John Varvatos

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After being in the fashion industry for more than 15 years, John Varvatos, acclaimed men’s fashion designer, is getting back to his roots. 

This past March, Varvatos opened a new store in Detroit, his hometown. He’s watched the city go through troubled times since he was a child in the 1960s. But he sees hope in the city, believing it will become one of the most talked-about places in the next several years thanks to urban development, opportunity and reinvention. “I see a light shining through it today,” he says.

Varvatos’s store is one of two retail shops within 15 blocks and the only fashion retail store in the downtown area. Most of the storefronts are closed, but he believes it was important to plant his flag in Detroit and be part of the upcoming turn-around. 

“It was much more of an emotional decision than a business decision,” he says. “God bless this whole city for coming out to support us because we’ve had a great run since we opened.”

Also inspired by his journey back to Detroit is Varvatos’s new fragrance: Dark Rebel. He thought that a fragrance was missing from his portfolio and he finally had a reason to do one. He wants to highlight that distinct sensation he feels in Detroit.

“It’s about being rebellious and thinking outside the box; walking to your own beat, never being a follower, always being a leader,” he says. Varvatos filmed a video and shot the ad campaign in Detroit to highlight this story of darkness coming into the light. 

His business roots are in New York City, however, so he decided to promote his upcoming fashion line there instead of Milan, where he’s shown for the past eight years. He wants to come back to the United States and support the launch of Men’s New York Fashion Week. 

“I just had a sense that it was what we needed to do,” he tells RM. “Is it the right decision from a business decision? We don’t know. But it’s the right thing to do for me.”

Varvatos and his team also believe that focusing on online retail is the right thing to do. With traffic down in stores, Varvatos, along with other retailers, has to think outside the box in terms of reaching and exciting customers. He explains that his challenges are to ensure the brand continues to be forward-thinking, being ahead of the curve and having a constant pulse on the marketplace. 

“We have to be true to who we are and stay focused on the brand and do what’s right for the brand,” he says. “We are very focused on who our customer is – designing for them, not the press or something else in the sky.”

The brand has invested a huge amount in e-commerce and has rebuilt the website twice within the last few years. It’s attempting to drive revenues that are growing 40 to 50 percent annually. Although it has 22 retail stores, Varvatos sees the online store being responsible for 10 to 15 percent of business over the next few years.

“Just like a car, you need to have all the cylinders pumping with standard print and outdoor marketing still being somewhat relevant,” he says. “But digital is becoming more important in how you market yourself and communicate with your customers. Without digital, you’ll be lost in the dust.”

In the DNA

John Varvatos is a recognizable men’s brand in the fashion industry because it tries to focus on having its own “DNA” and point of view. Varvatos says it’s important to be “doing your own thing that gives the consumer a reason to go to your store. You can substitute dollars, but you can’t substitute products.”

He strives to create a unique shopping experience for every consumer who walks through the door. A shopper can go to the local John Varvatos retail store in Houston, for example, and then see a completely different setup at the retail store in San Francisco. Varvatos collects various music and photography pieces from around the world to individually decorate each store. The brand also puts on concerts, live shows and book releases, and has artists come to the stores for signings. 

“It’s about connecting with the customer on many levels,” he says. “Sure they like the clothes, but why are they passionate about what you do? You want them to connect with the brand, too.”

It’s important for the John Varvatos team to connect with the brand and share the passion. The 150 in-office workers and 400 employees out in the stores are all strong believers in it. “They drank the Kool-Aid,” Varvatos says. “They’re the biggest part of the DNA. I can lead them, but they have to live it.”

He promotes a culture of team effort. “We don’t always need to hit a home run, but I make sure we’re hitting lots of singles and doubles. Making sure people feel like we’ve accomplished something is a great part of the culture.”

Music is Energy

Before Varvatos ever thought about being a designer, he was obsessed with music. Growing up in a small home with seven other people, he would put his headphones on and feel instantly transported to another world. “It was an energy force,” he says. “It took me on a journey.”

Music still plays a heavy role in his life. The first thing he does when he gets to the office in the morning is turn on the stereo. “Silence is not good for me,” Varvatos says. “I need that kind of energy to drive me. It’s how I start every season, how I design, how I start my day.” 

Music uplifts him and helps him tailor his design to a time and place. His upcoming show has a little bit of 1971-era Keith Richards influence. 

Despite his success, Varvatos is still humbled by what he does. “I kind of feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world that I’m able to mix fashion and music together and not even have to think about it,” he says. “Everyday that I wake up, it’s part of it. The way we brand ourselves, the people we communicate with, the artists we work with – we even have a record label now. We pinch ourselves and think, ‘How great is this – that we do what we love?’ How much better can it get?” 

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