John Varvatos Biography

Fashion designer

Born c. 1955; children: two. Education: Graduated from Eastern Michigan University.

Addresses: Office —26 West 47th St., New York, NY 10011.


Worked in men's retail during high school and college; co-owned men's clothing store, Grand Rapids, MI; Polo Ralph Lauren, Midwest region salesperson, then sales, merchandising, and design posts in New York, NY, office, 1983-90; corporate president of menswear, Calvin Klein, 1990-93; vice chairman and executive vice president of design and merchandising, London Fog Industries, 1993-95; interim chairman, London Fog, 1994-95; vice president in charge of men's design, Polo Ralph Lauren, 1995-98; senior vice president of special projects, Nautica Enterprises, 1998; founded John Varvatos (a design company), 1999; showed first men's collection, 2000; opened the John Varvatos New York flagship store, 2000; launched John Varvatos Men's fragrance, 2004; produced first women's line, 2004; added skincare products under the name John Varvatos Skin, 2005.

Awards: Perry Ellis Award for New Menswear Designer, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 2000; Menswear Designer of the Year, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 2001, 2005.


After years of working for leading American men's wear designers, John Varvatos launched his own line of men's wear and related lifestyle products in 2000 to positive reviews and quick sales. The Varvatos name was soon associated with quality, elegance, and practical yet interesting men's fashion. Though not as high-end as Helmut Lang or Gucci, as Ginia Bellafante wrote in the New York Times, "The designer's clothes seem intended for the kind of guy who has moved into a salary bracket that no longer confines him to Banana Republic." The success of his men's line led to more products being designed and sold under the Varvatos name, including cologne, skin care, and a line of women's wear.

Born around 1955, Varvatos was raised in suburban Detroit, in Allen Park, Michigan. His father was a Greek American who worked as an accountant. The household was conservative, but rock music was Varvatos' outlet. By the time he could drive, he was going to rock shows in the area.

His interest in music led to a fascination with fashion. Varvatos attempted to dress like a rock star as much as he could. By the time he was a senior in high school, he worked in a men's clothing store. Varvatos continued to work in men's retail while attending Eastern Michigan University. He also learned how to play guitar, teaching himself to play. He performed with some bands, such as Sweet Wine, a group he started with a cousin.

Though Varvatos originally intended to be a science teacher while attending college, he went into the retail business after completing college. With a friend, he opened up a men's store that was located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One label carried by the store was Polo by Ralph Lauren. Because of Varvatos' success selling in the label's clothes, he was hired by the Ralph Lauren company in 1983 as a Midwest region salesperson.

His success at this position led to new posts within the company. He was transferred to New York City, where he worked in sales as well as merchandising and design. Of this experience, he told Josh Sims of the Financial Times, "It wasn't yet a designer world when I was with Ralph. But I learned more in my first year there than in my entire career since, especially in terms of business acumen.Ralph was a real marketer and I picked that up."

Varvatos left Ralph Lauren in 1990 when he was lured to Calvin Klein. There, Varvatos served as the corporate president of men's wear, in charge of all men's wear design. He told Ariel Foxman of Fortune, "The challenge at Calvin Klein was the blank canvas. There was no men's wear when I got there." In addition to launching Calvin Klein's men's collection, he also developed and launched the cK brand and the extremely successful Calvin Klein underwear line.

In 1993, Varvatos joined London Fog Industries. He served as a vice chairman and executive vice president of product design and merchandising. Varvatos was hired to improve the company's image and revitalize its product lines, and did well in the position. Varvatos also briefly served as the interim chairman of the company from August 1994 until early 1995 when a permanent chairman was hired. When Varvatos resigned in early 1995, he remained a consultant with London Fog for a short amount of time.

Varvatos returned to Polo later that year. Upon his return, he was named vice president and put in charge of men's design for all of Polo Ralph Lauren brands, including Polo by Ralph Lauren and Polo Sport. As he had done at Calvin Klein, Varvatos successfully launched a new line. He created the Polo Jeans Company line, which sold well. The experience at Polo proved educational when Varvatos started his own company.

In 1998, Varvatos left Ralph Lauren to join Nautica Enterprises as senior vice president of special projects. Part of the lure of going to Nautica was that it would financially back Varvatos's own company. (Nautica had approached him several years earlier about starting his own line, but Varvatos rejected the offer at the time.) Nautica produced men's clothing, including sportswear, active wear, and outerwear. In addition to being given the means to start his own company, Varvatos also designed Nautica's jeans and added a fashionable touch to the company's line.

Varvatos launched his company in 1999, called simply John Varvatos. His first collection of men's wear came in early 2000 for fall/winter 2000. The line included wardrobe staples that were well-crafted and well-designed, including wool suits, pants, shirts, ties, topcoats, sweaters, and sportswear. In addition, Varvatos included other accessories and footwear. From the first, Varvatos's clothing had a distinctive look; there was an eclectic touch to the collection. Varvatos told Michael Steele of, "I don't like things that are so uniform. I like people who mix things and come up with their own sense of style. I don't want to feel like I'm wearing everything so perfectly thought-out."

There was one important aspect to Varvatos' clothing: He recognized that the rules about men's clothing did not exist in the same way any more. He could take chances and did so. Varvatos told the Daily News, "Color can be fun when it's used right, but business clothes are still not about that. On weekends or at dinner, you can add some color underneath the business wardrobe. But not every guy wants to wear color every day."

