When menswear designer John Varvatos quit Ralph Lauren to launch his own label in 1999, it was more than just an opportunity to strike out on his own - it was his chance to finally combine his two main passions: music and fashion.
From its inception, the John Varvatos brand married a clean sensibility with a rock and roll edge, which took on a literal meaning in 2005 with the introduction of music artists in his advertising campaigns. They started with Ryan Adams, and have since featured Iggy Pop, Green Day, Slash and, most recently, Jimmy Page looking dark and dapper in John’s designs.
John’s steeped in classic rock, but he’s a keen champion of new music too. Not only will you find him in and around the live venues of New York’s Lower East Side, or spinning hot tunes on his radio show, but he also puts on a monthly gig in his Bowery store - which, by the way, is formerly the site of legendary punk club CBGB’s. It’s an ongoing love affair that feeds his day job and in turn keeps us all looking sharp.
What role did music play in your formative years, and how come you veered towards fashion at a certain point?
I grew up in Detroit and music was my solace in a way - maybe that’s the wrong word because there was nothing quiet about what I listened to – but it was a place where I went to to get away from the craziness of my household. I grew up in such a small little house with seven people in it and one bathroom that the place that I got away to was to music. Whether it was putting my headphones on in my bedroom that I shared with my brothers, or going to the basement and listening to music, or going out to listen to music. But beyond that, and how it affected me from a fashion standpoint is that at a very early age I saw the connection between fashion and rock ‘n’ roll and its effect on pop culture - and definitely its effect on me - and how with certain artists it wasn’t just about the music, it was about their whole persona; whether it was Jimi Hendrix or The Stooges or even The MC5. You know, Iggy might not have worn a shirt later on, but early on they were in leather jackets and skinny jeans and boots, and no-one was wearing that in 1969, it just wasn’t a look, but it was a tougher kinda Detroit look. And then people like Jimmy Page started to have an influence on me - he was a very stylish guy, and he always made his clothes part of his stage persona as well. And many other artists that I followed over time - whether it was David Bowie or whatever - all those people kinda had an influence on my eye and me creating my own personal style. Earlier on, people like Jimi Hendrix definitely had an influence - not necessarily literal, but there was bits and pieces that stayed with me over the years, and even in my own collection there’s always some loose inspiration from music in it.
It seems like your musical tastes have come full circle with your fashion career, considering Jimmy Page is one of the models in your latest advertising campaign.
Yeah! Jimmy was [a big influence] both musically with Zeppelin and his whole style, even today. How I originally met Jimmy was him contacting me wanting to meet up when he came to New York because he had bought some boots and some different things from us and he really wanted to meet. He came to me not knowing that I was a music junkie, but he came to me for the clothes and I originally connected with him for both the music and his style, and a friendship began through that. It’s one of those special things; something that I’m lucky that I get to do through my job is I get to merge both of my passions, the fashion and the music thing together. So there is a personal connection; there’s a very warm mutual feeling between the two of us. When I asked him to do the campaign, it wasn’t a complicated thing for him to figure out, and it wasn’t about a big paycheck or anything like that, it was just something that he felt like he wanted to do.
Do you have these artists in mind when it comes to choosing the campaign, or maybe even when you’re designing the collection?
You know, there have been a few seasons that we definitely have been influenced by those artists - I’ve been listening to their music in my studio and it’s been part of my energy source as we’ve been designing the collection. There’s definitely been a few of those. This particular campaign, with Jimmy and Gary Clark Jr., was one of them, because Gary had been somebody that we had been quite close to well prior to him actually delivering his first album. I was so intrigued by where he came from, and his music and personal style sensibility. I was listening to both of their music and thinking about how they were both rooted in blues, and in a way, I kind of look at Gary as the baton being passed to, like Jimmy being the master and Gary being the young gun, in a way. I remember a couple of Springs ago, I was very much listening to ‘Exile On Main Street’ and I was very intrigued by the Stones and their exile from London to the French countryside and what happened to their whole aesthetic. And at the same time that was happening, Zeppelin were in the countryside recording ‘Led Zeppelin III’ and their whole persona became much softer, and The Who went out to the country and they did ‘Who’s Next’, and the eclecticness of the music as well as their style sense became a little bit more bohemian at that point in time, and our collection had a lot of that sensibility that season.
This is an excerpt from the April 2013 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.
Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Reid Rolls