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Overnight Success . . . After 30 Years

Fashion industry veteran John Varvatos is debuting strong as a menswear designer.

September 26, 2000|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

For a beginner, menswear fashion designer John Varvatos is having the kind of success that normally comes to veterans. Before the New Yorker had even shipped his first collection of upscale menswear this year, he'd accumulated many of the rewards of someone who'd already been in business for years: press attention, store support and industry buzz.

Last June, Varvatos received the Perry Ellis Award, American fashion's highest honor for newcomers.

"It's pretty nice that we won before we even delivered anything," he said while visiting Los Angeles last week. On the heels of the Ellis award, the designer immediately earned numerous accolades in fashion magazines, his own display space in top stores, and last week, a special party and fashion show for his fall 2000 collection at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills.

There, men equally well-groomed and well-heeled murmured oohs and aahs as they inspected his kitten-soft, six-ply cashmere sweaters and his lightweight New Zealand shearling coats and jackets with just a few edges left raw. They delighted in the details that distinguish his Italian-made clothes and accessories: hand-stitching on boots, 2 1/2-inch cuffs on flowing, wider-leg trousers; suits tailored without extra padding, cuff buttons or welt breast pockets. Neat, minimal . . . and rich. Suits cost between $995 and $1,195, sweaters between $400 and $700; and his shearling outerwear between $1,500 and $2,000.

Earlier this month, he presented his spring 2001 collection in New York, where the menswear trade journal, DNR, featured his paperbag-waist pants on its cover and described his spring evening wear as "the perfect mix of edge and ease." The journal compared him to Giorgio Armani. Clearly, he's in good company.

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Not even today's brightest menswear stars--John Bartlett, Helmut Lang or even Tommy Hilfiger--so quickly won over both the stores and the press. Varvatos entered the market full force, with a complete collection of tailored clothes, casual sportswear, leather shoes and accessories, even his own outerwear. Normally, designers play to their strengths and branch out later. But, said Varvatos, showing a complete line "helps define what the look and personality of the collection is. If I put the guy in somebody else's shoes, it would have a different look to it."

The 45-year-old Varvatos, after 30 years in the creative and business sides of fashion, has a deep understanding of the fashion process, from customers, to stores, to factories, to its designer levels. He's gained experience from his first clothing store sales jobs in high school, to his last--as corporate senior vice president of Polo Ralph Lauren.

He knows his experience will serve him well. Young designers, he said, "haven't lived through the wars. You make enough mistakes and see other people make mistakes and hopefully you learn from those."

Varvatos, a native of Allen Park, a Detroit suburb, also helped Calvin Klein create his menswear business, including the CK division. He's a rarity in the fashion business, where, as in the entertainment industry, youth is often more prized than experience.

"If I can think of any great reason why I'm doing this at 45, it's because I'm confident that I can execute," he said. "I know I couldn't do this as well when I was 30."

After he moved to New York in the early 1980s to work for Ralph Lauren, he took illustration classes at the Fashion Institute of New York, a major detour from his major at Eastern Michigan University--science education. "I really got my true education--hands-on--at Ralph Lauren," he said.

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Now that he's competing for customers against his former employers, Varvatos has an insider's advantage and--with financial backing from Nautica--solid footing. "I've learned great things about those companies, but I also know what happens when you get so big," he said. "And I know the things that are difficult for them to deal with is the loss of control. I don't want to be that big. There is something about being hands-on and close to the product and the customers."

The successful showing of his second collection was critical to his future: "I think a lot of people were watching us to see if we could keep it going," he said. He's moving quickly to capitalize on the buzz. His clothing is arriving in Neiman Marcus and Barneys New York now, and his first store is due to open soon in Manhattan's SoHo. And next spring, he'll present his third collection, for fall 2001, in Milan, alongside the industry's top guns.

Varvatos has managed to find a niche in the crowded menswear field. "There are two looks happening now. There's the modernist guy: Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana. And on the other end of the spectrum are classics like Zegna, Armani and Kiton," said Varvatos, who described his line as a "casually elegant" alternative somewhere between those two.

His sensibility may have been refined in New York, but it was planted in the Midwest, which is why his clothes are made to fit guys "who don't go to the gym every day."

"I look at the country differently than a true New Yorker does," Varvatos said. "I understand the rest of America."

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