The menswear designer and Sewing Bee judge talks to Luke Leitch about fastidiousness, fame and the fashion mistakes men make
The line between fashion and music barely exists for John Varvatos. The American designer talks us through his inspirations and collaborations with the likes of Machine Gun Kelly and Nick Jonas
Eduan R. Maggo
American menswear designer John Varvatos has a reputation for being one of the coolest, most relaxed people in fashion. And that’s exactly the person I meet the morning after a big bash to launch his first store in the Middle East. Varvatos is more than happy to put his fashion talking points to the side and just chat.
“The party was a lot of fun,” he says of the event, staged on the 43rd floor of Central Park Towers, in that construction site of a venue that’s become a surprise event space hit in the city known for its glitz and glam. “I met so many people who told me they just don’t do parties like that here — all rough and industrial. Dubai is normally all polished...”
The unusual location suits the edge Varvatos has become known for, even if he has a complicated relationship with the label and is somewhat uneasy about being pigeonholed as a rock and roll designer. “I didn’t do that intentionally,” he says, “but I’m not afraid of that label.
“If you go into my store or you look at my clothes, if you didn’t know my imagery then you wouldn’t say that necessarily fits me. So, yeah, I totally love that and I own it — I just want to make sure that people understand that we’re much more than that.
“That’s the magic dust we sprinkle on the brand, but you don’t have to be into rock, you don’t even have to be into music — you just have to be into beautiful clothes.”
He makes a connection with his surprise guest on the evening of the launch, Machine Gun Kelly, or MGK, the rapper who made headlines last year trading diss tracks with Eminem.
The two met after one of Varvatos’ runway shows. “I thought he was cool. Great looking, like a model, six foot four, but with an edge to him.”
They chatted, clicked and an unlikely friendship formed. “He’s more than half my age, but we’re best friends,” the designer says and reads me a text MGK had just sent him, on his way to a film set in New Orleans straight off his flight back to the US.
“He always says we should’ve gone to high school together, because we feel like we were connected in so many ways. He’s from Cleveland, Ohio; I’m from Detroit. We’re both industrial, Midwest and country.”
MGK famously walked in the John Varvatos AW17 runway at New York Fashion Week, and went on to star in campaigns for the brand.
“He’s a white rapper that plays guitar and loves rock and roll. He’s on Interscope, which has a lot of rap artists, but the rap community hasn’t really embraced him. And the rock community doesn’t embrace him. So he’s in his own lane on the highway. But he’s really gaining a huge amount of traction with that,” says Varvatos.
“But it isn’t easy to do your own thing in this world. People always want to put you in a box.”
Varvatos channelled his love of music, especially classic rock, into a record label dedicated to discovering new talent. Recent successes include Californian rockers Badflower and the Welsh band Pretty Vicious, but his team is in development with a few other groups. “I’m excited about all of that.”
He had originally signed Greta Van Fleet, when his label had partnered with Universal Music. The band is one of the biggest rising stars at the moment, and up for four Grammy Awards this year, including Best New Artist.
Varvatos would’ve liked to have had MGK on his books, something that might happen when the Interscope contract runs out. “I would love to do something with him, mostly because I’m so passionate about what he does. Last night he had to do more of a PG kind of show and tone it done because we’re in Dubai, but I think he’s one of the greatest performers around.
“But I’m looking for the next thing. I’m not really looking at what I missed out on. We’re only going for young, contemporary artists. I have many friends who are classic rock artists that would love to do something, but I only want to help young artists be successful. That’s the whole purpose behind the brand.
“Of course we’d love to be successful with the label, but I want to develop amazing new talent.”
I ask if he could identify anyone who helped his own career in that way. “I don’t know if anybody did that for me, but I feel like I was very blessed to have Ralph Lauren as a mentor,” he replies.
Varvatos joined Lauren’s company in 1983. A few years earlier he had started a menswear store straight after graduating. He moved on to Calvin Klein in 1990, where he changed menswear forever by creating the boxer brief — made famous in a series of ads fronted by Mark Wahlberg, then known as Marky Mark.
He launched the John Varvatos brand in 2000; today it encapsulates footwear, bags, belts, eyewear, jewellery and fragrances, as well as the John Varvatos Star USA Collection aimed at a younger audience and Bootleg by John Varvatos. His accolades include winning the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) Perry Ellis Award for Menswear in 2000, and its Designer of the Year award the following year. Then, in 2005 he beat his former mentor to the Menswear Designer of the Year prize.
“The one thing I’ve learned in my career in the fashion industry is that a lot of talent comes out of the design schools but most get lost because they need a job and take whatever they can get, even if it’s not really their thing. Then they get pigeonholed, and unless it’s by chance they’re never discovered.”
On the other end of the spectrum he laments the deluge of graduates who think they know it all but aren’t willing to put in the hard work.
“I hope to be a bit of a mentor,” he says, citing another friendship-turned-partnership, this time with Nick Jonas. The two collaborated on a capsule collection for SS18, and released a fragrance late last year.
“It’s funny, but Nick and I are a bit like MGK and I, to some degree. He’s an old soul — 26 going on 60. He really is, he’s this kind of old man in a young man’s body, but still a cool kid.”
In one of Jonas’ studio sessions, the two spent five hours “listening to music and talking about life and family and all kinds of things”. Their bond grew organically, says Varvatos.
I ask what he gets out of these friendships. “I don’t know,” he ventures, and pauses to mull over his answer.
“It’s a different point of view… Sure, a different consumer base to some degree, because he has a huge social following, of some 30 or 40 million people…
“A different point of view, definitely. He didn’t drink my Kool-Aid!
“All my people on the inside drank the magic juice, so they believe. And he’s been a fan for years, but he has his own point of view. He provides another sounding board that I respect and might or might not listen to, just like he might or might not listen to me. But I get valuable feedback from him.”
Varvatos looked to his early ranges for the AW18-19 collection. “Instead of looking inspiration elsewhere, we are inspired by a part of our history but made it relevant to the moment. So we called it John Varvatos 2.0.”
Next, Varvatos takes the executive producer chair alongside Stooges singer Iggy Pop for a four-part docuseries on punk, which premieres this March. “It starts in Detroit in 1969, goes to New York in the mid-’70s and then to London and then to the hardcore scene in the ’80s and then the commercialisation of it with Green Day and all that kind of thing.”
Punk will air on BBC and Epic in the US.
On his next spring-summer collection, he says: “My team isn’t involved in Punk, but I had all these images up in my office of things I was working on and everybody was so inspired by it that somebody suggested we use that somehow. And although it’s not grunge, we’re calling it Come As You Are. We’re inspired by Nirvana, so there’s both the music of Nirvana and a bit of that sophisticated grunge thing mixed in there.
“We’re not doing shorts with flannel shirts and that kind of thing, but there’s definitely a mix.”
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