When not dressing A-listers, collaborating with car manufacturers on limited editions
and overseeing his record label, JOHN VARVATOS channels his creative juices into
building some of the most covetable men’s fragrances. Tanya Sweeney caught up
with the high priest of rock ’n’ roll fashion to talk style, fame, family and fragrance
9091 IRISH TATLER MAN
Capital asset: John Varvatos’
The fragrance is a Tom Ford famously said that he moody feeling,” he says. “Before the name was
beguiling blend wanted his fragrance Black Orchid to secured, we were talking about a badass, non-
of jamaican rum, evoke a “man’s crotch”. Yet designer conformist kind of guy.
black leather and John Varvatos has gone one better,
the exotic skull creating a fragrance that perfectly “For me, I directly went towards leather, as it’s
flower accord encapsulates ‘the perfect rebellious been forgotten or used minimally in perfumes.
night out’. We’re using notes not familiar to people, to
“It has everything… that smokiness, the leather, appeal to someone with unusual taste.”
the booze…” he explains.
Rodrigo Flores-Roux, Varvatos’s perfumer Appealing to bad boys may sound like
partner-in crime, adds: “It’s got some real sexual an astute exercise in branding, but it quickly
undertones. It’s not a really clean fragrance. The becomes clear that Varvatos lives and breathes
scent is unfamiliar, yet instantly intoxicating. The rock’n’roll. Particularly intriguing to him is the
mixture of notes is devilish, and together they divine marriage between rock and fashion.
create something more adventurous and exciting
than we’ve ever done before.” “After my family, music means more to me
He’s not lying: Dark Rebel, the latest than anything in my life,” he enthuses.
fragrance in Varvatos’s hugely popular scent
portfolio, boasts a truly unique DNA. It is a Amid the chaos and glossy bustle of London
beguiling blend of Jamaican Rum, black leather Fashion Week, Varvatos’s own event – an invite-
and the exotic skull flower accord. There are only interview and gig with his long-time pal Paul
also hints of nutmeg, black pepper, tobacco Weller – sets his store apart from the fash-pack.
leaves, Mexican vanilla beans and leather in And while his high-end designs are beloved of
there too – truly, sexy doesn’t begin to cover it. artists and musicians, the man himself turns out
The fragrance reveals itself in stages; firstly as a to be fairly down-to-earth.
blast of intriguing smokiness, then settles into
something more delicate and woody. Walking into his London emporium,
“It came from a vocabulary that John was Varvatos’s love of rock music hangs from
using where he wanted to express darkness, and every wall. Located in the heart of Mayfair, the
a city going through a rebirth after a tough time,” 10,000 sq ft store is neighbours with the likes of
explains Flores-Roux. Stella McCartney and Yohji Yamamoto, but is a
It’s easy to see why the senior perfumer and refreshing palate cleanser to the other retailers’
the menswear designer are close collaborators, sleek lines and minimalist displays. On every
for Flores-Roux is himself a man who clearly square inch of wall there are blow-up images of
oozes rock’n’roll spirit. the greats: Hendrix, The Beatles, The Who, Led
“We wanted to go towards a darker, brooding, Zeppelin. Guitars, gold records, antique record
players and boxes of vinyl pockmark the store.
Topman, it ain’t.
It stands to reason that Varvatos would
occupy the grittier end of the menswear
spectrum; growing up in Detroit, Michigan, he
ﬁrstperson was one of five children of running a business and understanding the
process, but what I really got out of that time was
I’ve seen many John Varvatos raised in a small Greek how to create your own DNA and be your own
generations of men say home. Naturally, music – person.”
they’re being rebels
and they’re doing their Motown and garage rock Given how keenly attuned Varvatos is to the
thing, but now their rebel spirit, it hasn’t escaped his attention that
priorities have changed – hung heavy in the air. in the main, men appear to be more uniformal
and less individualistic dressers than ever. It’s
9293 IRISH TATLER MAN Fashion veteran Varvatos not necessarily something he despairs of as a
designer; instead, he sees it as a sign of the times
may know clothes, but it’s in a digital-soaked new world.
when he talks music that his “I’ve seen many generations of men say
they’re being rebels and they’re doing their
eyes light up. thing, but now their priorities have changed,” he
muses. “They care about other things in life other
“I grew up with The than fashion friends, family, seeing the world.
