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The menswear designer names his style icons, unpicks the bond between fashion and rock music and reveals how he created the famous Calvin Klein boxer briefs
Following a lucky break with Ralph Lauren, American designer John Varvatos was plucked from Detroit and sent to New York. After an emotional departure, Varvatos set up his own menswear brand that saw him fuse music and fashion and become pals with the rock icons he worshipped as a kid. He told Rob Chilton his story.
Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s, whose style did you admire?
Oh man, Bryan Ferry! In the 70s he was the most elegant guy. Everybody else was punk or glam, but Ferry was the stylish guy.
He always has great hair, doesn’t he?
Great hair! That kind of cool flick he has – much different to Donald Trump’s flick [laughs].
What was your childhood in Detroit like?
I grew up in a humble house, seven people, three bedrooms, one bathroom.
When did you start to become aware of fashion?
I was always looking to Britain for style. Most of the artists I loved were English. Detroit was a very non-fashion place but when I got to high school I realised I had a couple of pieces that girls would connect with so it became super important to me. I got a job at a men’s store so I could get discount and buy clothes.
What were you into when you were a kid?
I was a music junkie from when I was very young. During the 70s going to concerts was my big passion.
What kind of bands did you listen to?
Led Zeppelin, Queen, Black Sabbath, The Faces, The Who, Mott the Hoople. There were no ticket services so I would sometimes sleep overnight to buy tickets when they went on sale. When The Faces toured the States they always came through Michigan and played Detroit. I saw them several times and I wanted their flair and their chic. They were fronted by Rod Stewart, of course, and I always thought they were casually elegant, they had a sort of thrown-together elegance.
Did you like rock star style?
I never tried to copy anybody’s look, I would take bits and pieces from different people to create my own style. If I look back on some of my outfits... [laughs]
Did you want to be a rock star?
I played guitar and I was in bands but I was never a great player. Of course it was a dream to be a rock star but you come to realise there were so many other good people out there. I just loved playing and, honestly, I was more connected with the lifestyle and the fashion of music than being a musician. I’m blessed that in the last 20 years I’ve been super connected with the music world. It’s happened organically that a lot of the artists I grew up with have become friends, which is crazy. But I’ve never asked any of them for guitar lessons.
Who’s on your speed dial?
I guess, Nick Jonas, Kings of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page. My phone rang the other day and it said ‘Robert Plant’ – that’s still a cool thing to me. I showed the phone to my wife. I was almost overwhelmed.
Why are music and fashion so closely linked, do you think?
Every musician wants to be a designer and every designer wants to be a musician. Music and fashion are so incestuous, today more than ever, because they’re about attitude, rebelliousness, walking to your own beat and making noise both visually and with a guitar.
Music today is so much about appearance and image. Does that sadden you?
It does, because some of it is just front. But remember, appearance has always been in music. If you go back to Queen, Bowie, Elvis Presley and the Beatles – it was about their outfits and appearance, but also the songs. Today you don’t need the songs so much. Punk had an attitude, so did the 80s, but grunge was definitely not about appearance. I find that a lot of artists today look backward to move forward. Kings of Leon, Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga for example, are all reflecting what has come before.
Do you look to the past when designing menswear?
Yeah, history is interesting. With fashion, it’s all been done before. We dig around flea markets to see how things were made, find the little details and the mistakes.
Are mistakes a good thing?
Yeah, mistakes can be good. Even in my factory, I’ll get shown the prototypes, but something will catch my eye and I’ll say, ‘What’s that over there?’ They might be the rejects, but actually that’s what I want to see.
The John Varvatos brand is so entrenched in rock n roll. Was that always the plan?
When I started the company in 2000, rock n roll was not in my thinking, but it might have been sprinkled in there subconsciously. We had very romantic, beautiful advertising campaigns in the beginning, but in 2005 I didn’t want to do that anymore. I thought, let’s own rock, but in an iconic way that transcends generations. We did campaigns with Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Franz Ferdinand, Ringo Starr. We don’t pay them. The other day Howard Stern was interviewing Ringo Starr on the radio. They’re both fans of the brand and were talking about the clothes. I messaged Ringo afterwards and he replied saying, ‘I’m stopping by the store on Thursday for some free clothes!’
Do you observe current menswear trends?
I think it’s fun and I enjoy watching it, but I don’t think that’s how most guys dress. A guy doesn’t say, ‘This season I’m going to wear this.’ They don’t throw out all their clothes every season and start again. A guy gets his look and evolves it.
When I think of the John Varvatos brand, I immediately think of New York. Are you okay with that?
Yeah, the soul of New York is in there, some of our jeans are named after New York streets. It’s funny, we’re not a very American brand. I feel American, but my brand… not so much.
Most people don’t think we’re an American brand, they think we’re international. A lot of what inspires me does not come out of New York City – things like fabrics, leathers, details – they come from around the world. I think we’re quite eclectic.
What kind of impact did Ralph Lauren have on your career?
Ralph was a huge mentor for me and is a big friend to this day. I had my own store in the mid-west and people from Ralph Lauren HQ would always stop by. They once said in passing, ‘If ever you want to have a meeting…’ One day I thought I’d try it. My timing couldn’t have been more perfect because they were restructuring the company. They flew me to New York and I met Ralph.
How was that?
I was not prepared! He said he liked my style – that never left me. I was 25 and I moved to New York a year later and took over sales and merchandising. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a designer. Ralph always told me to follow my dreams.
Then you left for Calvin Klein?
Yeah, I had a great run at Calvin, four years. One day Ralph called me and said, ‘I love you and miss you’ so I went back. Five years later I told Ralph I was leaving to start my own company – it was the hardest thing. Ralph ignored it. Eventually, after five months, he said to me, ‘I have one question. Do you feel you have something new to say with your brand?’ I said I was confident in my heart and he said, ‘You have my blessing.’
What a moment…
Yeah, it was. At his recent 50th anniversary in fashion party, Ralph said to my wife, ‘John’s doing exactly what he said he would do and I’m so proud of him.’ I got emotional when I heard that.
How did he differ from Calvin?
Calvin was not involved like Ralph. But I can’t thank Calvin enough, he gave me the room to redo the menswear, which was daunting yet exciting. The Ralph brand was very lifestyle, fantasy, aspirational. Calvin was more edgy. I absorbed both.
Last thing: talk us through the creation of the Calvin Klein boxer briefs.
So, we bought some vintage long johns and I was looking at the details, the waistband and the fly. I thought, ‘Let’s cut the legs off.’ Next, ‘Let’s go shorter and add an elastic waistband.’ It all happened in one meeting. We made a prototype and showed it to Calvin who lost his mind. He showed them to [music and movie executive] David Geffen who happened to be visiting that day. Geffen said, ‘I have the perfect person to model these: Marky Mark.’ It turned out okay!
END OF INTERVIEW