Rollo & Grady Interview // John Varvatos

Rollo & Grady Interview // John Varvatos

John Varvatos has successfully blended his lifelong love of music with his fashion career.

He cut his teeth in the fashion industry in 1983 with Polo Ralph Lauren. In 1990 he moved over to Calvin Klein, where he launched their menswear line. For the past several years he has held key design and marketing positions with Polo, London Fog and Nautica. In 1999, Varvatos started his eponymous company, debuting his first clothing line for Fall/Winter 2000. He has received numerous honors from the Council of Fashion Designers: 2000 New Menswear Designer of the Year, and 2001 and 2005 Menswear Designer of the Year. In 2007 Varvatos was named GQ Magazine’s Designer of the Year

John credits rock ‘n’ roll for his early interest in fashion. His first fashion/rock campaign featured Ryan Adams in 2005. John has since showcased in his campaigns Joe Perry, Iggy Pop, Chris Cornell, Alice Cooper, Velvet Revolver and Cheap Trick.

I recently caught up with John to discuss the new happenings with his company, 315 Bowery, which opened in the former CBGB’s, as well as who’s playing this year’s Stuart House event.

Rollo & Grady Interview // John Varvatos

R&G: 2008 was a busy year for you. Can you tell me a little about it?

John: Well, we opened up three new stores – the Bowery in April, in the old CBGB’s location, San Francisco in May, and Malibu in September. So we’ve had three openings, a fragrance launch and a lot of new, exciting things happening with the company. It’s been a very busy year for us all the way around.

R&G:
You generated some controversy when you opened up the store in the former home of the famed music venue CBGB’s. Tell me about that experience.

John: We definitely had some controversy when we announced that we were taking the space. It had been empty for over a year-and-a-half before we leased it, so it wasn’t like we forced anybody out. There were a handful of protesters the first few days we opened, but the controversy went away very quickly. Even The Village Voice was surprised at what we executed in the space. Most of the music world came out and supported us, including a lot of musicians that played there – members of Blondie, the Dictators, Little Steven and C.J. Ramone. We don’t use the name CBGB’s anywhere and we don’t imply that the store has anything to do with it, but we do our best to honor the past. We have a permanent stage set up with an amazing P.A. system, and the first Thursday of every month we have a free concert to promote up-and-coming artists that have a hard time getting labels behind them or the labels don’t give them the money to get out there. We support this through our artist development fund. And all the kids who work in the store are musicians.

R&G: You sell vinyl and memorabilia there, so you consider it a concept store. It’s a lot different from your other locations. How have people reacted to the combination of merchandise?

John: The original protesters complained about how expensive the items are. The reality is that although there are some expensive things, there are inexpensive things, as well. Fashion has always been a big part of the history of rock and roll. A lot of people are interested in the way bands dress and what they look like in their videos and album covers. We haven’t tried to exploit it, but I still have to pay the rent, so I have to sell things. And I want CBGB’s, its history of being a place for artists to get their start, to somehow remain in New York City. That’s why I use some of my profits to support up-and-coming artists. The reason you have your blog is exactly the reason I have that store. Would I love to own a club? Yeah. But for right now, this is what I’ve got. You don’t have to pay to come into the store. You can spend two hours just looking at all the memorabilia and the original walls from CBGB’s, and nobody is going to bug you. It’s like a museum in that way.

R&G: In 2005 you featured Ryan Adams for your first rock ‘n’ roll ad campaign.

John: It came about while wanting to break the mold of what the fashion industry is about. We ran all these beautiful, romantic ads, but I felt that when you open up magazines there are a lot of beautiful ads. I didn’t feel like ours stood out, so for our next campaign I needed to do something different. I wanted to tie it more towards my passion in life, and my other passion is definitely music. I thought, “How do we connect iconic musical artists to our brand in a way that feels real and fun and not hokey or contrived?”

R&G: Were you nervous about trying to incorporate rock ‘n’ roll into your brand?

John: You never know who’s going to want to be associated with any brand, let alone a fashion brand, especially when you start talking about iconic artists. We started with Ryan Adams, and he’s a pretty tough cookie. You know what I mean? He’s not a commercial guy, but he loved what the brand stood for. It was an interesting choice for us. We also thought we had to start with someone who we felt was going to be a future icon. For the second campaign we got Joe Perry. That really gave us another level of credibility because he’s from a world-class rock and roll band and a face people know. When Iggy signed up, because he loved what we’d done with Joe, it allowed us to pretty much shoot anybody we wanted. It’s like when I started the company. You have a passion for something. You have a point of view. You have a direction. Everything kind of evolves. Luckily, it’s gone in a very positive way for us.

R&G: Who will you feature in your spring campaign?

John: We’re using Franz Ferdinand. We decided to flip the switch again. Instead of using older iconic artists, we thought we’d take somebody younger. They’re already recognized globally, they loved the clothes, so it was an easy connection.

R&G: Was it your intention to sign an international band in order to expand your brand globally?

John: Yes, it was a thought of mine. People know the artists we’ve shot – Iggy, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick. I thought if we’re going to go younger, it might also be interesting to find an international band like Franz Ferdinand. We also think they really have their shit together.

R&G: Tell me about your involvement with the Stuart House charity and the musicians associated with it.

John: We did our first Stuart House event in November 2002. When we opened our West Hollywood store I wanted to get involved with a children-oriented charity because that is something very close to me. We started looking in the L.A. area for something that was a good fit for me, personally, and for the company. I discovered the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, which established Stuart House as a treatment center for children who are the victims of sexual abuse. We started the charity event at the West Hollywood store, closing off and tenting our parking lot for an all-day music showcase thing. It’s a very family-oriented event and not some stodgy fashion thing where everyone has to wear tuxedos. You come out and support the charity and at the same time enjoy some rock and roll. The first couple years we had bands like Paloalto, which was on Rick Rubin’s label, Gavin Degraw, Dave Wakeling from the English Beat. And the event has grown so much that two years ago we had Jackson Browne. That got out of control. It shut down all the streets, so a couple years ago the city allowed us to use a bigger tent and close down Melrose to help take it up a notch. To date we’ve had Chris Cornell, Macy Gray and Cheap Trick headline, with special guests like Alice Cooper making appearances. The first year we raised about $80,000 on a Sunday afternoon, and this past year we raised over $500,000. Our goal in the next couple years is to get this thing up to well over a million dollars.

R&G: Who’s playing this March?

John: ZZ Top. We are honored and extremely excited that the rock legends are playing the event this year.

R&G: When we spoke last time you mentioned you were into the Black Keys and Gov’t Mule. Who do you like right now? Do you like My Morning Jacket?

John: I’m a huge My Morning Jacket fan. I’ve been a fan since Tennessee Fire, and I’ve seen them for a number of years down at the Bonnaroo Festival. They’re amazing. Live, they’re an incredible, incredible band. And I love Kings of Leon.

R&G: Your current advertising campaign features Perry Farrell. He seems like a cool guy.

John: I love Perry because when you’re hanging with him he’s the sweetest guy. Then when he gets onstage, he’s another person. He explodes into something else. When he and his wife came to our event in Malibu it was just the two of them and their kids, and no nannies. They like it that way. They like raising their kids themselves, which I give them a lot of credit for. We’re super close friends with all the people that have been involved with our ads. The guys from Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, Iggy and Joe Perry are like family to us. It wasn’t just this marketing thing.