John Varvatos Shares Secrets on Brand Building at FGI Tastemakers Breakfast

Nick Sullivan & John Varvatos
Photo: Laurel Marcus – click images for full-size views

“Building a brand should be evolutionary, not revolutionary,” said menswear designer John Varvatos during FGI’s Tastemaker series breakfast yesterday at the Cosmopolitan Club. Esquire’s Fashion Director Nick Sullivan joined him on stage gently posing questions that were meant to make you feel like you were eavesdropping on two industry insiders literally “talking shop.”

“DNA is everything,” Varvatos continued. “It’s the brand’s personality– in Europe, it’s referred to as the ‘perfume of the brand.’ You have to keep reinventing yourself and reinvigorating yourself. Some brands make a lot of noise then move onto something else. It’s important to build a client base, hopefully with some loyalty there. My job is to continue to deliver with long-term building not just in the moment.”

Photo: Laurel Marcus

The Detroit native who started his brand nearly 20 years ago acknowledged that it was easier when he began his business — before the immediacy of what’s being shown two seasons ahead on the runway.. “The consumer doesn’t move as fast as the industry would like,” he said. Since designers are always working two seasons ahead, data from the present season as well as selling and style reports of things that are trending are one thing, but instinct is still important. “You have to have the gut for what’s next, to know when it’s time to move on. Maybe the market is getting saturated (with a trend), and a year from now it’s not going to be as vital as you think it’s going to be.”

 Amy Rosi & Marylou Luther
Photo: Laurel Marcus

When Varvatos came up through the ranks at both Ralph Lauren and then Calvin Klein, he was not thinking that he would create his own brand. In 1990 while working on designing men’s underwear for Klein, he happened upon one of his moments when “a light bulb went off,” resulting in the creation of the iconic jersey boxer brief. As the story goes, Varvatos had amassed a collection of flea market finds including “old underpinnings and vintage long underwear, the kind with the buttons on the front,” which he thought would be cool to show under a coat on the runway. Trying them on the models, he got an idea — “let’s cut them off.”

Varvatos brought Calvin in who got “super excited,” and showed them to David Geffen who he had just had lunch with. Geffen mentioned that Mark Wahlberg (then “Marky Mark”) “would be hot in them” — that is how a legend was born. “We did them in different lengths. Once our marketing department got involved, there were billboards on planes flying across the Hamptons. It became one of the most, if not the most copied styles in menswear. We should have registered it,” he added.

Ana Martins (AMPR Public Relations), David Swajeski (Onerock, Director) ), Tom Morrissey (band Killcode), Alexandra Abshere (TrueFacet), DC Gonzalez (band Killcode)
Photo: Bruce Borner

Varvatos is credited for having done one of the earliest collaborations in the early 00’s with Converse, pulling the shoelaces out, grabbing a roll of nearby elastic thereby creating a prototype lace-less shoe. “We worked with Converse for 15 years during which millions of these were sold. Later Converse took the design and “whored it out,” yet Varvatos is still doing his own version under his own label. Of course, you can’t talk about the designer without touching on his love of rock music which is such a large part of his brand. Growing up in Detroit in a tiny three bedroom bungalow, seven people to one little bathroom, he would often escape into the basement with headphones. He listened to international music on the BBC and was a “passionate Rolling Stones fan.”

“I followed the style of the musicians whether it was Keith Richards’ scarf, Jimi Hendrix’s boots or Iggy Pop’s leather jacket. Detroit is not a fashion place — I started working in retail to look cool for the girls. It soon became an addiction — I need another new sweater or jacket — they already saw that one,” he joked. Varvatos was soon recruited to open a store in Grand Rapids in which he developed a merchandising style that set it apart. In the mid-1980’s, when he was in his mid-20s, he was approached by the Ralph Lauren team to head up Midwest sales for the brand. Next, it was on to New York where he became head of sales merchandising. By his late 20s, he decided he wanted to be a fashion designer, but thoughts of having his own brand were still many years away.

In 1998 another “light bulb moment” occurred when Varvatos looked around the New York City store windows only to discover that “everything was black nylon. I thought it’s time to do something different.” He contemplated starting his own brand but didn’t want it to look like either Ralph or Calvin, as others who had left had done knock-off versions. “If you really think that you have something new to say you have my blessing,” said Calvin Klein.

Music played a huge role in the brand’s aesthetic with many musicians gravitating to the Varvatos brand. Since 2005 Varvatos pursued and used an artist or band for his ad campaigns — now he remarks, the artists come to him. He recently started his own record label on Universal called “Big Machine Records” to promote up-and-coming artists.

When the historic Bowery space which held the club CBGB’s became available, Varvatos had another “light bulb moment”– he couldn’t let something so special become a Bank of America or a Duane Reade. Against everyone’s advice (“I’m laying on the railroad tracks for this one,” he said) one of his stores is currently occupying the previously rundown location. The space even includes a live performance space to honor the building’s legacy. “It feels like a museum,” said Varvatos of the store. “We’ve had musicians play — it’s changed the path of who we were and enhanced the credibility of the brand from a music standpoint. I still get goosebumps when I go there, and we do live shows.”

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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