Photographed by Stephen Mark Sullivan

By James J. Spina 

So often the case: The feature “interview” can be stifling. Endless flack (so perfectly named since it virtually rains down on the writer slashing a legit story to hack carnage) from PR associates demanding e-mailed questions in advance of the chat session. And that “chat” is usually limited to an hour with most of THAT time devoted to frantic photography. The chosen photographer erects blinding lighting setups between said reporter and petrified/mortified/boredified celebrity/designer. The PR person is LOOMINGLY present. The approved questions have not really been read by the person interviewed. The setting is an overheated, baize hotel room or a generic conference room ambiancing a Styrofoam peanut. The story usually comes out OK but the meat of the matter is often nothing more than press materials encoded in the original e-mail sending out feelers for… an “interview” feature.

THIS isn’t THAT.

Rem Eyewear CEO Mike Hundert was deep into the John Varvatos negotiations successfully extending the designer’s eyewear branding license when he gave me a call, knowing 20/20 is partial to the brand and man. Noting there had been a great 20/20 interview with Varvatos seven years ago, I wondered if a new opportunity was possible. That’s when Mike suggested inquiring about taking the scenario further, asking if 20/20 could witness a design session with Varvatos and Rem’s creative director Nicolas Roseillier. We wondered if Varvatos could even be talked into a full day of observing him in action.

I doubted the likelihood but tossed Hundert references to my previous rock writing gigs as a lure, knowing Varvatos was deep into my kinda music. I even suggested throwing photographer Stephen Mark Sullivan into the brew knowing Sullivan shared bombastic inclinations toward a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top during many 20/20 eyewear shoots.

The response was rapid and oddly conditionless. Let’s do it. Simple as that. The Varvatos PR director, Austin Smedstad, offered a specific date, noting that 20/20 could bring our own photographer on the date Rem’s Roseillier was meeting with the designer, and the day was ours to participate and observe as we saw fit.

No holds barred. Full photo access. No predelivered questions. Simply, a day in the (working) life of John Varvatos.

Delivery on that came fast and curious at 9 a.m. on the given day as 20/20 and Roseillier showed up together and (just) briefly loomed around the lobby area of the Varvatos offices well south of NYC’s garment center. I’m guessing Varvatos occupies a few floors but never really counted them, quickly getting swept up in all the rock posters (both vintage and new a la the John Varvatos rockster ad campaign shot by Danny Clinch) boldly slapping every flat spot of wall and elevator door surface.

We’re all gawking and in the next breath Varvatos diesels in from his personal office, sweeping past his team, greeting the bunch of us, up to speed on the agenda and personally ushering us toward his (our) first meeting with a crew of editors, and researchers working with him on a rock photo book being published in a few months.

Varvatos is taller and totally skinnier than you think, way off the persona delivered in photos. He’s rock musician gaunt but solid; a living/breathing example men can dress tight-yet-right. Everything he wears says second skin from jacket to jeans, all fitting as close as the stubble crop of his pepper hair and slick skull shave (with the shine of his bald dome continually being the bane of Sullivan’s whole photo day, as white light from the heads of Varvatos AND Roseillier glared with indifference to fine photo standards).

Sitting in a “Jesus at the last supper” position, Varvatos is repositioning pictures for a chapter dealing with iconic photos of rock stars in T-shirts featuring images of… rock stars. “Going too big on the obvious pictures makes the book too… obvious.” Varvatos makes this statement with a picture of the band MC5 in his hands. He wants it bigger. Makes sense with the band being Detroit sonic legends, now faded but still distinct in the fabric of rock lore and rebellious, political allure. He shifts the photo off its intended spread, moving it to the next page, increasing its statement in partnership to some powerful white space. Sullivan is snapping off shots and I’m peeking over his shoulder.

“MC5 bigger on this page. Makes sense, right?” says Varvatos directing it at me and then turning to Sullivan for his take. He shifts the picture and flips the page back to reveal a legendary photo of Patti Smith in a Keith Richards shirt. “First Patti… then Fred [Sonic Smith, Patti’s husband, now deceased] right on stage, live… with Kramer and Rob Tyner.” Cryptic?  Not at all. Important stuff. VERY important to the scheme of rock ’n’ roll and its position in American culture AND in its position to the culture surrounding what Varvatos represents as a veritable lifestyle diviner.

