NEW YORK — The secret to success is to stay true to your own unique DNA and not be swayed by the whims of fashion.
That’s been the path John Varvatos has followed for nearly two decades since launching his eponymous brand in 1999.
In a conversation with Nick Sullivan, fashion director of Esquire, at the Fashion Group International’s Tastemakers breakfast at the Cosmopolitan Club here Tuesday morning, the designer said: “Brand DNA is everything to me personally. There’s fashion and then there’s style. Fashion is more immediate and of-the-moment, but style evolves and matures. I look at what we do as evolutionary, not revolutionary.”
In fashion, he said, many brands burst onto the scene, make a major splash and then burn out. But to survive and prosper in the long term, they need to stay true to their core mission and not alienate the customers who are drawn to their aesthetic.
“When you create product, hopefully you build a client base that has some loyalty,” he said. “My job is to continue to deliver interesting product that will compel them to spend their money.”
Varvatos said the fashion industry is a very different animal than it was when he started out. “It’s an interesting time and there are more choices than ever,” he said, pointing to not only brick-and-mortar but online and digital options. “The choices are huge and the bar in fashion is being raised because of that.”
When he started out, he said the industry “almost seemed easy” in comparison. “Everything wasn’t immediate,” and things that happened in London or Shanghai took a while to make their way to the U.S. “Today, before you see the playback of your own show, there are tens of thousands of posts.”
This speaks to today’s consumer’s “hunger for content,” and brands need to answer that call.
“We don’t know where it’s going, it’s a journey and we’re rediscovering every day,” he said.
The explosion of data has also changed the industry and can provide brands with a lot of information about what consumers are responding to. But while Varvatos appreciates the value of data, “gut is still important” in fashion, he believes. “You need to be brave and not just follow a rule book. You need to make your own rule book. There needs to be a balance between data and gut.”
With prompting from Sullivan, Varvatos also told some entertaining stories about how he got into fashion, his love of music and how he has blended the two in his business.
The Detroit native said he grew up in a small, three-bedroom bungalow where seven people vied for one bathroom. To escape the family chaos, he went to the basement, put on headphones and listened to music to “transport me to somewhere else.”
He took a job in a local men’s store so he could “look good for the girls.” When they complimented him on his outfits, it was “like an addiction” — one that has lasted to this day.
He was eventually talked into opening his own men’s store in Grand Rapids, Mich., and “became obsessive about creating style for the store.” This led to a fateful phone call from a young Ralph Lauren who offered Varvatos a job — first in sales and eventually in design.
He worked for Lauren for several years before joining Calvin Klein, where he is credited with creating the jersey boxer brief for the brand. Varvatos related how he used to visit flea markets and collect “old underpinnings” for research. One day, he cut the legs off a pair of long underwear and said, “I think we’ve got something here.”
Calvin Klein agreed and brought his friend David Geffen in to ask his opinion. It was Geffen who suggested Klein hire a young rapper, Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg, to model the underwear. “It was history after that,” Varvatos said.
In addition to helping put Calvin Klein underwear on the map, Varvatos is also credited with embracing one of the industry’s first collaborations with Converse. He said the shoe brand reached out to him as part of its reinvention campaign to create a “halo” product for its signature sneakers. While remaining respectful of the brand’s heritage, he designed some updated products that included the first laceless model. Although he got pushback, he said, “Humor me.” And it worked. “It sold out immediately,” he said, adding that the collaborations with Converse lasted 15 years.
Varvatos’ longtime love of music has also become part of his brand DNA. In addition to a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic in the collection, he has become known for hiring rock stars to be featured in his ad campaigns, has started his own record label and is working on a documentary about the punk rock era.
And he also insisted on taking over the former CBGB nightclub for a John Varvatos store. “It was the most famous music club on the planet,” he said. After it closed, the landlord was close to renting the property to either a bank or a restaurant. Varvatos was horrified at the thought of losing such an iconic spot and told his then-owners VF Corp. that he wanted to open a store there instead — one that would retain much of the heritage of the famed music hall.
The VF executives were not in favor of the move, saying the Bowery location was “undeveloped” and not right for the brand.
Varvatos wouldn’t back down and said he was “laying on the railroad tracks for this one.” He won and soon “opened a store that honored the history of the place.”
But for the designer, it represents more than just a historic venue. It also marked a turning point for the brand — one that is still relevant today. “It changed so much for me personally and my brand,” he said. “It changed the path of what we were.”