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Rock Steady

At the men’s collections in Milan, Designer John Varvatos celebrates 10 years since he launched his own fashion brand and gave menswear a rock ‘n’ roll twist.

Author Aaron Gell Photography Matthew Salacuse/Retna

Image – Matthew Salacuse/Retna

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE WHAT THE ANGELIC SISTERS, THE CATHOLIC ORDER THAT RESIDED in the Church of San Paolo Converso in central Milan between the mid-16th and the late 18th centuries, would have made of the building’s current occupants. But on a sodden day in mid-June, the former nunnery—long since deconsecrated—is crawling with half-dressed men, most in their early twenties, six feet tall or better, with hip bones that could slice proscuitto and cheekbones to match.

Along one side of the room, under towering soot-darkened frescoes representing key events in the life of Jesus, are a series of stainless-steel clothes racks containing what, it’s hoped, will be some of the hottest men’s looks of the 2011 spring season—layered trench coats, suede military jackets, cozy sweaters, plaid waistcoats. The racks are labeled with the names of various models (Zhao, Oskar, Bastiaan…), and assigned to each is a bored-looking if stylish young lady, perched, texting, on a folding chair. These are members of another sisterhood of sorts, the dressers, each responsible for helping a guy into and out of his various getups with an efficiency that would impress Clark Kent. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, beside an industrial-strength garment steamer emitting a spookily picturesque cloud, a number of makeup stations have been erected, each with a ring of lightbulbs, where blemishes are being dealt with, facial shine dulled and hair blown out and tousled just so.

The mood in the room is expectant but calm—remarkably so given that it’s only an hour before John Varvatos’ 2011 Spring/Summer menswear show is set to begin (one of 30 or so such productions taking place around Milan this week). That’s a testament to the man at the center of it all. Just 10 years since debuting his first collection, Varvatos has emerged as one of the world’s top menswear designers, overseeing a growing enterprise that, he expects, will produce $125 million in revenue in 2010—its best year ever despite a pesky economic downturn. Standing on the church’s altar in a black T-shirt, charcoal jeans and cowboy boots, he is mostly bald, with a close-cropped fringe at his temples, and, shattering the stereotype of a high- end designer, he’s extremely unassuming.

Varvatos huddles for a moment with Bill Mullen, his stylist. There’s some concern about a handful of models who won’t arrive till just before showtime. They’re walking in Versace and are expected any moment, zipping across town a step ahead of the army of international press and buyers who spend the week scribbling in notebooks, gulping lattes and dashing en masse from one venue to the next. “I think we are more calm than most,” Varvatos says. “To me fashion is chaotic enough as it is. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy.”

An air of calm suits the clothes as well. Varvatos’ style— from which he has never really deviated during his decade running his own label—is best described as rock ‘n’ roll chic: a louche, unhurried classicism set off by understated hints of the rebel within. “In general we don’t do over-the- top things,” he says. “We’re trying to make clothes that have a realistic sense about them.” The Varvatos touch can be seen in the expert tailoring, the thoughtful details (like the use of old-fashioned hook-and-bar clasps) and the carefully sourced fabrics. His clothes never seem to shout, tending to speak in a raspy, bourbon-soaked whisper instead, and they often display a patina of wear, like something you might unearth from an old steamer trunk owned by Keith Richards.

It’s a testament to Varvatos’ mastery of this aesthetic that the influence is reciprocal, with top recording artists increasingly sporting his looks and, in many cases, showing their appreciation by appearing in the label’s advertising. The latest campaign, geared to Varvatos’ 10- year anniversary, features Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Lenny Kravitz, Joe Perry, Ryan Adams, Cheap Trick, the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, among others— enough icons for a late-night, not-sold-in-stores classic rock mega-compilation.

“They wear our clothes. They’re friends,” Varvatos explains, sitting in a pew in the church’s nave, as the models parade down the aisle, getting the pace just right.

Whereas a lot of his competitors design with big themes in mind, unveiling a distinctive new creative vision for each season, Varvatos is known for sticking with formula—which isn’t to say there aren’t some tweaks from one collection to the next. The nuance this season, for instance, is that he’s taken his rock ‘n’ roll gentleman to the country. “Like when the Rolling Stones were holed up in a villa in the South of France making Exile on Main Street,” he explains. Still, it’s really just a variation on a theme. “We have our handwriting and our personality, and our customer knows who we are and what we do.”

“Some designers design for themselves,” notes Tom Kalenderian, executive VP of menswear for Barneys New York, who bought Varvatos’ very first collection a decade ago and has carried his clothing ever since. “John designs for the man he believes is his client.”

