Milan Fashion Week: John Varvatos strikes a chord with dusty duds and hand-painted roses

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For his spring and summer 2012 collection, John Varvatos sent his collection out between huge rusty gates covered with ivy and down a dusty brick runway. The inspiration was country -– not the cowboy hat, bangin’ belt buckle and Grand Ole Opry kind of country, but the fleeing the city, “Exile on Main Street,” unplug and reboot kind.

In his show notes, Varvatos pointed to the early ‘70s when rock groups like the Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin and The Who “fled to the country for inspiration and a break from the big city,” pointing out that they returned “having recorded what arguably would be their most creative and innovative albums.”


Varvatos said this collection was inspired by that “sense of freedom and a nod to perfect imperfection” of those rock sojourns into the countryside, and it made the most memorable collection from the designer in many a season.

Not so much for the slouchy silhouette (though they were certainly more slouchy and relaxed than in the past), the shades of slate gray (although the heavy dose of khaki here was refreshing) and assorted military-inspired jackets (if we’re all wearing bandleader jackets, who will follow?), which have been the line’s signature look for the last decade, but for the treatments and detailing that gave jackets, trousers and boots a hard-worn, dust-covered look, the lightweight cold-dyed American flag scarves and particularly the handful of pieces in the collection with a rose motif – the first graphic of any kind I can recall seeing in the line. It appeared as an allover print on a gray plaid suit, and on several other jackets and trousers -– including one suit that had the tendrils of the plant in what looked like black leather (Varvatos later told me it was actually fashioned out of a black shoe lace), curl out of the rose on the right side of the jacket and seemingly connect to the rose and leaf graphic growing up the right pant leg.

“I was channeling my inner Jimmy Page,” Varvatos said after the show, referring to the Led Zepplin guitarist’s famed “dragon suit” stage garb. And, while the designer’s aesthetic has always been rooted in rock ‘n’ roll, this is one of his suits that might truly be worthy of invoking the name of such a rock deity. Each of those roses (except on the allover print) was individually hand-painted by associate designer Yoon Nam. (Despite the intricate level of detail, Nam told me at a post-show party he was able to dispatch each one in an hour and a half. When I asked him how, his answer was: “Practice.”)

But Nam needn’t worry about spending the rest of his life marooned on trellis island -- the hand-painted suits aren’t intended for mass production. They’re intended to be limited-edition pieces and only about 50 will be sold altogether, through select John Varvatos boutiques (including the West Hollywood location).

In the end, it wasn’t really freedom Varvatos seemed to find out in the countryside, but an appreciation for the hand-crafted and the artisanal -- things that don’t just look like they were made by the sweat of the brow and treated to look like they were caked with the dust of the doing, but things that actually were.

And in doing so, Varvatos may have followed in the footsteps of the very rock gods he worships and put out one of his most creative, hand-crafted and thoughtful collections to date.

-- Adam Tschorn


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