The one thing you can say about New York-based menswear designer John Varvatos is that he’s as serious about music and people using their voices in this heated political climate as he is about making men’s clothes.
I first met Varvatos over a fall 2009 breakfast on the patio of the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, Texas, where I was a fashion columnist/stylist. Varvatos was visiting the Texas capital city to attend his first Austin City Limits Music Festival. He talked about being a new dad again — and he thanked me for wearing my black Varvatos Converse sneakers.
His brand has always included rock ’n’ roll-spirited leather jackets, strong suiting and bold and slightly rebellious-looking footwear that could get a guy head-turns, but not in an obnoxious look-at-me sort of way.
I recently caught up with Varvatos, this time in Orange County, where South Coast Plaza is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The festivities included the reshowing of his fall/winter 2017 presentation; a high-energy performance by Vintage Trouble, the band appearing in the spring/summer 2017 Varvatos campaign; and an after-party.
Varvatos sat down backstage before the show, as dressers and hair and makeup teams were getting models ready for showtime.
While he’s a New Yorker at heart, the 63-year-old designer has strong Southern California ties. A new Westfield Century City store in Los Angeles will soon open, joining his existing stand-alone stores in West Hollywood, Malibu, Costa Mesa and San Diego.
The designer also raises money for Stuart House, a program of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. (“I have more friends in L.A. than New York,” says Varvatos, a fan of Amoeba Music in Hollywood. “My daughter likes it out here.”)
Since I last saw him, Varvatos has taken a deeper dive into the music scene. He announced earlier this fall that he had teamed up with Scott Borchetta, founder and chief executive of Nashville-based Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift’s record label), on his existing John Varvatos Records.
“I don’t want it to be anything about my ego,” Varvatos said, adding that he wants his label’s focus to be launching new artists and talent. (His label recently signed L.A. rock band Badflower.) “I really want it to be about the music.”
So exactly whom was he listening to? “Tom Petty — No. 1. No. 2 is Tom Petty and No. 3 is Tom Petty at the moment. …” he says, scrolling through his cellphone.
There was also Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real — Willie Nelson’s son’s band (“He has a new album out that is so good, and it crosses so many genres”) — as well as music by jazz trio Saft, Swallow and Previte featuring Iggy Pop and the latest release from rapper Machine Gun Kelly, who’s in the fall 2017 Varvatos campaign.
It was around 2005 that he started using artists in his campaigns, including the Roots, Alice Cooper and Dave Matthews.
“I saw early on music artists were shopping with us and contacting us about clothes and photo shoots and tours,” Varvatos says. “And I thought, ‘That’s pretty amazing.’ Then you get people who were icons when you were growing up who want to wear your clothes or are already buying your clothes someplace. And you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, Jimmy Page is buying my clothes.’ Or Alice Cooper or Iggy Pop or whoever it was at the time.”
In case you weren’t at New York Fashion Week or South Coast Plaza, Varvatos’ fall/winter 2017 “Wild at Heart” collection, according to show notes, was designed to give “the idea of nonchalant cool with an uncompromising devotion to elegance and boldness.”
As expected, what came along the U-shaped runway in Costa Mesa was signature Varvatos (tailored suits, leather and stripped outerwear, animal prints and plenty of dandy flare), and is available online and in stores.
Months after its debut, Varvatos says the collection was put together during the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“At this time in the world, we need people who have voices,” he says. “We need people that aren’t meek and sit back, but they want to create change out there. They don’t want to put up with the … that’s going on. … Even in the music industry, I believe it’s time for those rebels again — the ones that have a voice that isn’t just a fun pop song.”