Varvatos showed his first collection in New York during Fashion Week. Reviewing the line, Linda Gillan Griffin of Houston Chronicle commented, "Varvatosput together a superbly British-detailed collection of thick woolen jackets, coats, suits and casual wear." While Griffin praised his use of modern fabrics in his suits and jackets, she did not like all of his pants, especially the crop-legged ones.

Varvatos' ideas and his clothes were generally well-received. His line was not just embraced by the fashion press, but by the stores which can make or break a young designer and his company. Big department stores bought Varvatos' first collection, including Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. Shortly after the launch of the fall/winter 2000 line, Varvatos opened his first store in New York City. Also called John Varvatos, this flagship store was located in Soho. He went on to open several boutique stores in the United States in the early 2000s.

Varvatos found similar success with his second collection, for spring/summer 2001. While the shape of his clothes was similar to the fall/winter 2000 line, the sweaters and jackets went from wool to a cashmere-linen blend. Varvatos was careful to include touches that would appeal to his audience, such as a pocket for a cell phone in a coat. His clothes continued to take up more space at major department stores; he added Barneys and Neiman Marcus to his existing clients.

By the launch of Varvatos' third collection, he was recognized as a growing force in the industry and his clothing was associated with quality. After selling his first two collections primarily in the United States, his fall/winter 2001 collection was the first to be sold internationally. This particular collection was regarded by critics as masculine, but accessible. Reviewing the line, Robin Givhan of the Washington Post wrote, "His is the sort of clothing that attracts a variety of men with its easy cuts, its luxurious fabrics, and the confident styling that is both of-the-moment and timeless."

In his subsequent collections for men, Varvatos continued to follow his own voice. He varied the cut of his clothing, especially suits, and the colors which he used. He took chances, including a series of wide-legged pants similar to a cut that was popular in the 1930s. Varvatos told Sims of Financial Times, "I don't follow trends. I follow my gut." Many of his risks paid off.

Success brought new challenges for Varvatos. His parent company, Nautica, was undergoing a major transition. In 2003, Nautica was bought out by VF Corp., a more mainstream apparel company that was publicly traded. The change brought some uncertainty to Varvatos' future, but he continued to evolve his brand.

Also in 2003, Varvatos began working on his first line for women. Launched for fall/winter 2004, he designed apparel, shoes, outerwear, and accessories for women. He told Sarah Taylor of Footwear News, "I've been thinking about a women's collection for a long time. I definitely don't want to be compared to anybody. I don't want to come out with anything unless it has our own handwriting and our own look." As soon as the line was launched, he planned to open a store that only sold his women's line.

Varvatos tried to mimic the tone of his men's line with his women's line. Though he wanted his women's line to be versatile and accessible, he was fully aware that there was more competition in women's wear. Varvatos was attracted by the possibility of doing more there because women are perceived as more open to change in fashion. However his women's wear was not an immediate success, and it took several seasons to find his own look. His women's line was not regarded as refined as his men's line, which remained better known and more lucrative.

Despite the disappointment over his women's line, Varvatos continued to expand his company. In 2004, he launched his first fragrance for men. The cologne was called John Varvatos for Men, and included input in the scent from the designer himself. The following year, he added a line of around 12 skin care products for men, called John Varvatos Skin. Both the fragrance and skin care line were first sold in the United States, then sold around the world. Varvatos also signed a new deal with Converse, the athletic footwear manufacturer, to design a line of clothing under the Chuck Taylor label. For several years, he had designed his own version of classic shoes in the Converse line.

While Varvatos took chances with these products, he also became a part-owner of the company that bore his name. In 2005, he signed a new deal with VF Corp. that gave him twenty percent of his company, which saw sales of his collection reaching $50 million by 2005. (Nautica and VF Corp. had owned all of his company under the previous deal.) Though Varvatos wanted to take ownership of his own company, he did not have the financing or financial status to do so. This deal was the best offer he received. While this was going on, he continued to expand his retail presence by opening a new New York store devoted to shoes and accessories.

Varvatos worked hard to balance the design and business sides of his company. He told Bellafante in the New York Times, "I'm a business person as well as a designer. Sometimes designers are brilliant creatively, but they lose touch with what's happening at the store. You have to ring the register."



Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 10, 2003, p. 1E.

Chicago Sun-Times September 30, 2004, p. 57.

Cosmetics International Cosmetic Products Report, October 2003, p. 10; September 2004, p. 13.

Daily News (New York, NY), July 23, 2000, p. 12.

Esquire, October 2000, p. 74.

Financial Times (London, England), July 7, 2001, p. 11.

Footwear News, July 28, 2003, p. 66; February 2, 2004, p. 112; February 9, 2004, p. 96; April 25, 2005, p. 2.

Fortune, November 27, 2000, p. 348.

Global Cosmetic Industry, March 2003, p. 12.

Houston Chronicle, February 9, 2000, p. 1.

Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2005, p. E11.

New York Times, August 24, 1994, p. D3; September 12, 2000, p. B11; June 18, 2005, p. C2.

PR Newswire, January 12, 1995; September 10, 1998.

Washington Post, February 12, 2001, p. C1; January 23, 2005, p. D1.


"Biography," John Varvatos, http://www.john (October 15, 2005).

"Look Like a Rock Star," New, http:// fashion/features/n_9125/index.html (October 15, 2005).

A. Petruso

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