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John Varvatos Talks Ralph and Calvin at 92Y

The designer touched on a range of topics during a talk with Fern Mallis in New York last week.

John Varvatos

John Varvatos

Photo By Robert Mitra

NEW YORK — He’s a rocker at heart — but also a hopeless romantic — and both are what inspired John Varvatos to go into fashion.

In a talk with Fern Mallis at the 92Y here last week, the designer recalled that during his upbringing in Detroit, it was an iconic photograph of Iggy Pop and the Stooges that left a lasting impression on him.

“When I bought their first album, just the way they looked with those skinny jeans and leather jackets — I loved that whole aura. I sat there looking at the album cover and thought that I wanted to be those guys for sure,” Varvatos said.

He later played in a band in his teens called Sweet Wine — a fact that still amuses the 58-year-old designer. “When we were old enough to sneak [wine], it was sweet wine that we drank,” he said, laughing. “I don’t like to think about how bad you were at the time especially when you were so young.”

So it was only natural when it was unveiled in January that the band Kiss was not only performing at Varvatos’ show in Milan but would front his spring campaign. Varvatos admitted to WWD backstage that the entire stunt had no focused marketing plan behind it.

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“If we tried to make it go viral like it did, we would have f--ked it up,” he said. “It just happened at the runway show when we unveiled it. We flew them from L.A. and they were good sports about it and spent a day in Milan then flew back. But when you saw 500 editors who hardly get up for anyone frantically trying to take pictures and missing their next shows — you can’t plan that. You really can’t think too hard about it and it has to organically go viral.”

Which is a reason Varvatos said he doesn’t spend too much focus on social media or targeting Millennials.

“If you try too hard it doesn’t come across as authentic,” he said. “Young people they can smell inauthenticity. They sniff it out. I don’t want to look silly just trying to send messages [through Twitter] every day just for the sake of it, nor do I want to pay someone to tweet at us. I’m not going to go out of my way to cater to [Millennials].”

Speaking of a younger generation, it was when Varvatos was in middle school that he was inspired to take fashion more seriously. “It was around seventh or eighth grade when I started to think about a girl,” he said. “And yes — I’m a straight designer!

“One of the girls I had a crush on was really into [fashion] and told me so. So every day I really had to think about what I wore to school and class. It really was the impulse for me to get a retail job at a store so I could get an allowance to get new clothes. You know, rock musicians always talk and sing about the girls — at that time, it was all about the girls, for sure.”

Varvatos continued to work retail throughout college at Michigan University in Ann Arbor, where he took out loans and paid for the schooling himself. It was there that he received his degree in education and thought he’d become a science teacher. “I didn’t have a real vision about what I wanted to do,” he admitted.

But that is where he received his first job out of retail, teaching at a chemistry lab at Eastern Michigan University.

“I was like, 22 or 23 and the girls in the class were 21 or 22 — and they all needed help,” he said, grinning. “It was great. I was still working retail where I made significantly more money there.”

After working his way up the echelon of retail, Varvatos made it to Polo Ralph Lauren in 1983.

“I’m proud that I was part of developing the rule book at Ralph Lauren — but it was always Ralph’s vision,” he recalled.

After a few years, he decided to jump ship to Calvin Klein, one of the only other major American designers at the time. Varvatos said Lauren was “very disappointed.

“I wasn’t the most senior member there,” he said, explaining his reason for leaving.

At Calvin Klein, Varvatos was best known for creating the boxer brief.

“You cut up a pair of long johns that became the boxer brief, didn’t you?” asked Mallis.

“Well, at the time Calvin wanted to get back business he lost from licensing everywhere,” Varvatos said. “When I came into the underwear business, it was worth $30 million. When I left four year later, the spark of the boxer brief and Mark Wahlberg, the billboards, the planes — it became a $400 million business. It shows you that when something catches on, it really catches on.”

As for the differences in working for Calvin and Ralph, Varvatos said there were many.

“Ralph was very all-American, Ivy League, preppy, lifestyle, beauty, beautiful people. Calvin wanted to be edgy, wanted to push the envelope constantly,” he said. “Ralph was definitely more of a product-driven person. Calvin was mostly more about branding. It was really the sets and everything he created around it. It was completely a left turn for me. I wasn’t very preppy but I knew how to do it very well. I went from that to going to something going to the edge. It was a really amazing experience.”

He later left for London Fog to become the vice chairman and executive vice president of merchandise at the brand.

“Why’d you leave Calvin for then?” Mallis asked.

“It’s one of those things we don’t ever talk about,” he said, with a guffaw. “I’ve completely eliminated it from my history. It was all about money and big opportunity for me. And it was the wrong move.”

Another wrong move, Varvatos mentioned, was being under the VF Corp. umbrella. It was only until he was able to regain ownership of his brand that he started to see its success.

“It’s a branding thing,” he said of how he’s since focused his company. “I wanted to make it something that becomes recognizable. You look at Ralph Lauren and you know it’s Ralph Lauren. I think that there’s not that many brands in America for sure that are identifiable to their own. You really need to understand your own identity. When you’re democratic and appeal to everyone you lose who you are.”

Looking toward the future, Varvatos said that he was targeting international markets, but cautiously.

“We’re launching our first store in London in August, which will be the biggest in the world,” he said. “But we want to take time to focus on a region and not overdistribute ourselves. We’re opening a store in Mexico in four weeks and then Bangkok in six.”

There is one market he’s hoping to tap, but will do so slowly: “China is the most difficult for global brands to find their footing. We’re continuing to try growing Europe as strong as we are in the States.”

In terms of an omnichannel operation, Varvatos said that for his business, it was still being tested and in beta mode.

“We’re already on that now,” he said. “We redid our site and are revamping it and refocusing. We’ll be starting that this summer. We’re on that now and doing tests in the next couple months.”

With a growing business, Varvatos said he still does not feel like he’s been established.

“I’ve had those moments when I have butterflies, when the hairs stand up on my arms,” he said. “I have those moments when I’m honored for something or honored to be in someone’s presence. When I walk down the street wearing my clothes or I’m at the airport and seeing someone’s garment bag [with my clothes], I’m like, ‘We’re on track and doing something right.’ I don’t want to think I’ve made it. I don’t want to sit on my laurels. I don’t want to ever think I have one single moment.”