John Varvatos admits it: He is “obsessed by the whole music thing.” Witness the 15,000 albums—ranging from Jimi Hendrix to R.E.M.—in his collection, or the 75 concerts he attends every year (most recently Silverchair and Bob Seger). “I grew up in a very musical town,” says the Detroit-area native, “and I wanted to look like the rock musicians.”
Fortunately for fans of his men’s clothing line—including Seal, Ryan Adams and Jack White of the White Stripes—Varvatos, 51, wound up dressing rockers instead. “It’s the edginess you want,” says Collective Soul guitarist Dean Roland, who wears his “lucky” Varvatos boots almost every performance. “His clothes make me feel rockin’.” At best, it feels like being “totally put together and yet totally thrown together at the same time,” says Eric McCormack (who wore tons of Varvatos on Will & Grace). All that good feeling helped create a business that now includes eyewear, fragrances and a sellout, limited-edition collection of Converse sneakers.
Varvatos’s latest styles, unveiled Feb. 5 during New York Fashion Week, featured a mix of weathered jackets, herringbone-stripe stovepipe pants and suede logging boots (modeled to tunes like Muddy Waters’s “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” handpicked, of course, by Varvatos). “I feel like it’s an important time for guys to be dressing up again,” says the designer, who frequently outfits stars like Tom Cruise and Pierce Brosnan for the red carpet. (See page 113.) “There’s a return to elegance—but it doesn’t have to be stuffy.”
“Stuffy” was probably never going to be part of the design palette offered by a guy who, as a kid, fell asleep most nights listening to Led Zeppelin on his headphones. After a brief, requisite foray into rock—he played guitar and sang in a high school band—Varvatos “got very into clothes, because music has a big influence on fashion,” he says. Even so, he didn’t start as a designer: In 1977, after graduating from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Varvatos continued his job working as a salesman in men’s stores, eventually moving to Manhattan to become vice president of sales for Ralph Lauren in 1983.
It was only then that he began to formally study design, taking night classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In 1985 his penchant for mixing vintage and contemporary clothes caught the eye of Lauren himself, and at 29 Varvatos landed his first gig as a designer. A stint as men’s designer for Calvin Klein (during which he launched the CK brand) followed, before Varvatos branched out on his own in 1999. “It was a period of time when everything was black,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘If there’s ever a time to do something different, it’s now.'”
Celebrities agreed. In 2003 he outfitted Taye Diggs and his groomsmen for the actor’s wedding, and later that year Hugh Jackman wore Varvatos’s line while promoting X2: X-Men United. Even so, Varvatos—who lives in Manhattan with wife Joyce Zybelberg, 42, a contemporary art consultant (he has two kids from a previous marriage, Lyndsey, 20, and John Jr., 22)—says he can still feel a little starstruck when meeting some of the rock heroes from his childhood, like Iggy Pop, who starred in the designer’s fall 2006 ad campaign. “When Iggy said yes, it was like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve arrived,'” says Varvatos. “He’s like the godfather of punk.”
The two men bonded after sharing “old stories from Detroit,” and Pop regularly wears Varvatos’s clothes. “It’s gratifying that my icons growing up have a lot of respect for what I do,” says Varvatos. “The biggest turn-on is seeing people who love to wear your clothes.”