Ask John Varvatos to pinpoint the moment when his -obsession with fashion and music began, and he'll show you a photo of The Stooges taken in 1970. "It was all hippies before these guys," says the Detroit native. "They showed up wearing motorcycle jackets, ripped jeans, aviators ... nobody looked like them at the time."
The image's backdrop, a pastiche of Asian rugs and rustic wood, bears an uncanny resemblance to the 2,500-square-foot showroom in New York's Flatiron District where, for the past 15 years, Varvatos has helmed his rock 'n' roll-rooted menswear empire, which spans 21 stores globally and averages a reported $250 million in sales annually. Questlove, Ringo Starr and, as fate would have it, Iggy Pop are among the dozens of artists to have starred in Varvatos' Danny Clinch-shot ad campaigns through the years -- some of which hang amid the framed memorabilia that covers the 59-year-old designer's shrine-meets-office.
Though Varvatos attributes his effortlessly cool aesthetic to people-watching at concerts during Detroit's legendary late-1960s music scene, he didn't connect rock with a career in fashion until much later. At 27, an age when many successful designers already helm fashion houses, Varvatos enrolled in night classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology while working at Ralph Lauren, where he started in sales. Six years later he landed a gig at Calvin Klein, before returning to Lauren's team as senior vp men's design.
When Varvatos eventually branched off to build his namesake collection in 1999, he recalls, "I was in my 40s with young kids, which isn't the easiest stage to start a business." But the risk paid off, and not just in the commercial success of his company: He went on to win the Council of Fashion Designers of America's prestigious designer of the year award in 2005.
Given his rock-involved style, it came as little surprise when the father of three (who lives in Manhattan with second wife Joyce Zybelberg) partnered with Monte Lipman's Republic label to launch John Varvatos Records in 2014. Along with initial signing Zac Brown Band (which he oversees with Big Machine Label Group chief Scott Borchetta), Varvatos also has inked newer acts Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown and Andrew Watt. ZBB's newest album, Jeckyll & Hide, arrives April 28, and although the group has already sold 7.3 million albums in the United States (according to Nielsen Music) and notched eight No. 1s on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, Varvatos admits, "I'm not looking at numbers in the same way as everybody else -- I want to nurture artists." He smiles, adding, "I'm more naive."
Why launch a label now? It would have been so much easier 15 years ago.
Three or four labels approached me in the past, but it always felt like they saw the opportunity as a vanity project. When Monte, [Republic executive vp] Charlie Walk and I met, I asked them why they wanted me when they already had Rick Rubin. They valued that I don't have an industry background, and that I see things through a different lens.
Zac Brown was your first signee and had been independent for quite a while. How did your partnership happen?
He actually reached out to me. After we announced the label in Billboard, he read the article and called me to see what it was all about. I went down to his home in Atlanta and spent a day with him and his family -- we just clicked on so many levels. And [Zac] was a customer first -- he actually met Dave Grohl at our West Hollywood store, and they worked together after that.
He's one of country's biggest acts, yet "Heavy Is the Head" is No. 3 on the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart.
How do you prefer to listen to music?
Every medium, but I'm a huge vinyl collector. I have about 15,000 to 20,000 records that are mostly stored at a house I have upstate. The first one I ever bought was Neil Young's After the Gold Rush.
What is the biggest challenge facing the music and fashion industries?
For music, it's understanding how the artists and labels together can really make money. For fashion, it's getting knocked off. The United States doesn't protect designs unless you register every single one of them. In the music industry, you might have 12 songs to protect on an album -- but you might have thousands of designs in a fashion collection.
You recently opened a store in Detroit. The city has been showing signs of new life -- do you think the same goes for its music scene?
Yes. In the next five years, I think Detroit will be the most talked-about city in the world for urban growth -- its comeback will be even bigger than Brooklyn's. My brothers still live there, and when I go back I'm snooping around, going to the clubs. I see a lot of young music people moving there and opening up recording studios.
Down on the Corner
Is that something you'd like to do?
Yeah, I'd love to do one in Detroit. I'd also love one in Manhattan. I've looked into it, but there's no more space in our building.
People protested when you turned the CBGB space into a store in 2008. Do you ever second-guess that decision?
No. It had been closed for two years, and there was talk of a drug store or restaurant moving in. It was a total dump in there, but I wanted to keep music alive in the Bowery. We've done almost 150 shows there, every one of them free: Joan Jett, Paul Weller, Kiss. We respect that the grounds are special and that the walls still speak to you.
You raised almost $900,000 at the 2014 Stuart House Benefit to help child victims of sexual abuse. What's in store for this year's event on April 26?
Ziggy Marley, who's the face of our fashion campaign, is performing. For most of these big events you pay $10,000 for a seat, but we don't do that. We shut down Melrose [Avenue in West Hollywood] and hold a fun, family-oriented day for a difficult cause that tends to be more centered on women. As a men's company we embrace it. Not enough guys have gotten behind that kind of thing.
If you could have dinner with any rock icon, dead or alive, who would it be and where would you take them?
Jimi Hendrix. I'd probably take him to a down-and-dirty Mexican restaurant and have margaritas.
This article first appeared in the May 2 issue of Billboard.