In February, menswear designer John Varvatos transformed his Bowery store—the space that was formerly CBGB—into a darkened mixed-media funhouse for fashion week. There were rows of coffins and fake-blood splatters, David Bowie and Pink Floyd lyrics scrawled across walls, models who accessorized clothing from the Autumn/Winter 2016 collection with creepy animal-head masks. The highly unconventional setup, Varvatos said, was part of a larger question he pondered while rendering the looks: “Is rock dead?” he asked himself.
The answer, of course, was a resounding “no.” It never will be for Varvatos, whose encyclopedic knowledge of music has become a fabric of its own for the namesake label he founded nearly two decades ago. Each season musicians become muses for Varvatos’ designs, but they also become the stars of his Danny Clinch-shot ad campaigns which have featured everyone from Iggy Pop to Kiss to Willie Nelson to Jimmy Page and Gary Clark Jr.
Carrying the label’s rock ‘n’ roll torch this Fall is Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the Dublin-based artist whose blues and folk-inflected self-titled debut album landed him a Grammy-nomination and two Billboard Music Awards in 2015. “When I mentioned to Danny and art director Stephen Niedzwiecki that I wanted Andrew to be in the campaign, their immediate reaction was, ‘Fuck! Oh my god!'” recalls Varvatos, who launched his own music label in 2014. “Sometimes we talk about ideas and chew on it for a while. This one was an instantaneous fireworks display.”
With Varvatos in New York and Hozier at home, the duo hopped on a long distance call to chat about the campaign and its accompanying Clinch-directed video of Hozier’s “To Be Alone”—which Billboard is exclusively premiering. The conversation, excerpted below, quickly became in the words of Varvatos, “a total love fest.”
Hozier: John, it’s good to talk to you, how are you? How’s life?
Varvatos: It’s good, man. Where are you?
Hozier: I’m in Ireland, I’m home at the moment
Varvatos: We were just talking about how hot it is here in New York. Remember how hot it was the day we shot the campaign? It’s even hotter here now. There’s no such thing as global warming, though. [laughs]
Hozier: Nope! Nonsense! It’s actually quite mild in Ireland. We’ve been lucky the last couple of weeks— this is one of the best summers I’ve seen in years. In Ireland, you could have a summer [in which] you can count the days of sunshine on one hand. Nothing like over there—New York has a special kind of heat.
Varvatos: Yeah, it’s called cement. [laughs]
Billboard: So how did the campaign come together.
Varvatos: I’ve been a big fan of Andrew’s since he came on the scene. There is so much to love about him, starting with the music and the songwriting and how special it is and how it captures your imagination and heart. But it’s also, I was so intrigued by what a renaissance man he is—how he looks at the world and what goes on in the world, and it comes out in his songs. I was always intrigued by how handsome he is; he’s a great looking guy and that always works great in our world of fashion.
Billboard: Are you blushing over there yet, Andrew?
Hozier: He’s been very very generous. Thank you, John. I suppose from my end, in a similar way, i was absolutely thrilled when my manager first let me know [about the campaign offer]. I had a few pieces of Johns and I always loved that the work he does is this incredibly rare thing where elegance just meets sheer badass. There’s a wonderful spirit in the clothing. I had never met John before and he is an absolute gentleman, someone who really knows his stuff. I was shocked by how much he knows about rock and roll. There is a dedication to the legacy of it—not only in the way the business conducts itself but also in his work and in his life.
Billboard: John, how did you decide what Andrew was going to wear for the shoot?
Varvatos: Andrew is a tall drink of water. How tall are you, Andrew? 6’ 4’’?
Hozier: 6’5,’’ I think.
Varvatos: He’s got long arms, he’s very tall, so we had to make these pieces for him. Based on everything that I knew about him and his personality, I selected some things that I thought he might like—he made them look badass and sexy at the same time.
Billboard: Where did the shoot take place?
Varvatos: We were in an old mill that was built by George Washington in New Jersey. It is this very rustic space with an imperfectness to it. When we were there, we had a lot of conversations about what happened what happened in that space. There wasn’t power back then, there wasn’t lighting, automobiles or trucks. We were in one area shooting Andrew in a doorway—and while we were taking those photos, I was thinking: “How did this come to be? Why did George Washington pick this place in Montclair, New Jersey?”
Hozier: It was kind of built into the side of a mountain—so you’d get to the back of the building and it was suddenly just ascending rock face, no more wall. Really cool spot.
Billboard: Andrew, what was it like working with Danny Clinch.
Hozier: He is amazing. I had met him before but it was always very brief. I didn’t realize until we got to talking on set that we had once shared a stage with Mumford and Sons at Bonnaroo—they got loads of people up on stage one night: My Morning Jacket, the guys from Dawes . . .
Varvatos: Danny plays harp
Hozier: We were all playing “With A Little Help From My Friends” and Danny was playing harp on stage. Danny is just a really laid back, relaxed pro. Later during the shoot day, he very kindly gave me a book of his work and it is just magnificent.
Billboard: Thinking back to your first photo shoot and then to this campaign, how has the experience of being photographed changed for you?
Hozier: [laughs] Well, the first one would have been me lugging an acoustic guitar around Dublin in a hoodie. I was a fairly awkward, gangly looking dude. So this was just—in two and half years—to be working with such people and being made to look so good . . . is amazing.
Billboard: John, has the collaborative process with Danny changed for you over the years? Or do the two of you read each other’s minds at this point?
Varvatos: We always brainstorm with art director Stephen Niedzwiecki on what we want to do—but we always want to bring out the artists’s personality. And then there’s just the stuff that happens—I call it “the caught in the moment.” You can plan everything but something happens or the light changes or you discover something—and Danny is an amazing photographer for catching things in the moment. He’s not rigid.
Billboard: Andrew, you’ve toured so exhaustively over the past two-and-a-half years. How does it feel to be home? Are you at work on new music?
Hozier: It feels great to be home. I was incredibly lucky to be on the road for that long, to promote the album as far and as wide as we did. Being home—there is that adjustment period after the tour is over, there’s a mad restlessness—but i think you enjoy a lot of things retrospectively; when you have a moment to breathe, you kind of look back and go “ oh wow, that was something else!” This is an example of it, too, talking about it and now looking back on it—what an amazing experience getting to work with John and Danny. I’m working on new music at the moment, I’m finally in a quiet spot to kind of settle down and live away from a city for a little bit and get some quiet work done. But I’m excited for what’s next.