John Varvatos - Intelligent Design
The famed fashion designer talks about jeans, bad shoes and dressing celebrities.
In august, menswear designer John Varvatos opened his newest store at Copley Place. Born in Detroit, Varvatos joined Polo Ralph Lauren in 1983 before moving to Calvin Klein, where he became head of menswear design, overseeing the launch of the menswear collection and the CK brand. In 1995, he returned to Polo Ralph Lauren as head of menswear design and created the Polo Jeans Company. He launched his own line in 2000 and was named GQ’s “Designer of the Year” in 2007. He hosts a monthly radio show on Sirius, serves as a celebrity mentor on NBC’s Fashion Star and this year saw the release of a limited-edition Chrysler 300 bearing his name. Varvatos is actively involved with the annual Stuart House Benefit and the Save the Music Foundation. He lives in New York.
Historical. Evolving. Confusing.
I love working on denim. I wear jeans 363 days of the year. They’re a part of everyone’s wardrobe, and they’re a part of pop culture. I find that the market is flooded with jeans, so it makes you want to raise the bar and be more creative in that area.
Innovation in fabric. Fit. Everybody wants their ass to look good in their jeans.
A white shirt. It’s easy and it’s tough. In the end, God is in the details. It’s seems really straightforward, but it’s all about the right collar shape, the right fit, the right cut, the right fabric. But compared to other things, it’s easy, because I don’t have to worry about anybody not liking the pattern or the color.
Fragrance is a lot of work. We spend a lot of time with the guy we call “The Nose,” Rodrigo Flores-Roux, who works for Givaudan and is one of the great perfumers in the world. We discuss, how is a guy gonna wear it? Is it a daytime or a nighttime scent? Is it a fresh thing? Is it a sexy thing? Is it tough? Exotic? Then, when you try to translate all that into chemistry, it’s very complicated. The difference between 5 percent and 8 percent of one element is huge. And then there’s the packaging, marketing, etc.
Probably fragrance. And accessories. With menswear, it’s less accessories. In women’s, it’s handbags and shoes. But a successful fragrance is a big moneymaker.
I’d say it has an Old World sensibility, meaning that it’s got the quality and craftsmanship and detail and heritage, but with a modern edge.
I hate it. It is a visceral experience, and trying to describe it in words is almost impossible. We’re working on a press release for our Toronto store right now, and when I read it, it described the red doors, and all I could think of was an Elizabeth Arden salon, which isn’t really what we were going for. [Laughs]
OK. John Varvatos is to menswear what Jimi Hendrix was to rock ’n’ roll. I have a big picture of him in my office. He’s always looking over my shoulder.
We dress so many cool people and celebrities. Everybody talks about who we dress in Hollywood and television, and we have umpteen music people we work with. But I’m more excited when I’m on that Acela train coming back from Boston, and a guy’s wearing my jacket and boots. Don’t get me wrong. I’m ecstatic when Jimmy Page or Green Day wear my stuff, but the real deal is walking down the street and seeing a guy who looks amazing in something that’s Varvatos.
Is there a trend in menswear that you’re sick of and want to go away?
Colored jeans. I like colored jeans, but the problem with our industry is that when something becomes hot, everybody goes into excess overdrive on it.
If you’d asked me two years ago, I would’ve told you 2014 or 2015. But we have so many great things happening in men’s right now, and we’re growing so quickly, that I don’t want to take my eye off it. I want to be the best in men’s I can possibly be. That said, I started out doing, and I love doing, women’s. There’s a lot more freedom, in terms of silhouette and everything.
Well, my mentor and someone I spent years working with is Ralph Lauren. He has very carefully and intelligently created a total lifestyle brand, but he’s always remained true to himself. Plus, it’s aspirational, yet it transcends economic barriers. He’s the only one who’s been able to get away with doing a $2,500 men’s suit and a $200 men’s suit. I think that’s really brilliant. He’s the king.
Bad shoes. I talk to a lot of women and men who say if they’re out on a date, the thing that turns them off the most is bad shoes. It’s such an indicator of what’s really deep inside.
A guy who’s comfortable with himself and fairly confident. He has some kind of creative bone in him, even if he doesn’t work in the arts. There’s a part of him that dreams and sees the world that way. And he doesn’t need logos. It’s more about style than fashion.
Two things. A part of it involves who’s voting, in which case, it can be political, but at the same time, you’re getting recognition from your peers. That’s a really nice thing for the people you work with. There are a lot of people helping to make this happen. But are awards important? No.
A great-fitting pair of jeans. A great-fitting—it’s all about fit—dark suit that can go from day to night. And a great pair of boots that are both elegant and rock star.
Well, the guys wearing bad shoes didn’t spend a lot of money on them. They were cheap when they got them in 1993.