With an open-spaced showroom basically sorted out as work and conference stations, Varvatos moves on to the next meeting as the book editors gather up the revised pages of the book, sincerely pleased by Varvatos’ input. The next meeting is about corporate structure issues but Varvatos invites us along to this as well. We decide to afford him some privacy, instead plucking our way through the racks of clothing and studying a giant storyboard being set up for the next meeting, a full design and marketing confab interrelated (we THINK) to runway, website and ad campaign details. I say “we think” because I’d prefer the content and interactions and socializing brush strokes of any of the meetings to dominate these privileged impressions rather than some printed-out press relations agenda.

At this confab and another at the end of the day with his fabric and leather skins team, Varvatos is totally hands-on; guiding, chiding and never hiding his point-of-view.

“Let’s keep in mind I’m NOT Thom Brown.” (This when he rejects a runway picture of a model in a smart blazer and silly shorts on the trend board.)

“The grains here all add to both the texture and the color. And these hides need to be seen close and far when it comes to seeing how they catch the light and shadows.” (Giant swatches of leather crisscross on the floor while he and two cutters/drapers circle the grouping.)

Early in this fabric session, John bolts for a looming stack of stereo components, cranking up the sound of a thick blues-riffing stream of songs fueled by lush guitar leads and a vocal that sounds like (but isn’t) Hendrix. Can you believe I forgot to ask who was playing?

In the midst of this evolving time frame for meetings, our photographer hits a panic button. “I’m not getting the right kind of picture for a cover. The lighting’s bad. Everything looks blue. The glare! The GLARE!” I try to calm Sullivan down but at this point he’s just picturing endless 20/20 March issue pages of text with NO photos and a blank cover with the “Varvatos Vamoose” headline. Varvatos takes charge of the crisis, ushering us in to his private office—a knickknackered, rock artifact version of the original teenage-boy-wasteland basement setting for his Soho, NYC store. Signed guitars. Chrome lumps of model cars, Brit rock mags (Uncut, Mojo and Classic Rock), record covers, concert photos and while we’re taking it all in, Varvatos slips on his favorite John Varvatos frame (style V782) and asks where Sullivan would like to position him to get a good shot.

Have you noticed the lack of long quotes in this story? The reason’s simple: Varvatos speaks in short, soft interjections. Picking up on any “Detroit” accent is impossible. For the actual portrait he closes in on himself. After the shot is captured he shows us a small pin 20/20 gifted him a few years ago from a late ’60s Who concert. The pin was on his desk. As he puts it back he wonders if it is OK to show us advance pictures from the upcoming ad campaign featuring guitarists Jimmy Page and Gary Clark Jr. One can tell he is overtly pleased with the photos but the smile of approval is totally confined to his eyes. Varvatos has on a perpetual smile but it is barely above a whisper as an expression.

He’s quiet. Real quiet but surrounded by a palpable hum of deep thought. And even though his voice and movements dominate every spec of every moment during this day, there is nothing giant about those moves and expressions. What does it feel like? It feels like the barely-there hum of a full-stacked, 100-watt Marshall Amp, red light glowing, but not yet being played on a dark concert stage.

And so to the “eyewear” session as an opti-exclamation point to the whole day: Varvatos in deep try-on mode with Rem’s Nicolas Roseillier and eyewear display cases chock full of prototypes, zyl samples and tinted lenses sorted on a table adjacent to where we first reviewed the upcoming rock photo book.

Roseillier is a natural adjunct to Varvatos, man and brand. Varvatos trusts his vision and the evolving direction the eyewear takes as Roseillier urges the art of a frame from a virtual idea through to drawings, materials, technology and that elusive but vital quality wrapped up in the actual style of the eyewear.

Observing the two toying with the frame prototypes you can tell they are friends on common turf beyond these opti-tasks. They share sentences about everything from music to photography to architecture, with numerous cultural and personal references impacting the eyewear collection.

