ROCK, if you’ll forgive the pun, is crumbling. For half a century, it served as a thunderbolt at the heart of Western culture, a screaming electric playground propelled by youth, subversion and grandstanding virtuosity. From Chuck Berry to The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin to The Clash, Nirvana to The White Stripes, every generation got the guitar-wielding gods it deserved.
And then, at some point the last 10 years, the lineage stopped short. The genre began to fade out of relevancy, eclipsed by hip-hop and electronic dance music in pop’s pecking order. In 2010, not a single rock album cracked the year’s top 10 best selling albums; in the years since, only two albums by acts that are even vaguely rock-adjacent—Mumford & Sons’ Babel in 2011 and 2012 and Imagine Dragons’ Night Visions in 2013—made the list. At the present juncture, rock music as it once was—a pulsing, status quo-challenging cultural force—is effectively dead.
But there’s still hope for rock yet. It doesn’t lie, as you might expect, in the hands of some rangy, shaggy-haired teen holed up in his parents’ garage with a six-string and a headful of dreams. No, rock ‘n’ roll’s last great chance for survival sits squarely on the shoulders of a 58-year-old fashion designer named John Varvatos.
Varvatos has built his namesake label largely on the notion of rock ‘n’ roll as a desirable, familiar and fully consumable lifestyle. His clothes are stylish and accessible with stage-ready edge—the silhouettes are slim and full of sex appeal; the fabrics are washed and rumpled—and his ad campaigns are studded with rock royalty: Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, ZZ Top and Willie Nelson, to name a few. By all accounts, the connection is paying off. In just 14 years, the brand has ballooned into a behemoth worth upwards of $100 million that houses his main collection, a diffusion line called John Varvatos Star USA, a collaborative range of sneakers and clothing with Converse, and five signature fragrances. He has 15 stores across the globe (including his first Canadian location, which opened in Toronto last fall) and authored a recently released coffee table book, Rock in Fashion, that collects archival photos of his larger-than-life muses.
Now, Varvatos is taking the next logical step: actually producing the very music that inspires his work. In February, the designer announced the formation of John Varvatos Records, a label in partnership with Universal Music and Republic Records, with offices based in his native Detroit. The goal, Varvatos says, is to discover “the next great, unsung rock ‘n’ roll band.” But while the success of his clothing has proven that the idea of rock is still as marketable as ever, the questions still linger. Is the world ready to listen to rock music again? And can anyone—even someone as savvy as John Varvatos—succeed in the record industry in 2014?
JOHN VARVATOS’ life in fashion began, as so many current American designers’ stories do, with Ralph Lauren. In 1983, he joined the then-fledgling menswear outfit as a regional sales manager; by the time he resigned in 1999 (for the second time, after a short stint at Calvin Klein in the early ’90s), he was head of men’s design. At Lauren, Varvatos bore witness to—and played a not-insignificant hand in—the birth and rise of a true fashion empire.
“At the time, there was nothing like it,” Varvatos remembers. “Ralph was creating a lifestyle—a dream that people aspired to—with great product and great branding. By my second year there, he took over a mansion on Madison Avenue and created a world in there of a size and scope that no one had ever even approached as a single designer brand.” At the turn of the millennium, when Varvatos set out on his own, Lauren gave him only a single piece of advice: “You should only do it if you really feel like you truly have something new to say.”
He did. From the outset, Varvatos’s lifelong obsession with rock seeped organically into his designs. “It was just something that was part of my DNA,” Varvatos says of the genre. “[Rock] is an energy force, it has electricity to it that really motivates me. I have a hard time functioning in my day-to-day, especially when I’m designing, without having music on.” More than just aural stimuli, though, rock ‘n’ roll lent Varvatos’s brand a distinct style and perspective. “Looking back, all the artists I loved growing up had a unique personality and thumbprint—they’re rebellious. And I’ve always felt, especially in the fashion industry, that I don’t really fit in as much. I feel a bit more of a rebel.”
Despite those outsider’s instincts, the industry lauded his efforts almost immediately. Within a year, Varvatos took home the CFDA Perry Ellis Award for New Menswear Designer—the fashion world’s version of a Pulitzer. But it wasn’t until later, when he made the unconventional decision to use rock legends in marketing his brand, that the public truly took notice.
