The tides of both fashion and retail may be changing, but certain notions of what's cool remain constant. Just ask John Varvatos. The 60-year-old men's-wear design veteran, who honed his chops with Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, struck out on his own 15 years ago, courting guys who appreciated a rock edge. The Detroit-born Varvatos, a passionate music fan growing up, has always understood the essence of cool when it comes to dressing guys. And he's made it his mission to keep dishing out that particular vibe, with quality clothing that resonates with hip men of all ages. I caught up with John Varvatos at Harry Rosen on Bloor Street West in Toronto recently to talk about his distinctive style, the notion of cross-generational fashion and why it's important, as he says, to keep "pushing out the walls."
Although your passion has always been for music, fashion has kept you relatively sane – and wildly successful. What would you say the secret to your particular success has been?
I think it boils down to the fact that we have very much our own definitive look. We're not just doing clothes. In the end, guys are buying it as a jacket, or a leather garment… but we have a very identifiable look that is still very accessible. And we have this aura that has an edge to it, too. Guys like a little bit of that and girls like their guys to have a little bit of edge. So I think we've been true to who we are. We constantly push out the walls and we pay attention to all the details – from the fabrics to the leather finishing to the handworkmanship to the yarns. God is in the details. It's not for everybody, for sure, and that's why there's a lot of brands out there. But I feel like it has been our secret sauce in a way – this identifiable look. of brands out there.
The brand really has appeal to this cross-generational roster of men, and that's cool, because a lot of guys often feel that they're getting too old for a certain brand. How do you feel about that whole notion of age-appropriate dressing?
They always say, "60 is the new 50." I don't know about all that, although I do think it is a mental thing. Guys, in general, think younger. I think younger. I don't think that I'm 60 years old; I think I'm younger. I'm immature, so I think it's a mental thing. But it's a fun thing. I was working in our store last Saturday and there was a father in his mid– 40s trying suits on with two young boys. One was probably 11 and one probably 13. And the 13-year-old had our Converse sneakers on that he was buying, and he was asking the guy if they have a small in this rock T-shirt and he was showing his dad, and his dad said, "Yeah, those look great!" So I'm looking around, thinking I got this 13-year-old, and then I look around and there's Ian McKellen in the store who's seventysomething years old who's buying pieces. I was loving the action, from this 13-year-old kid, to the guy in his 70s and then a lot of people in the middle. If it's good style, it crosses all generations.
You certainly have seen the business change a lot since you first started the label, and you've also undergone quite an evolution. Is that something that's conscious, or was that something that organically happened?
It starts with me, since I'm really the head creator of the brand. I have a team that works with me but I'm in the studio every day. I'm very cognizant of keeping the DNA, but continuing to push the walls out. So yes, it is something you have to be cognizant of, but I think most of it comes naturally because it's just part of my own ethos. And since I'm kind of directing the brand, I want to make sure that that's very clear. When the consumer sees this window in Harry Rosen, they don't need to see my name on the glass. They kind of know who it is already. And that excites me, when people can recognize the brand. We're subtly recognizable.
Do you think it's necessary for you to always be there as the poster boy for the brand, or do you foresee the day when the brand will stand on its own and have nothing to do with you?
It's hard to say what it'll be in the future. We're still only 15 years old. Though sometimes I say, "We're already 15 years old!" But I'm a living, breathing designer. People care about that. And I engage with a lot of people whether it's in my stores or out on the road. I think that that's important. For my team, I can be a pain in the ass I'm sure, but I think that they look to me for the vision of where we're going to take things and how to move the needle. But I can't tell you where we'll be in 15 years and what I'll feel like.
Or even what society will feel like or what it'll be like, culturally speaking…
I will tell you though that with millennials, everything is different. They look at brands differently, and the priorities in their life are different – their friends, their family, trips, their home. I don't know where that will bring us. Business has changed drastically in 15 years, but even in the last six months I see there's a vibe out there – the way people shop, the amount of time they spend, the amount of online shopping is all drastically changed. We even see that in our online business. We're up 140 per cent in the last six months! But everybody's online business is huge now. We're all busy and we want to do great things, so it's easier for us to sit there in bed at 10 o'clock at night and order stuff online. I think if I was to buy another car right now, I would just buy it online.
If you know what you want, why not?
I would just have them deliver it to me and that would be it. I think the millennial mentality has truly kicked in into the world. So a lot of shopping habits have changed, some good, some bad. Some that we just have to evolve with. I love change. In my company, I change stuff all the time – not for the sake of making changes but just because I want to keep people moving.
This interview has been condensed and edited.