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NEW YORK — John Varvatos, who has built a cult following in men’s wear, is reportedly about to take the plunge into women’s apparel.

Industry sources said he plans to launch a women’s collection on the New York runways in September for spring 2004. Varvatos, who just returned from showing his men’s wear collection in Milan, declined comment on Monday.

This story first appeared in the July 1, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

According to sources, Michael Ward, most recently one of the designers of Etcetera, a division of Carlisle Collection and before that a designer of Anne Klein 2, will work with Varvatos on the design of the women’s collection. Ward couldn’t be reached for comment.

It is expected that Varvatos’ women’s collection would compete with such lines as Donna Karan New York, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

Varvatos’ company is a division of Nautica Enterprises and he is part of its eight-member board. As reported, he is one of two board members whom Barington Cos., a firm that invests in companies it believes to be undervalued and underperforming, wants to unseat at Nautica’s annual shareholders’ meeting July 8. The other is Charles Scherer, managing partner of Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, Nautica’s law firm. Barington wants to replace them with James Mitarontonda and William Fox. Nautica has said it is talking to potential suitors about selling the company, and VF Corp. has reportedly emerged as a front-runner in its desire to buy Nautica.

However, Varvatos’ employment contract with Nautica includes change-of-control payments to him from any new owner, according to a research note by Virginia Genereux, an analyst at Merrill Lynch. In addition, if Nautica chairman and chief executive officer Harvey Sanders is no longer with the company, the Varvatos brand must be sold or spun off, and Varvatos himself may choose to be paid 10 percent of the brand’s net income as long as he is ceo, or receive a lump sum payment of two times the brand’s net income for three years, not to exceed $50 million.

A darling of the press, Varvatos showed his first men’s collection in the fall of 2000. From the start, the collection, which included accessories and footwear, was enthusiastically endorsed by retailers and the press. Dressing such celebrities as Adrien Brody, Brad Pitt, Bruce Springsteen and Brandon Fraser, Varvatos made a name for himself with his sexy and masculine men’s wear, softly constructed blazers, signature detailing, and textured sweaters and knits. The Varvatos men’s collection consists of sportswear, tailored clothing, leather accessories, and footwear. He produces his entire collection in Italy and made his European runway debut in Florence in January 2002.

Last Wednesday, Varvatos showed his spring 2004 collection in Milan with mixed results. A review in WWD’s sister publication DNR on Monday said Varvatos’ design aesthetic lends itself better to fall-winter than spring-summer. DNR felt that Varvatos’ oversized suit jackets didn’t fit in with the season’s shorter, sleeker proportions, but liked the designer’s elegant trousers, blood-orange sweaters and fine goat-suede city coats.

Currently, Varvatos sells his men’s wear to such accounts as Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman Men, as well as Harvey Nichols in the U.K., Seibu in Japan and Holt Renfrew in Canada.

“I think he’s the most important thing to come along in American men’s fashion in ages,” Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, told Menswear, a consumer magazine published by Fairchild Publications, last fall. “His vision is strong and masculine — not outré or provocative.” In the same issue, Dan McCampbell, vice president of men’s merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, said, “Varvatos brings a new modern aesthetic to men’s wear. It’s not just another European collection; it has an American viewpoint.”

Born in Detroit, Varvatos came to New York to join Polo Ralph Lauren. In 1990, he became head of men’s wear design at Calvin Klein Collection and started the CK brand, but returned to Polo in the mid-Nineties when he was named corporate senior vice president in charge of men’s wear design for all Ralph Lauren brands. He eventually left to launch his signature men’s wear line in fall 2000 with partner Nautica. Before the collection even hit stores, Varvatos was awarded the Perry Ellis Award for New Menswear Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in June 2000. The following year, he received the CFDA’s award for Menswear Designer of the Year.

The first freestanding John Varvatos store — a 3,300-square-foot, gallery-like space — opened in SoHo here in September 2000. A second freestanding boutique opened in September 2002 in Los Angeles at the corner of Melrose and Robertson. Plans are in development to open additional John Varvatos stores in major U.S. cities, as well as for retail expansion on an international level.

Last December, Varvatos announced plans to develop, manufacture and distribute fragrance and premium skin care products. The signature line will be launched in spring 2004 in about 500 U.S. stores, including specialty and department stores, as well as in all John Varvatos boutiques.

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