A navy-blue crewneck sweater with a red star on its front was John Varvatos's first big fashion statement. Bought at a hippie boutique in Detroit in 1969 or '70, when the designer was in his early teens, the sweater has long since vanished into Haberdashery Heaven. But at 58, Varvatos still has fond memories of its impact: "The first day I wore it to school, my big crush told me she loved it. After that, I wanted to wear something cool every day."
Varvatos offers this reminiscence in John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion, a hefty slab – 272 pages! 2.05 kilograms! – of pictures and text celebrating the grooviest looks rocked by Jimi Hendrix, Paul Weller, Patti Smith, Syd Barrett and others in the past 45 years. Varvatos certainly knows about looks – and rock music. Dude has an estimated 15,000 vinyl recordings ("all pretty much in mint condition or unplayed") stashed in a lakeside retreat in upstate New York. And before starting his eponymous, hugely successful men'swear line in 2000 (his first free-standing Toronto store opened in Yorkdale Shopping Centre earlier this month), he spent almost two decades occupying high-level design positions with the Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein empires.
Varvatos – the name's pronounced like Barbados – still likes to wear something cool each day. "In fact, in my position today, I need to think about it a little bit more than I used to because you're a little bit more of a public figure and people see you," he explains over the phone from Los Angeles. "As a teenager, I did it because it had a connection with the girls. Today, it's more about my persona, the brand."
What's he wearing as we speak? Well, a T-shirt and skinny jeans complemented by nifty leather boots and possibly a jacket, "although I don't know why cuz it's going to be so hot out here today." Sometimes, though, "cool is just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, y'know?" It's a look, Varvatos admits freely, that owes a lot to one of his enduring influences: "the picture that kicked it all into gear for me," a 1970 colour photograph of the legendary proto-punk Detroit band the Stooges, including lead singer Iggy Pop, ever so artfully sprawled on a rug in an L.A. recording studio. Originally featured as the gatefold image for the group's Fun House LP, the shot, by California lensman Ed Caraeff, is given the full-page treatment in Rock in Fashion.
"The look of the Stooges … guys didn't look like that [back then]," Varvatos asserts. "We just came out of the sixties with the Beatles kind of being the way everybody looked, very hippie. Sure, there wasn't anything stylistically unusual about the pieces [the Stooges were wearing], but that skinny black motorcycle jacket, the way the jeans fit, the way the boots and shirt looked, it was just so freakin' cool."
The rock aesthetic, particularly its sundry manifestations through the 1970s (glam, punk, New Wave, postpunk), continues to inform Varvatos's sensibility and business instincts. He's the guy who in 2001 scored a licence to produce high-end lines of Converse running shoes, whose ad campaigns have featured Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, Chris Cornell and Anthony Kiedis and who, in April 2008, transformed the Bowery club CBGB, musical home to Talking Heads, Blondie and Television, into one of his stores.
Acknowledging that rock will likely never regain the pre-eminence it once had as music, style and lifestyle, he says: "Pop music, from a commercial standpoint, has taken over, that's for sure." And while Rock in Fashion has its fair share of photos of contemporary rockers such as Kings of Leon and Green Day, the book is very much an homage to – and delivers its biggest kicks courtesy of – the acts whose axes provided the soundtrack for Varvatos's youth and early adulthood.
"I was blessed enough, about four weeks ago, to do an event with Lou Reed at my Bowery store," he says.
"It was for his new book with [British photographer] Mick Rock, Transformer. I was asking questions and kind of moderating a panel with Mick and Lou. And Lou, in the middle of his conversation, just stopped and said: 'Y'know what? It's not about pop music. It's about rock 'n' roll. It's only about rock 'n' roll. It's the only thing that has soul and has any real lasting power and balls.' I still feel the same way. I have never wavered from that sense of what it is."
Varvatos began work on his book in late 2010, devoting many a weekend and evening to tracking down photographers (50 are featured), arranging copyright clearance and tailoring the material (the 300 images are loosely organized around such themes as hair, scarves, jackets and hats) before handing it to his publisher late last year.
The process, he says, "was a lot longer than I ever anticipated" and not a little "like designing a collection in that, once you get into it, you want to keep making it better. As I pulled stuff together, I'd find myself thinking, 'There's something better than this, I gotta track it down, do more research.' It became a passion project."
Published by Harper Design, John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion, by John Varvatos with Holly George-Warren, is on sale now.