And both of them share the hairless head look, working it well and proudly.

Throughout the review process Varvatos tries on countless frames, intoning thoughts with a clipped, verbal shorthand as he studies each frame in hand and on (his) face.

“This blue tint gives both the black and the dark tortoise of this frame an almost gray cast. It gives the zyl a snakeskin look I like.” Varvatos walks every trend right up close to the clothing and accessories in his domain. “I like that this engraving on the silver detail has almost a paisley pattern like the inside of one of our jackets. It’s subtle but it makes a definite sound.” And he notes both he and Roseillier are in tune on a variety of cutting-edge coloration details. “The matte look on many of the frames gives off a fabric feel, a tactile quality. I know the glasses need to look and feel good on your face. But just like clothing the frames need to feel good when you touch them as well.”

He’s also quick to give Roseillier full credit for the guitar headstock that now adorns a good number of the frame temples. “I liked the detail so much we even used it for zipper pulls, and the main design of the [Patron] tequila bottle stopper we did.”

Want more? Oddly… so did Varvatos. Our day was at an end but unlike most “interview” situations, John (yes I can call him that by now) seemed ready for us to stay forever even though we could tell we’d FAR overstayed our welcome in the eyes of his schedule handlers. My thought on his reluctance to let us go is simple. He wanted our experience to be as right as he could make it AND he wanted every last drop of our input on a variety of topics from the eyewear to the rock and the ROLE in our collective lives.

Simply put, John Varvatos has a vision and that vision is a reflection of a life and style he truly believes in. Slip in to one of his jackets and you slip in to his life, and he slips in to yours. That happens with his eyewear as well. Try THAT on for size and insight.■

Greatest Hits (Through His Past, Smartly)

The thought here was to NOT clutter up 20/20's rare opportunity of a day in the life of John Varvatos story with highlights of his huge impact on style, fashion, lifestyle and, of course, eyewear so please allow this track-by-track of BIG hits and feel free to download amplifications of these at and any one of the brand's and man's Facebook sites. One recent hot spot is a steamy Yard/Danny Clinch video of guitarist Gary Clark Jr. strumming while Jimmy Page, trouble in mind, cabs it to The Rivoli Ballroom in a black frock.

  • We stole this tagline from a certain car company: Varvatos is imported from Detroit with family roots knotting back to Greece. That inbred affinity to rock and rock HARD is definitely welded to hard core motor city methods. No wonder he's got a signature Chrysler 300 designed to his liking.
  • Following stints at Ralph Lauren (1983 and 1995) and Calvin Klein (1990), Varvatos delivered his own fashion madness message in 2000 with a unique range of men's apparel and accessories grabbing 20/20's attention with eyewear branded via Rem Eyewear, "covered" with a December 2006 feature story and countless feature pages since.
  • Opti-Synergy: Varvatos plays ever-so-nicely with Converse on a variety of collaborations, our fave being a cool, laceless version of the low-cut Chuck Taylor All Star. And guess who else stomps successfully on that Con court? Rem Eyewear and THEIR Converse optical collections.
  • Let there be ROCK. VH1's Save the Music Foundation; Maintaining the crusty heritage of CBGB with the Varvatos store at 315 Bowery (we're allowed to say it's OK since one of our edit team once played there, supporting the bar and restroom!); the equally rocking new Lincoln Road, South Beach store spreading the raucous message of Varvatos' lifestyle power chord; Danny Clinch ad campaigns for Varvatos featuring Iggy Pop, Paul Weller, Cheap Trick, ZZ Top and, most recently... JIMMY PAGE. Feels like Johnny V's been grazing my record collection.
  • Rem Eyewear just completed a license renewal with Varvatos through to 2018. And just days before that deal went down, Rem CEO and chief creative officer Mike Hundert made a late night call to 20/20 with the crazy (and tempting) idea of a feature story where an editor spends a full day hanging with Varvatos while HE does his thing with eyewear, clothing, fabrics and a photo rock book. We said Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! We are THERE!

—James J. Spina