On a roll
A BRIEF LOOK at fashion history and one will find a distinct correlation between music and fashion movements. From the tailored mods and rockers of the '60s to the thrift-store grunge that defined the early '90s, it is the youth that have set forth the fashions of these eras. But not since Hedi Slimane retired from Dior Homme in 2007 and his once ubiquitous posse of slim-fit clad rockers - The Strokes, The Libertines - faded from the charts, has the men's fashion industry seen such a musically charged designer.
That is until now. 'There's a bit of rock'n'roll in all my collections,' says designer John Varvatos. 'Music is a driving force in my life. It gives me energy and inspiration.'
Except Varvatos is not new to the industry. In fact, his eponymous fashion line debuted a decade ago, with his first store opening in New York shortly after. Yet his laid-back cool infused with rock'n'roll edge has over the past few seasons resonated with consumers.
In a time when debt and high unemployment are weighing on the American mind, it is perhaps this latter point that's been responsible for his rise in profile and his connection to the common guy. Born and bred in Detroit, Michigan, the designer has clearly not forgotten his city's gritty aesthetics. And for men who want to look like men yet still indulge in high-end threads, Varvatos has the look down.
'Looking back, I think my outlook on fashion and music were very related. The creative spirit, electricity and edginess intrinsic in the personal style of rock'n'roll icons inspired me at an early age, and influenced the evolution of my eclectic sensibility in fashion,' he says. 'When I was a kid in Detroit in the early '70s, I was intrigued by how rock stars looked. Especially Led Zeppelin; they dressed up, but very rock'n'roll. It's a combination of look and attitude, and rock musicians embody this.'
Rock icons such as Iggy Pop, Chris Cornell and Joe Perry have graced his advertising campaigns. This Autumn-Winter, hip-hop group The Roots will front the collection, which features an exquisitely cut set of raw-edged jackets, loose slung trousers, furry jumpers and vests with fringe detailing.
Make no mistake, this is still very much luxury, Varvatos-style. The designer was first a partner at a small men's clothing store in Michigan, and when a customer needed alterations, Varvatos did it himself. He enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to learn the tricks of the trade and was recruited by Calvin Klein shortly after. He eventually headed the menswear design division and oversaw the CK brand launch. Ralph Lauren then came calling, where he was made head of design and created the Polo Jeans Co. brand.
'Ralph and Calvin were my university,' he says. 'They are great marketers. Ralph taught me to always raise the bar. He taught me what it is to create an aspirational brand. At Calvin Klein I learnt that in design, less can be more.'
It is this expertise in design and the business of brand building that sets him apart from his peers. Building on his reputation for marrying rock with high fashion, Varvatos opened a store at 315 Bowery, Bleecker Street, New York, where the old underground music punk club CBGB once stood. The store now plays homage to his musical tastes, with Alice Cooper platinum discs and original music posters and books adorning the boutique's walls. Occasionally, pals such as Ringo Starr and members of Guns N' Roses drop by for ad hoc gigs in the store.
Varvatos has a collaboration with Converse and a diffusion line, John Varvatos Star USA 'created to hit a younger audience and for a lifestyle that is imperfectly perfect. My main collection is chic and perfection. In JV Star USA, the product is more relaxed. This autumn, my JV Star USA inspiration is a preppy sensibility with a punk edge.'
Ten years since his debut collection, it feels like he's just getting started.
John Varvatos Star USA is available in Hong Kong at Harvey Nichols