John Varvatos doesn't act like a man who's worth a million dollars, nor like a designer who counts rock stars among his friends and clients. Admittedly, his black leather jacket looks expensive and his boots are stylishly worn-in but, other than that, he comes across as extremely low-key – much like the menswear fashion house he runs. The antithesis of fashion designers, who are often aloof and high-strung, Varvatos is easy company and a natural storyteller.
“I remember being asked once [how many shoes] men really need, and I answered that most had a black pair, a brown pair and maybe a trainer, but that I thought that was going to change. Now, guys have closets full of shoes… more than women,” he says.
“Guys care about their personal style and how it reflects more than they did 20 years ago. Since we started, we always said the uniform is dead, men want to create their own style. A jacket that is limited edition and numbered? Guys are excited about things like that,” he adds.
The designer, who has run his eponymous label for 20 years, creates exactly what he wants, in keeping with the life he leads, and other men are snapping it up. In the UAE, you can try on Varvatos's designs at the standalone store he opened in The Dubai Mall in December. With glass panels, double-height ceilings and artfully mismatched furniture, the store feels masculine and looks exactly like the cool, spacious loft we all wished we lived in.
“It’s based on my apartment,” Varvatos explains. “When we came to the UAE, we said let’s take the premise that it’s very warm here, and we don’t want to look heavy. We added bronze and brass that make a statement, but it’s still eclectic, and filled with vintage and custom-made furniture. I wanted it to look like a store of great finds, like you have been touring the world and collecting all these pieces that somehow work together.”
Rising through the ranks
Interestingly, Varvatos built his brand without any formal training. "I grew up in Detroit, the most unfashionable place– it's like growing up in Manchester. It's an industrial, automotive city," says the designer.
"I never thought about fashion until I was in the ninth grade and I got a sweater, and a bunch of girls at school said: 'That's so cool.' That's when it registered. So I started applying for jobs in men's stores, [mainly] so I could get a discount."
After getting a self-funded degree in maths and science, Varvatos opened a menswear store in Michigan with some friends. It quickly caught the eye of industry insiders, including a team from Ralph Lauren. A couple of years later, Varvatos was overseeing the brand's business in the Midwest and soon after he was heading up sales for the whole country from New York.
Despite rising rapidly through the ranks on the business side, however, Varvatos was aware that this wasn't where his real passion lay. "In my new role, I started visiting the design studio, and that's when the light bulb went off in my head – this is what I want to do," he says.
Varvatos promptly started afresh in Ralph Lauren's design studio. "I took a few classes at night in illustration and pattern making," he says. "I already knew how to sew and, long story short, I moved into design and took a huge pay cut."
He moved to Calvin Klein to be part of the launch of the diffusion line CK, then returned to Ralph Lauren, keen to leverage the company's head-to-toe approach to fashion. In 1999, armed with greater knowledge, Varvatos decided it was time to go it alone.
"When I was talking to Ralph about going out on my own, he told me: 'You should only do it if you really have something new to say,'" recalls Varvatos. And the voice that he found was inspired not by fashion, but by a lifelong love of music.
"I grew up in a little house, 800 square feet with seven people and one bathroom, and one way to transport myself was to put headphones on with my little portable radio and listen to music," he says. "I liked Keith Richards's scarfs, I liked Jimmy Page's coat, and I wanted to emulate them."
The style he envisaged translated into brooding jackets, leather coats oozing rock star swag, and trousers that spoke of a life on the road. Varvatos even created his ideal boot. His pieces are cut with an eye for detail, minus the frivolity, and built for longevity using top-quality leathers and fabrics, which earned Varvatos the CFDA Perry Ellis Award in July 2000, followed a year later by the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year.
In 2005, Varvatos trusted his instincts once again, and hired photographer Danny Clinch (who has shot Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among others) to help capture the brand's rebellious DNA, resulting in Clinch shooting Bryan Adams clad in Varvatos's clothes.
A star is born
The moody black and white portrait that followed straddled the worlds of music and fashion, and launched The Music Campaigns project, a roll call of famous musicians modelling for the house, and that is still running.
Plugging into what Varvatos describes as "the masculine part of what we do", his list of subjects reads like a rock 'n' roll hall of fame. Iggy Pop was photographed sprawled on a park bench, Willie Nelson posed with his sons, and Velvet Revolver kicked their way down a street. Alice Cooper, Ziggy and Stephen Marley, and even Ringo Starr, have all featured in a Varvatos campaign, as if posing for an album cover.
The designer was even able to lure Kiss (in full stage make-up) to both star in the campaign and join Varvatos onstage during his spring-summer 2014 runway show in Milan. The most recent musician to get involved? Machine Gun Kelly.
An A-list roster
When the brand outgrew its SoHo store, it took over the space that had been the CBGB club in New York, to the designer's evident delight. "It's dark and it's a club and it's super-cool," he says.
Although transformed into a store, gigs still take place at the venue, now under the mantle of the John Varvatos Bowery Live series, which has seen the likes of Paul Weller take to the stage – 35 years after he first played at the same venue with The Jam.
With so many musicians starring in the adverts, you wonder who on Varvatos's wish list is left to dress? "David Bowie. He was one of my style icons. I thought he was just so cool. I am still heartbroken.
"And Jimi Hendrix. I was lucky to be sought out by the Hendrix family, to do a capsule – not just T shirts or costume. And we did this collection that was not the sort of thing you could wear every day, but it was spectacular. I always loved Jimi Hendrix, I thought he came from another planet.
“It’s funny, but most of the others who were my icons, I have worked with in some shape or form,” he continues with a smile. “Like Jimmy Page, Ringo Starr or Kings of Leon, whom I have known since they were little kids. Jack White wears our clothes.”
Listening to Varvatos rattle off names most of us know only from iTunes is disarming to say the least. Totally at ease in his identities of designer and muso, he pours this duality into his collections, creating sharp suits, understated shirts and no-nonsense footwear. In short, a wardrobe for men who enjoy life, love music and don't take fashion too seriously.
Of course, hearing his tales about his fledgling record label (with none other than Big Machine Label Group's Scott Borchetta, who discovered Taylor Swift) and his favourite bands, there is one burning question: does he regret never pursuing his musical dreams? "I wasn't a good musician," he says in a deadpan drawl. "I played then and I play now, but I don't have a great voice and I wasn't a great guitar player."
For a man seemingly unfazed by limitations, this answer comes as a surprise. But it's safe to say that music's loss is fashion's gain.