Next week, when his men's collection hits the Milan runway, New York designer John Varvatos will be firing the opening salvo in a bid to make his rock-flavored label the next American lifestyle brand to go global. In nine years, he's managed to make fashion safe for men, invented the laceless Converse Chuck Taylor slip-on and turned New York's CBGB nightclub into a clothing boutique. To paraphrase the Talking Heads, who got their start in the same 315 Bowery St. space where Varvatos now sells suits, "And you may ask yourself: Well, how did he get here?"
The answer can be found amid the record bins at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. That's where the jet-lagged designer lingers on a late fall afternoon, elbow deep in the racks of records, wearing a leather jacket with a messenger bag slung across his chest. In the pause between his brand's launch in South Korea and a star-studded charity bash to mark his new Malibu outpost, the 53-year-old menswear designer is off the clock and on the hunt for vintage vinyl.
"This is the best record store in America," Varvatos says. "I get to Los Angeles about six times a year and try to get in here every time." One of his coolest finds came two visits ago when he snagged the original Columbia acetate and first pressing disc of Steve Winwood's "Arc of a Diver." "I got it for something like $150. It was ridiculous."
Varvatos is known to spend hours at Amoeba, and on occasion he's bought so much there that his West Hollywood boutique has had to box up the haul and ship it home to Manhattan. The passion that finds him flipping through racks of second-hand albums like "Mr. T's Commandments" and "Concerts for the People of Kampuchea" has done much more than build a collection of nearly 7,000 vinyl records, 15,000 CDs and 35,000 MP3 tracks.
He's made musicians and rock stars the core of his advertising campaigns, and the rock aesthetic is the foundation of his menswear. Last April, he added the ultimate piece to his music collection by opening in the former CBGB space, where his clothes are displayed among vintage books, high-end stereo equipment and a preserved wall of the original club, covered in tattered band fliers. Leveraging his love of music has helped him sell a reported $80 million worth of John Varvatos-branded clothes, shoes and accessories at retail last year alone, reaching an astonishingly broad base that reaches across generations from Zac Efron to Ian McKellen.
"His collection hits a really wide demographic," said Alex Carapetian, a buyer at Fred Segal Man in Santa Monica, which has a JV shop-in-shop. "From the younger kid who's not really snobby and doesn't really care what label he wears, to the old-school '80s-dude rock fans who come in here and reminisce about all the concerts they've been to."
By tapping into their inner guitar hero, Varvatos has managed to make runway fashion safe for regular Joes. The message is simple: You may not be a tuxedoed Alice Cooper kicking back on a Hollywood Hills couch with an anaconda on your lap, but you don't have to be. Let the rockers be the fashion leaders -- it's enough to be fashion-conscious and pick up a few style tips from them along the way.
"Every guy has a rock-god fantasy," Varvatos says from the Amoeba aisles. "I just dial into that." That's why Perry Farrell is the face of the current season, and indie Glaswegian rockers Franz Ferdinand will don John for the upcoming spring/summer campaign.
Varvatos is certainly not the first to leverage music into menswear, but his appeal lies in the deft way he layers the rock riffs, melding them with other inspirations (military, bohemian, Edwardian dandy) along the way. Instead of cartoonish leather jackets and shredded jeans, it's a subtle influence. The wide collars on a white, double-breasted jacket bring Elvis to mind; a black jacket with military braiding hints at Hendrix.
Suits can be rock-star slim or flare dramatically at the ankle. Chunky cable-knit sweaters sport horn toggle buttons. Otherwise staid-looking jackets kick it up a notch with asymmetrical closures. His color palette tends toward the neutrals -- blacks, browns, grays and dark greens -- and he works mostly in down-home fabrics: wools, cottons and scuffed, antiqued, broken-in leathers. The clothes are comfortable-looking and familiar, but with an air of "other" -- like the wardrobe of an older brother who went off to his junior year abroad and came back slightly cooler in a way you can't quite discern.
"His sense of style really speaks to men," says Tom Kalendarian, executive vice president of menswear for Barneys New York. "He thinks about the way a guy is going to react to his clothes. . . . John has had a big hand in changing the way men look at accessories. Look at certain categories like messenger bags or guys wearing scarves with jackets, or shoes. All those Converse sneakers."