If you want a little insight into what men's wear designer John Varvatos has in mind for his upcoming collection all you have to do is glance at the giant coffee table in his downtown New York office. Neatly stacked on the table is an array of books—a biography of actor Steve McQueen, a collection of pictures by photographer Mark Seliger called "In My Stairwell," so titled because all the photos were shot in the stairwell of Seliger's apartment, there's a history of American flight jackets, an illustrated look at rock posters called "Art of Modern Rock" and another biography, "Chuck Taylor, All Star" (more on that later).
While his style and influences are apparent to anyone who steps into his office, the designer with the confusing-to-pronounce surname (it's Greek in origin and pronounced Var-vay-tos, rhymes with the tropical island Barbados) is not quite a household name. However, he stands poised to step into the role of America’s next great lifestyle designer, much like two of the fashion greats Varvatos once worked with: Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.
He certainly has the pedigree. He is the force behind two of the fashion world's greater success stories—the boxer brief, which was his brainchild back in his Calvin Klein days and, more recently, the slip-on Converse Chuck Taylor. "The thing I love about that is when I'm dead and gone it's going to still be here because Chuck Taylor is still going to be here," says Varvatos. "It's turned into a very iconic shoe." If awards are the measure of success, Varvatos has those too. He has received three Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards since bursting onto the scene with his own label in 1999.
The designer has a John Varvatos fragrance and skincare line and boutiques in all the right cities including his flagship store in New York's Soho section, which has a rec room-esque basement where shoppers can browse or buy vintage vinyl record albums that look as if they're straight from the designer's personal collection. He recently collaborated with Converse on a line of women's and men’s apparel as well as limited editions of the infamous Chuck Taylor All Star and Jack Purcell trainers. He says he would one day like to do a home collection. And today he is here to talk about his new eyewear collection with Base Curve, the luxury division of Rem Eyewear.
Varvatos is not totally a newbie when it comes to the process of creating eyewear. "I've worked with Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren on eyewear so I have a little bit of history there," explains the designer. "The difference with working with Blake [Kuwahara, Base Curve's creative director and VP of design] is that he's an eyewear designer and an optometrist. The other people I worked with, they were manufacturers. Blake can talk to me about fit and function. He was like a teacher. It was really a phenomenal experience." (For Kuwahara's experience on the collaborative process, see sidebar page 44.)
The two designers were on the same page, each bringing similar influences to the table in regard to what the collection should encompass. "It was really interesting because I brought things like old books on silverware and auto design and he had very similar things," notes Varvatos. "They were all kind of interconnected to the same place."
John Varvatos Eyewear fits seamlessly into the John Varvatos aesthetic. An aesthetic that is both masculine and classic. Or, "reaching back to move forward," as the designer himself describes it.
"It's based in the classics but it has enough of a modern edge because we put that twist in it," explains Varvatos. "If you really take a look at the roots of it, it's based in things we know and we're familiar with—whether it's military inspired or vintage inspired. My muse would be someone who is an artist or a writer or a photographer or a musician. Even though I know that's not a lot of my customers, my customers think that way. They're not afraid to try different things with their wardrobe. They don't want to stand out like a sign on the street that says, 'hey, look at me,' but they're not afraid to be their own personality with the brand."
With such creative muses, it comes as no surprise that Varvatos notes "there’s always a little bit of rock and roll" in any product he designs. He is a huge Who fan, has a Jimi Hendrix print hanging in his office and excitedly shows off a photograph he recently procured of a young Bob Dylan. In another homage to his rock heritage, punk pioneer Iggy Pop was the star of the designer's most recent ad campaign. The musician embodies Varvatos' "reaching back to move forward" philosophy.
"Iggy is relevant, if not more relevant, today than he was 35 years ago when he started," says Varvatos. "If you ask 5,000 people who Iggy Pop is, more younger people than older people know him. There's something to me about the guys we shoot for our ad campaigns. I don't use them for their celebrity, I use them because I feel there is something clever about them. They are bad boys but they are good guys at the same time."
Besides vintage rockers, vintage clothing plays a key role in the inspiration for John Varvatos’ collections. "Vintage clothes influence me for sure—sifting through flea markets and that sort of stuff," notes the designer. "We take nothing literal of any of those things but little ideas, little details and make them our own. Little ideas influenced by an old beat up jacket. This jacket is actually one of them." He leans in to show, by way of example, the sleeve of his own jacket. There is leather trim rimming the opening of the sleeve. "We found this old jacket that had the sleeve mended by putting leather repair on the end of it," he continues. "What I also liked about it was the leather was raw and wasn’t perfect. So we did the sleeves a little bit like that and we did the elbow patches like that. Elbow patches aren't innovative. This isn't necessarily the most innovative, but it’s those little things sometimes that you find."
It was one of those “little things" that was the inspiration behind Converse's now number-two selling shoe, the slip-on Chuck Taylor. Varvatos begin his relationship with Converse in 2001 designing limited edition versions of the Chucks and Jack Purcells, and has continued his connection with the brand, most recently creating a clothing line for them. The slip-on idea was born in the middle of the process of designing the whole Converse by John Varvatos line.
"I always wanted to wear them without the laces but they wouldn’t stay on, so I would always kind of untie the laces," he says. "But they were a little sloppy so I decided to cut some pieces of elastic." After a few minutes of work, Varvatos achieved the desired effect of a laceless Con. At first the people at Converse were skeptical but the designer was able to convince them to try it out and the rest, as they say, is history. (In an interesting bit of synergy it should be noted that Base Curve's parent company Rem has the license for Converse Eyewear.)
History is something Varvatos is very aware of. Especially when he designs for the Converse brand. "I wanted to remain faithful to the Converse heritage so I went back and I did all the research," he says. "I researched both Chuck Taylor and Jack Purcell. I wanted to be very true to Converse. I wanted to make sure that it read 'Converse.' I’m very respectful of the brand. Every generation has rediscovered Converse and embraced it and made it their own. It’s become part of pop culture."
If anything is apparent about John Varvatos, it is that he is truly a student, an honor student mind you, of pop culture. And that is what makes him a natural to fill the role of the next great American lifestyle designer.
"We're not so concerned about being the biggest," says Varvatos. "You don't have to have a 'take over the world' philosophy. If you do good things and you research your customers well and you treat people well, good things will happen."