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Rock Steady

With moves into H-Town and worldwide, edgy, musically inspired menswear designer John Varvatos proves that bad boys do it well.

Designer John Varvatos, who’s opening a new store in the Galleria

John Varvatos’ rock ’n’ roll influences have never gone unnoticed, and the man’s love for the genre has been on proud display throughout all of his retail efforts since he first came on the scene years ago—perhaps never more so than when he transformed the former CBGB’s underground club in New York City into his Bowery boutique in 2008. These days, the designer’s climb up the fashion charts continues, thanks to new shops all over the world, including his first Texas store opening in the Galleria imminently; the recent debut of his eponymous record label; and an ongoing quest to bring elegant, bad-boy edge to men’s style.

You found success as a designer later than most of your contemporaries. What were you doing before joining Ralph Lauren as a sales executive, and later Calvin Klein, where you oversaw menswear? I co-owned a very cool shop in Detroit, and we were doing very well with Ralph Lauren there. When an opportunity came up to rep the line in the Midwest, I took it. It may seem like I came out of nowhere, but, in fact, before I moved to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I already had a grip on what worked for men in fashion. It’s interesting that you worked at Ralph Lauren since that brand’s aesthetic is so different from yours. What did you learn from your time there? It was at Ralph Lauren that I understood the inner workings of a mega-brand. Ralph became my mentor, and when I told him that I was ready to go on my own, his response was for me to be the guy he knew me to be: a little rock mixed with casual elegance. That was very important to me. Was he right? Yes! We were able to capture an audience from the start, in large part because of what I learned at Ralph Lauren, which was to do what [was] organic [for my brand]. This year, you’re set to significantly increase your retail footprint with new openings in Europe, Asia and America. How do you plan to keep that balance of rock edge and commerce in check, considering such a considerable expansion? [I’ll remind myself of] what Ralph Lauren said to me. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it because I truly stand behind the integrity of all my products. What does come with the expansion is the responsibility for the team of people who work for this company. Our success rests largely on their ability to fluently convey our DNA from the moment you enter the shop to the minute you open the bag with your purchase at home. Making sure that they are able to do so and have a sense of satisfaction from being part of this team is the key to that expansion. Houston is one of your new cities. Why H-Town, and what can customers expect? Because we are sold in so many stores, the brand is well known, but the way we see ourselves as a company is largely lost on those who pick up our products at those [larger retailers]. That’s why opening boutiques in key areas like Houston is important to how we convey what John Varvatos is about. The store is located at the Galleria, and it’s our first boutique in Texas. From the moment you walk in, it is a classic Varvatos experience. But, as with all other stores, we wanted to make it organic to [its location]. You will see a lot of music references, and, with Houston’s musical pedigree, that was an obvious way to go. Your line has always been popular here. What is it about your work that connects so well with Texas men? I think today men are encouraged to be themselves, and that is very true in Texas. Our brand’s connection to music and the reverence for those who think outside of the box is something that appeals to Texans. Your collaboration with Converse some years ago was extremely popular. Was that a big turning point for the label in terms of recognition? That collaboration was super successful, and even though it brought a lot to my company fashion-wise, I realized I was more interested in creating more of my own product. Any other collaborations in the works? I do like unusual opportunities to be creative. Recently, I was asked to do a John Varvatos limited-edition Chrysler 300C. What a cool thing to do! First, I love cars; second, I’m from Detroit so that was a perfect way to show some hometown pride. The Chrysler turned out great and really showed off my brand’s aesthetic. As a result, I even swapped my own German car for an American one, and I would never go back. John Varvatos has always celebrated your personal love for rock ‘n’ roll, but what was the deciding factor behind opening your own record label? Because my brand is known for that rock sensibility, I get a lot of artists reaching out to me, and from those conversations, I understood that the record industry has gotten to be more about labels wondering what the new single is, rather than about nurturing artists. I understand why the labels do that; just look at how we download music. We go straight for the hits, and the in-between stuff gets lost in the way. What I would like to do with my label is to nurture the artists and help them develop their careers. I’m not so much interested in signing on the big names. I actually want to find young artists hoping to evolve their music with the help of a partner like me.