John Varvatos Finds the Next 'Fashion Star'
by laurie brookins
photography by Deborah Anderson
Vintage posters adorn seemingly every inch of his office—a psychedelic Jimi Hendrix here, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels over there—while throughout his Chelsea/Flatiron headquarters, Miles Davis features prominently on the morning’s soundtrack. There should be little doubt that music is embedded deep within the heart of John Varvatos, who is only too happy to indulge his impulses as a self-avowed “music junkie” in every aspect of his life, such as his burstingat- the-seams memorabilia collection, his side gig on Sirius—a monthly show recently retitled New York Nights—and the musicians who take center stage in the twice-yearly ad campaigns that further drive his signature aesthetic of menswear that combines casual elegance with a rock ’n’ roll edge. The trick, Varvatos says, is not letting any one of those passions or projects interfere too much with the day-to-day of John Varvatos, the brand. “I do have a full-time job that I really love,” he says.
And yet his latest project proved irresistible: Fashion Star, premiering March 13 on NBC. Varvatos is executive producer and appears as one of the reality show’s three mentors, alongside Jessica Simpson and Nicole Richie, guiding 14 aspiring designers through a competition that will culminate in a $6 million prize package that includes the opportunity to launch capsule collections at Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and H&M. Throw in Elle Macpherson as the show’s host, and the mix of personalities and retailers touches on a wide variety of key demographics. “It’s a fun show,” Varvatos says. “You would probably say I’m the serious designer, while Jessica’s the all-American girl who looks at things the way a typical American woman might, and who has grown that into a billion-dollar business. Nicole’s the trendsetter with the accessories business who looks at things with a different edge but with an understanding of commerciality; and Elle, meanwhile, has a really successful lingerie line. What we share is that we’ve all dealt with the idea of creating, selling, success, failure, and how you have to fight to remain true to what you want to do.”
Varvatos was approached earlier this year by the production company headed by former NBC chief Ben Silverman, though the designer notes that his yes was far from automatic. “We talked a lot around here about whether I should do it,” Varvatos says. “On the one hand, people are going to become much more aware of our brand and the personality behind that brand, which of course is a positive. But we also had to weigh it internally and consider how we were going to make it work day to day.” Ultimately producers arranged a summer shoot schedule that primarily took place on weekends in Los Angeles, allowing Varvatos to remain in his New York offices during the week. “It was a terrific experience,” says Varvatos. “I was blown away by Jessica and Nicole, who were lovely and funny and very intelligent and studied about how they view their businesses.”
“People will love John on this show; he has a great presence and brings a wonderful balance to the women beside him,” says executive producer Jane Lipsitz. “He has so much charisma that comes through.”
Fellow executive producer Dan Cutforth agrees. “I had been excited to speak with John, whether we got him on the show or not, because I’m a huge fan; I’ve spent a lot of money in his stores,” he says. “John’s role quickly became senior partner of the three. What Jessica and Nicole have achieved in the fashion industry is remarkable, but John brings a different perspective and looked at the contestants through the lens of his own experience.”
Production wrapped in August, and by early December Varvatos was engrossed in a variety of new projects, including the expansion of his label to include a boys’ collection that will launch in fall 2012—“It’s been really fun seeing some of our men’s pieces miniaturized, right down to our Converse sneakers,” he says—and plans for a home-collection debut in 2013. And his excitement is palpable as he flips through the unretouched photos of his spring ad campaign, starring the members of the band Green Day. “They’re one of the biggest bands in the world, with a great spirit and attitude and also a really broad demographic,” Varvatos says. “For us it was a big honor, especially because they seemed so excited to be a part of it.”
Why do bands love John Varvatos? Likely the affinity is rooted in the clothes, which the designer says evoke for spring “a return to elegance, but with a younger spirit and different kind of edge, a casualness to that elegance.” But musicians may also see something of themselves in the work Varvatos does, an element that transcends his love of vintage classic-rock posters and memorabilia like Slash’s signature hat. “Ultimately if you’re passionate about something, you figure out a way to make it happen,” he says, noting that this, above all, was the lesson he tried to impart on Fashion Star. “In this business, I think passion goes a long way.” 122 Spring St., 212- 965-0700; 315 Bowery, 212-358-0315
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.