculine antiques and found objects.

 

The company was soon bought by Nautica, which was in turn acquired by VF Corp. In 2005, Varvatos entered into a partnership with VF called John Varvatos Enterprises, where he serves as chief executive officer.

 

VF does not break out numbers by brand, but “since we started the company, we’ve grown no less than 30 percent a year,” said Varvatos. A significant part of that is from licenses, a contemporary second line called Star USA, and an enduring collaboration with Converse.

 

REM/Basecurve is the eyewear licensee. Star USA has Cipriani doing accessories and George Weintraub & Sons doing the tailored clothing. Phillips-Van Heusen just started doing dress furnishings for the designer label and Star USA.

 

Elizabeth Arden acquired the fragrance license in April. The Varvatos fragrance business is said by industry sources to be about $30 million at retail globally. The fragrances are found in about 1,700 doors in 34 countries. A special edition, 10th anniversary fragrance is scheduled for release in October through prestige department stores across the U.S.

 

The Converse contract has a year left on it, and Varvatos plans to add another five years after that.

 

As for apparel, Star USA is in a few hundred doors, and the designer collection is in less than 100.

 

“But we’re supermeaningful in those stores. You go into Bloomingdale’s and look at the amount of space we have. It’s powerful. And that’s our goal, to be important to those stores and to the customer, so the customer feels like they have something special,” said Varvatos.

 

He has made his brand more internationally visible by staging his runway show in Milan for the past two years.

 

And he has increasingly aligned the brand with the music world.

 

“There wasn’t that much rock ’n’ roll when we started, but there was something in every season that went back to my youth. In 2005, after doing a lot of beautiful and romantic lifestyle advertising, we needed to do something else. And my heart said to do something with musicians, although a lot of people had done that before. I said, ‘Let’s do it in a way that’s credible and iconic, that we end up owning. Let’s have someone who transcends generations.’ That really came about because so many artists were coming to us. I didn’t think my clothes were that rock ’n’ roll, which to a lot of people means black leather jackets. If we were all rock ’n’ roll, we wouldn’t have the business that we have. Guys just wanted to dress up in a different way.”

 

They ended up putting Ryan Adams in the campaign, which set a tone. A bigger star, Joe Perry from Aerosmith, followed and raised the bar. Iggy Pop marked the real turning point, after which many musicians (or their managers) sought to get connected with the brand. Campaigns eventually featured Alice Cooper, Slash, Franz Ferdinand and ZZ Top.

 

 

Meanwhile, Varvatos mingled in the music world as a fan and philanthropist. By the time he secured the former site of CBGB, the seminal downtown rock club on the Bowery, and reopened the space as a concept store, he had big-name musical friends in his corner. And the Bowery store, a sometime concert venue that sells vinyl records and audio equipment as well as apparel, virtually changed the complexion of the brand because it enshrined the relationship to music.

 

“We did everything we said we were going to do. We keep the music alive, we support the artists and we use it for charitable things,” said Varvatos.

 

The anniversary ad campaign, a Sgt. Pepper-like collage of musical friends of the brand, included some who had never been previously associated, like Dave Matthews.

 

“Dave Matthews has never done one commercial thing, but I wanted to include him, and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ That’s when I realized we’re credible. And those guys didn’t get money or clothes — not a button. They did it out of friendship and respect. And this anniversary party is the same. People are coming to play on their own time to support and congratulate us. They’re not getting paid.”

 

So far, the lineup for the anniversary bash includes ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Cherie Currie of the Runaways, Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, and more. It will be a late night.

 

And then? Back to business, because there is much to be done.

 

“Last year was a tough year, I’ll say that. But this year we’re running up 23 percent retail comps for the first six months, and our wholesale business is up close to 40 percent. Our bookings for next spring are up in the mid 30s, and Star USA is close to 50 percent up, in bookings. We definitely see retail opportunity. Next year we hope to open three to four more collection stores. In 2012, we want to roll out Star USA stores, and separate footwear and accessory stores because that’s a big part of our business — 25 or 28 percent.”

 

Women’s, which was discontinued in fall 2005, could be relaunched in 2012, he said. “How we do it is another question. Whether we do it vertically or whole- sale as well, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely part of the long-term growth strategy. The international aspect is such a fast-growing part of the business. The Far East is growing and we’re negotiating partnerships there, Canada, Europe. This year is going to be big in terms of putting those things in place. We’re looking at underwear. We’ve had a lot of companies that want to do underwear with us. And I definitely want to do home. We’re very good with raw materials and leathers and finishes. It will happen for sure. And it’s really part of our DNA, ever since we opened our first stores and showrooms. People from the home world say we have a point of view. We’re masculine but not heavy,” he said.

 

While he works his way down this formidable to-do list, music will feed his soul every day.

 

“If I don’t have music playing in here, I don’t work well,” he said. “But more importantly, music was always about the excitement of discovery, and it remains that way for me.”

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