“Rock has always been about innovation”
Written by Riley Kucheran
As the former head of menswear design for both POLO RALPH LAUREN and CALVIN KLEIN, contemporary designer John Varvatos boasts an impressive resume. In 2000, the Detroit-born Varvatos debuted his own clothing line and has since built one of the grittiest fashion labels out there. Throughout his solo career, he has been awarded multiple industry accolades, including the 2001 and 2005 Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Menswear Designer of the Year, and GQ Designer of the Year for 2007. The designer’s spirited passion for rock music finds a home in his eponymous label JOHN VARVATOS, and with each collection, the 47 year-old Varvatos inches closer to the perfect synthesis of fashion and rock-star style.
John Varvatos was recently in Toronto to promote his new book, Rock in Fashion. I had a chance to sit down with the designer outside his new store in the Yorkdale Shopping Centre.
RK: I read that this is your first public appearance in Canada, so welcome to Toronto!
JV: Thank you! I’ve been to Toronto before, and I’m actually in Canada a lot.
RK: Growing up in Detroit, you must have hopped over the border a few times? Perhaps for an underage drink?
JV: [laughs] Well the drinking age was lower than Detroit’s, that’s for sure. When I was younger, I dated someone in Toronto, and our family actually vacationed all over Ontario, all the way up to Montréal. We went skiing in Mont Tremblant, took road trips to Point Pelee, up through Michigan to Sault Ste. Marie. We spent more time in Canada on vacations than anywhere else. And now I get to Canada a few times a year. I was just here for the store’s opening.
RK: It looks great by the way. Did you model it after the Bowery Street store in NYC?
JV: We weren’t trying to make this store feel exactly like Bowery Street. We were inspired by it, but it wouldn’t be right feeling as gritty. It’s hard to come into a shopping centre when you don’t have the bones of a location, but I think we did a great job. People have often just seen our clothes in other stores. They don’t realize we have suits, or that we have a large shoe collection. It’s nice that we can now offer everything.
RK: What kind of traffic have you been seeing? Does the suburban Yorkdale customer shop John Varvatos?
JV: There’s a lot more customers than just the suburban ones, there’s some pretty cool people here. Yorkdale attracts international shoppers, and people that come from all over Canada. There are a lot of young fashionable people that are coming in and making the clothes their own. We dial into these customers who love all things rock music and fashion. Even the photos on the wall- we never used to sell them but people kept asking.
RK: So you’re here to promote your new book. I was flipping through it and noticed that a lot of the images in Rock in Fashion are so gritty. Do you consider yourself to be an interpreter, translating rock music’s grittiness into fashion?
JV: I’m not a translator. Rock music is my passion so it’s had an influence on me. When I design I’m just using my own style. You can be an interpreter but you have to be true to yourself. Grittiness is what rock is, it’s respectable because it’s gritty and rebellious.
RK: Looking over your campaigns, I notice that you’ve worked with a lot of sons of rock legends, Nick Simmons for example. Is rock generational?
JV: Nick wasn’t in the campaigns, but we featured him on our Style & Substance page online. We just think Nick’s a cool guy and a great friend, and he’s so tall! We don’t intentionally go after people, we do what’s fun and what’s right. I met Nick at a charity event. The first thing he said to me was, “I fucking love the ad with Jimmy Page. He’s my idol.” Nick looked like a million bucks, like he was straight out of Boardwalk Empire.
RK: That was Spring/Summer 2013?
JV: Yes! You have Gary Clark Jr. who’s 29 and Jimmy Page who’s like 60. The young gun that’s out there right now and the master. That’s not me styling [Clark Jr.] either, that’s just him dressing himself. A lot of these guys have a connection with artists of the past. There’s a respect for heritage these days, whether it’s music or fashion. For us, we have a brand that respects the past because there’s a soul to it.
RK: And what about rock’s future?
JV: Rock is in an incubation period. It’s coming back: It’s in the clubs, the music halls, people are seeing it live, even if it may not be in the charts. Lou Reed was just at our Bowery location two weeks before he died, I was talking to him and in mid-sentence he stops, slaps his hand on the table and says, “Its not about pop music, its about rock and roll. It’s the only music with a soul and a history. You don’t remember pop songs!” The only thing that’s selling is pop music, but that will have its time as well.
RK: What’s on your iPod right now?
JV: Over sixty thousand songs! I was listening to jazz this morning. Today was Doyle Bramhall II. He’s an amazing singer songwriter and plays the electric guitar. I’ve seen him play with Eric Clapton, and was at the Apollo and jammed with Gary Clark Jr.
RK: Any other bands you’re into these days?
CV: In the book there’s a picture of The Band, who were partly Canadian. Today that’s Mumford and Sons, they take influences in music and style and they twist it and make it their own. Kings of Leon. The Black Keys, who are rooted in blues but they’ve also made it their own. It’s so Muddy Water, Otis Redding. The old blues, John Lee Hooker. What comes around goes around.
Rock in Fashion is available in bookstores everywhere and at