When Harrison Ford entered John Varvatos’ New York store back in the early 2000s – its fledgling days – the designer had kind of hoped the movie star would buy some clothes, rather than one of the shop fittings.
“But the sofa is what he fell in love with, and he asked us to make him one,” says Varvatos. “It was a fun project and it was exciting so early on to have someone like him in.” And Ford did end up buying some clothes too.
The likes of Springsteen and Cruise followed suit. And now, the ongoing appeal of the clothes has led analysts to tip the company as the next $0.5bn giant – the most likely to become the next monolith the likes of Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren. Varvatos makes man clothes: rugged, dark, sometimes idiosyncratic but not clever-clever, ultimately wearable, properly sized, not made for skinny boys.
“I always wanted to be a designer for the guys,” says Varvatos, who the year after he launched picked up the CDFA fashion Oscar for New Menswear Designer in 2000, and then, the following year, picked up the Menswear Designer of the Year (and yet again in 2005).
“Guys look at what they see on the runway and, often, don’t get it. It’s not real. That was a gap in the market when I was starting out. There was a need to give men clothes that would still have meaning to their wardrobe 10 years later. Even guys with money look at clothing and say ‘but do I need it?’.”
Thankfully for Varvatos – whose business has grown exponentially, recently opening its first European flagship store in London – the answer is most often ‘yes’, with the clothes seeming to chime with a relatively newly fashion-aware man. “Even my doctor reads fashion magazines now and he’s not a stylish man,” says Varvatos, who trained in science education and taught chemistry for a while.
His designs are often described as having something of a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, “which is a sprinkle of magic, although I’m not really sure what ‘rock ‘n’ roll clothes‘ are,” he says.
Rock is hard to escape with Varvatos though – there’s the annual, road-closing gig outside his Melrose Avenue store that’s attracted performers like ZZ Top and Aerosmith, and the fact that he is a self-confessed “music junky” with his Bowery boutique in the former premises of the legendary CBGB club.
He has even just launched his own record label in conjunction with Republic, its first signing being the Zac Brown Band. “And it’s not a vanity label,” Varvatos stresses, “not some contrived way of promoting the fashion.
The fact is that the record industry faces a challenge in that artists don’t trust the big labels any more because they’re selling all the time, and only really interested in the next single, rather than giving an artist the time and space to grow, as used to happen. That’s what we want to give them.”
This could be an echo of the way Varvatos’ own company has grown: small at first, with a line backed to the hilt by global lifestyle brand Nautica – so impressed was the company, for which Varvatos had created a jeans line, that it more or less goaded him into doing his own thing. That now encompasses an international spread of stores, with a sideline full collection for Converse and the launch of home wares now under consideration.
But perhaps the fact that Varvatos strikes a marketably distinctive but approachable look is no surprise given his teachers. Those aforementioned monoliths? He helped make them – first at Calvin Klein, where he launched menswear, and then at Ralph Lauren’s Polo label, where he was head of design.
“Calvin is the master of marketing, of capturing the moment with just that little bit of shock value, and working for Ralph was like being at the University of Lifestyle,” says Varvatos.
Varvatos talks with affectionate humour of how his previous boss’ approach is not his own.
“Ralph is actually super classic, and the clothes become a reflection of a moment in time -one season it’s equestrianism in the 1930s, then Capri in the 1950s or ‘Chariots of Fire’, which can feel a bit costumey at times,” he says.
“We try to never get locked into a period or place. We want customers to have the ability to walk into the shop the following season and not say to themselves ‘what happened? why all the changes?’”
That Varvatos is keeping the company on such an even keel is, he suggests, a product not only of his training with Klein et al, but the fact that he is not a designer per se, (much like Ralph Lauren, in fact). “And if we only understood the creative process and not the business side, we’d have had big problems,” he admits.
“Frankly talent isn’t enough, nor is being a one trick pony. You can see all these new brands come up, and then all these new brands disappearing – because they’re not grounded in business.
“I want to grow and I’m always thinking about what we can do next, but I don’t want to get bigger just for finance’s sake,” Varvatos adds. “I’m always being asked when we’ll do womenswear but, you know, it’s a war out there. My bigger concern is to build a long-lasting company, to leave a legacy in menswear.
And, no, I don’t miss teaching chemistry.”