“It might have something to do with being from the Midwest,” says the designer, who now lives in Manhattan with his wife and 22-month-old daughter, Thea (he also has two grown children). “You have to be a little more grounded.”

JOHN VARVATOS GREW UP in Allen Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, the second of five siblings. His father was an accountant, his mother a homemaker. “It was seven people in a three-bedroom house, about 900 square feet,” he recalls. We’re sitting in his office, a tidy space filled with rock memorabilia (signed gold records presented to Zeppelin, a framed thank-you note from Kravitz, a Slash-certified top hat) just off the loftlike John Varvatos showroom in New York’s garment district. “My two brothers and I shared a room this big.” He gestures with one heavily braceleted hand, slicing the office in half. “There was one bathroom for seven people. We did our homework at the kitchen table—you can imagine how hard it was to concentrate.”

Varvatos wasn’t much of a fashionista back then. Instead he was obsessed with music. “It was an escape,” he recalls. “Putting on headphones was the only way to get any peace.” His off hours were spent at a local record store, Sam’s Jams, where he’d grab a spot on the floor and flip through Creem, “reading about bands and trying to figure out what to spend my $2.98 on,” says the designer, who now owns 15,000 CDs. At one point, overcoming his natural shyness, he formed a band, Sweet Wine, with a cousin and played a few gigs at school. Varvatos handled rhythm guitar and sang backup. “We weren’t very good,” he says now. “I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t my thing.”

For extra money, he took a job in a men’s store, where his interest in fashion took hold. “I remember this English class in tenth grade,” he says. “I came in wearing bell bottoms and this skinny navy sweater with a red star on it, and this girl I was interested in complimented it. I don’t remember what we were studying, but I remember that moment: realizing girls acknowledged me more when I wore nice clothes.”

He continued working in retail through college, developing a highly attuned sense of what customers are actually looking for. “I made my living on commission,” he says. “I needed someone to feel so good about their purchase that they would come back and ask for me.”

After beginning his design career at Polo Ralph Lauren in 1983, Varvatos went on to oversee menswear at Calvin Klein before returning to Ralph in the same role. He started his own line five years later. It was at Calvin Klein that he pioneered what may well go down as one of the greatest apparel revolutions of the century. “We just cut off a pair of long johns and thought, This could be cool…,” he says. Modeled by the young “Marky” Mark Wahlberg, the new “boxer brief” was an instant success.

Such lasting style innovations are exceedingly rare, but Varvatos has another one to his credit. A few years ago, he entered a partnership with Converse, a sneaker brand with a storied history that was nonetheless in need of a serious reboot. “I was in my studio, and I had this low Chuck Taylor on the table,” he says—when inspiration struck. Finding a piece of elastic in the trim cabinet, Varvatos got to work with a needle and thread. The next day, he presented skeptical Converse executives with his new “laceless sneaker,” now the second-best-selling shoe in the brand’s history.

In addition to the deal with Converse and the men’s collection, the Varvatos brand comprises footwear, accessories, a fragrance line and a line of sportswear, Star USA. “John has thought about everything that’s in this man’s world, including the belt on his waist and the shoes on his feet,” notes Kalenderian. “It’s a very multidimensional approach.” Meanwhile, Varvatos continues to forge ties with the music world. Though he has declined several offers to start a record label, he has a monthly music show, Made in Detroit, on Sirius Radio and hosts regular gigs at the Varvatos store on New York’s Bowery, the former home of the legendary rock club CBGB (the Milan church isn’t the only onetime shrine Varvatos has made his own). Though he shuttered a women’s collection after two so-so years to concentrate on menswear, he says he’s just about ready to try again. A home collection is also on the drawing board.

BACK IN MILAN, the late-arriving models are in the building, and everyone is lined up in their “first looks.” Varvatos stations himself just inside the door leading to the runway, where he’ll keep an eye out for any last-minute tweaks—a collar out of alignment, an ill-fitting pair of shades. In the vestibule, someone has hung a large whiteboard bearing a list of instructions (“ATTITUDE!… RELAXED, SLOW PACE… NEVER, EVER STROLL…KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE WE PUT THEM”) that might not bear the force of holy writ but seem pretty strict nonetheless.

Eleven minutes and 36 looks later, the designer gives the crowd a little wave as a Patti Smith cover of “Gimme Shelter” blares over the PA. “That makes twenty-one collections altogether,” he says with a sigh afterward, holding a flute of champagne. “One more down!”

Hemispheres editor-in-chief AARON GELL has mastered a relaxed, slow pace, but he’s still working on attitude.

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