The Outsider

The Connoisseur: John Varvatos

Words by Nadia Balame-Price | Photography by Jennifer Cooper

John Varvatos in his Manhattan office

If John Varvatos had been a better musician he might never have become a fashion designer. “I was in a band as a teenager, but I just wasn’t good enough,” he says with disarming honesty. Thankfully, music’s loss was fashion’s gain. After stints at Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, the designer set up his eponymous label in 2000, and quickly found a way to merge his two passions. Today, he is not just a leading name in menswear, but also one of the world’s foremost collectors of rock ’n’ roll memorabilia.

Varvatos grew up in Detroit, home of the Motown record label, yet it wasn’t just home-grown sounds that influenced him, but bands he heard on the radio, particularly the “British Invasion” – the Kinks, the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, all of whom have played an enduring role in his musical life. “I just got the Led Zeppelin Platinum record award for Led Zeppelin IV,” he says of the latest addition to his collection. “I also have a guitar signed by Led Zeppelin and gold albums given to me by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. If my office was on fire, those would be the first things I’d grab.”

Like all the best collectors, Varvatos never aspired to collecting for collecting’s sake. “I just started buying music I loved,” he shrugs. He now owns around 20,000 records. So many, in fact, that they’re everywhere – in his stores, in a dedicated storage unit, and taking pride of place at his newly built house in upstate New York. But it’s not just vinyl he covets; his real foray into serious collecting began with photography: notably a black-and-white shot of Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, taken by Jim Marshall. Hendrix is still a huge draw for Varvatos. “He’s my guy,”

Although Varvatos doesn’t like to think of himself as a collector – “I’m just a fan,” – he’s always on the lookout for the next thing. Recently he tried, and failed, to get “the jacket that Jimi Hendrix wore at the Fillmore East [the rock venue where the artist’s famous live album was recorded]”. That late-1960s, early ’70s influence – skinny trousers, tailored suits with tight fitted jackets, and plenty of black – is still part of the Varvatos style today and what first inspired his love of fashion. “I think it’s timeless,” he says. “A leather jacket, slim-fit jeans or trousers – it really could belong to any era.”

His advertising campaigns are also often fronted by musicians, the most recent featuring LA band Vintage Trouble. And he even has his own record label, John Varvatos Records, launched in 2014. “I still love discovering new music,” he says. “And sharing these discoveries with other music lovers.” His West 17th Street office (pictured), a large-windowed warehouse space that sits alongside his fashion showroom, is testament to this passion. It’s a room that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum or rock ’n’ roll hall of fame, given the panoply of gold and platinum records that line the walls, not to mention the guitars and music memorabilia that fill every available space.

With his collection spread across the globe, it would be easy to lose track of it all, something Varvatos admits can happen. But he doesn’t mind, he says, because then “you rediscover things”. He adds: “Even when I think I’ve seen and heard it all, there’s always so much more to discover, the deeper I dig.”

 

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