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Special Men's Fashion Issue | Metropolis

All-AmericanVelvet

Giving the Basics a Little Swellegance

September 07, 2003|MARTIN BOOE

In the fashion pantheon, designer John Varvatos is the man of the hour. His menswear is often called understated and masculine, but preppy it ain't. The point is an insistent beauty residing in supple corduroy jackets, cashmere pullovers, shearling coats and pleatless, flat-fronted pants. In short, clothing for grown-up guys who don't equate elegance with flash. The New York-based designer did stints with Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, but the Varvatos alchemy of classic forms, subtle detailing and sumptuous fabrics is all his own. Things happened quickly after the 40-something Detroit-area native went solo in 1999: Perry Ellis Award for New Menswear Designer of the Year from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, 2000. Menswear Designer of the Year, 2001. An airy Varvatos boutique opened at Melrose and Robertson in 2002, and Hollywood is big on the client list, from studios to stylists to fans such as Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt and Tobey Maguire. We took stock with an overnight success some 30 years in the making.

That there is a Varvatos label suggests you feel you have something to add to the conversation not being said by Klein/Polo/Nautica/Hilfiger. What is that?

I think we bring in casual elegance, along with great attention to detail and interesting fabrication. It's a mix of old and new. Our shearling coats have very much of an Old World finish, but they're very modern. It's not the Marlboro man. In our suits the fabrications have this vintage feel, but they're very sleek and modern. That's my tightrope, the merger of those two things.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

The clothes are classically based, but there's a twist to them. With guys, you need to be unique enough to interest them, but not scary. I'm aware of history, but I always ask myself what feels new.

What has changed since the heyday of Armani?

Guys are much more style-conscious now. It's not about being a follower, it's about doing their own thing. With television, with movies, fashion has become so much more important. Whether it's style, how their skin looks or going to the gym, they've become much more concerned with their personal presentation.

What men come to mind as great style archetypes?

Cary Grant. He had his own style. In music I think Lenny Kravitz has a great sense of style, but it's not for everybody. Same with Bono. It's generally something that doesn't look that thought out. It's very much our style, which is not to impose a uniform on people but have guys think about being more eclectic.

You once said, "A little clothing knowledge can be dangerous." What did you mean by that?

You have to be careful in thinking you know it all. I like to be a sponge and a student. You can have a great idea, but if you don't know about the details, the fitting, you'll never be a success at it.

Why locate your boutique in West Hollywood instead of Beverly Hills?

We originally were looking in Beverly Hills, but it didn't feel right. We started looking for something a little more neighborhoodish. I liked West Hollywood, where there are also a lot of art galleries and home stores. Our store is set up like a gallery in a way. That's more my own personal style than something in a flashy area.

Why do you think your clothes strike a chord in Los Angeles?

I think the West Coast has this casual elegance about it. A casual elegance in lifestyle, a very easy understanding of it. But casualness not necessarily in terms of weekend wear. It's more in the way people pull themselves together, the way people go to work. Guys want to dress up but not be uptight.

But do people really dress "up" anymore?

A lot of guys want to dress up, but they don't necessarily wear a tie. They like to give it their own spin. They can dress up, dress down, and that's the most important thing in today's world: versatility. Some guys can't handle it, but more and more, guys don't want to march to somebody else's drum.

What would you be doing if you weren't a fashion designer?

I'd love to be an architect. With architecture, it's the way things are finished, the way things are finessed. [It] could be the sleekness of a building, the fine lines, the fine details of it. Not necessarily a literal thing. You don't want to necessarily go out and look at other people's clothes, so the question is how to keep stimulated.

The Varvatos look is often heralded for tasteful simplicity. What have you got against skate punks, rappers, bikers and graffiti artists, anyway?

[Laughs] I don't have anything against them. I think they're coming into the store and buying our Converses. I love 'em!

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