“Other people had dabbled in using artists [in their campaigns], but never in the iconic sense, and never respectful in that way,” he says. To show that respect, Varvatos tapped iconic rock photographer Danny Clinch and had him shoot the musicians—starting with Iggy Pop in 2005—in a looser, more natural manner, against the typical fashion shoot grain. The results were as bold and astonishing as the subjects themselves, impossible to ignore. “It was so well received that it sort of become this wildfire thing, where we had people lined up wanting to be a part of it—some of the biggest names in rock royalty.”
While he quickly shot to critical and commercial acclaim, Varvatos wasn’t without his detractors. As in any rock ‘n’ roll success story, there were those quick to label him a “poseur”—a smug corporate suit exploiting and commercializing the authenticity of rock music to make his fortune. Those accusations came to a head in 2008, when Varvatos decided to convert the space that formerly housed CBGB—the beloved downtown New York punk club—into his flagship store. Prior to the shop’s opening, picketers cluttered the sidewalks in protest. How could the venue that birthed The Ramones become a boutique offering $300 pre-distressed jeans?
What the dissenters weren’t counting on, of course, was Varvatos being one of them. By that point, CBGB had sat empty for almost two years, very nearly becoming a fluorescent-lit pharmacy along the way. Instead, it landed in the hands of a man who practically grew up in Detroit’s rock clubs; a man with a collection of well over 15,000 vinyl records to his name. Rather than razing the space, Varvatos preserved its spirit. He put up glass to protect the original fliers still plastered on one wall, refurbished the bar and built a new stage near the back of the shop. It has become, in many ways, his own take on the Ralph Lauren mansion: vintage vinyl and audio equipment are sold alongside his wares, rock memorabilia adorns the walls, and bands old and new regularly take the stage for concerts after hours. And it’s won over many—if not all—of his early skeptics.
“There were a few people who live in the neighbourhood, some of whom I consider real downtown icons, that were really unhappy in the beginning,” Varvatos says of the CBGB backlash. “But now they’re like part of our family. They come to every event, send us great messages and notes.
“If you’re doing something from the heart and it’s got a soul to it, I think in the end, you will overcome.”
THAT, in effect, is the philosophy Varvatos is sticking to with his newly founded record label as well. And while he is sober-eyed about the realities of entering the music business in its current state, he can’t help but dream big about the possibilities at hand. After all that rock has given him, there’s a chance for him to repay the favour—by helping restore the genre to its rightful throne atop the musical hierarchy.
“It’s one in a million that you’ll sign someone that’s going to be unbelievable,” Varvatos says, “but I want to find that next Guns N’ Roses. I want to find that next Nirvana. I want to find a band that is not just looking for the hit single, but wants to make an album with great music on both sides of the record.”
It’s not only rock ‘n roll that Varvatos feels is worthy of a comeback. It’s Detroit, too, the hardscrabble town where he first fell in love with the music that shaped his life. “I grew up in a thousand-square-foot house with seven people and one bathroom,” he recalls. “My rebellion was through the music, trying to bust out of those tiny confines. But what I find now, looking back, is that what really made me, strengthened me, gave me confidence and humility, was growing up there with really nothing.”
In addition to basing the John Varvatos Records office and recording studio in Detroit, the designer has worked with Chrysler to create several special edition vehicles, and he’s hoping to bring jobs to the state by having some of his garments manufactured in Michigan. “I want to be a part of the solution and not just look at it from a distance,” Varvatos says. “I really feel like there is a big part of my soul there, and I want to see what I can do about it. I want to put my money where my mouth is, and my actions where my heart is.”
Resurrecting both an out-of-favour musical genre and an entire bankrupt city aren’t exactly typical goals for a fashion designer, no matter how successful he is. But nothing about Varvatos and his swing-for-the-fences, rock star attitude has ever been typical, and listening to him talk about it, neither task feels entirely out of reach.
“Nothing is going to be handed to you; nothing is easy,” Varvatos says. “And you gotta keep going at it. It may not happen easily and it may never happen at all, but you’ll never know if you don’t keep pushing.”