Simplicity is their way in terms of clothing, but
Stooges, MC5, Bob Seger, they’re spending their money elsewhere.”
and I was a huge Led Varvatos’s clients, meanwhile, are big on suits
and tux jackets. “Fifteen years ago, it was all
Zeppelin and Hendrix fan,” about the leather jacket, but these days (young
men) don’t want to look like their dad, basically,”
the father of two reveals. he deadpans. Indeed, his trademark designs,
which include slender-cut jeans, leather jackets,
“I love anything that has a muted henleys and slim-fitting suits with long-
line jackets and waistcoats are hardly the designs
bit of history, which is why favoured by the average pram-pushing 30- or
nowadays I love the Black
Not that he needs their custom. After
Keys or Royal Blood. They launching his eponymous brand in 2000,
Varvatos was recognised in the same year by the
have a respect for history.” Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA)
with the prestigious Perry Ellis Award for New
Music aside, Detroit Menswear Designer. He received a second CFDA
Award for Menswear Designer of the Year in 2001
provided a rough-hewn and again in 2005, while a GQ for Designer of
the Year followed two years later.
backdrop to Varvatos’s
While Varvatos’s empire expands globally —
upbringing. In this regard, his eponymous menswear brand boasts 17 stores
worldwide, in cities including Boston, Houston
it turns out that the child and Mexico City — the lynchpin of his empire
remains his premises in New York’s Bowery. As
somewhat explains the man. fate would have it, the flagship store stands in
the space of the legendary music haunt CBGB.
“I grew up in a blue-collar town, which was In a neat twist, Varvatos – who also runs his own
record label – has brought several artists back to
very rebel like, but also very (about) family,” he the space to play live gigs.
explains. “It’s the sort of place that has lots of “[Moving into CBGB] was a total accident,”
he says, as though he still can’t quite believe
pride but lots of humility at the same time. it himself. “It had been empty for two years,
and someone was trying to talk me into doing
“Really, I came from nothing. I grew up in something in the place next door.
a house smaller than this (shop floor), about “One day I go down there and I’m like, ‘Do
you have the keys to next door? I just want to
20 square metres with seven people and one see what’s going in there.’ I was told they were
talking to restaurants, drugstores and Starbucks.
little bathroom. Three boys were sharing in one Within one week, we had a lease signed. It was
like something lightning bolted into me, how to
bedroom which, when you’re in high school, was keep music alive in the Bowery.”
not a thing you wanted to do, but it was the only The dream appears to continue apace for
Varvatos – as his fashion and fragrance empire
thing I knew.” moves from strength to strength, the 49-year-old
is still excited by the possibilities of new music.
Keen to make a mark on the world as a And for the rest of us, a slice of that elusive
rock’n’roll vibe is just a bottle spritz away. ITM
teenager, Varvatos initially doffed his cap towards
John Varvatos Dark Rebel, €84 for 125ml, is
the sciences, registering first as pre-med, then available nationwide. Further details online at
switching to sciences and education. In a parallel
universe, he muses, he could well have been a
“I could never understand how to do all that
today,” he laughs. “I can’t even remember half
of it. But I taught chemistry lab for one year in a
university in Michigan. It was a lot of fun.
“I was 23, a lot of the kids I was teaching were
19-24, so we were the same age, and there were
a lot of cute girls in the class who wanted extra
Alas, Varvatos, now in his 50s, found that,
despite the occupational perks in his day job,
he was making more money working in retail
fashion stores. At the age of 29, he made his first
tentative foray into design, but promptly made a
name for himself as a quick-learning maverick.
He soon came to the attention of two different
designers: Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.
“I always say that I got my real college
education from Ralph at Polo University,”
he smiles. “He taught me about marketing,
branding, image, and raising the bar in general.
Calvin was a great marketer. But the experience
(in both designer houses) informed me on what I
didn’t want to do.
“There was something in that time that I knew
how to do quite well, so when I branched out on
my own people were like, ‘Well, will it be more
Calvin or Ralph?’ They gave me the education