The 59 year-old Greek American designer, whose privately held John Varvatos label reports yearly sales of $250 million, is returning to his hometown of Detroit, where he is opening the 21st store in his empire, and his first in the Midwest.
Why is a designer known for his upscale rock ‘n’ roll style, setting up shop in a city described by the Washington Post as “just emerging from bankruptcy, a town that is at once a hipster magnet, a developer’s dream, an economic case study and a source of frayed hope and stubborn disappointment for longtime residents”?
“First of all, there’s an emotional connection,” says Varvatos, who grew up in of Allen Park, a working-class community about 15 miles downriver from Detroit. Three of his four siblings still live in the area, and his regular visits gave him an intimate understanding both of Detroit’s long-standing struggles and its potential.
“I remember my roots very clearly. . . . There’s the whole thing of being blue collar, working hard and giving back,” he tells the Post. “Heritage is super important — so is authenticity.”
As the Post writes, Varvatos was not a child of privilege. He estimates the bungalow that was his childhood home measured about 1,000 square feet, with seven people sharing a single bathroom. He worked briefly at a Chrysler plant assembling brake pads, before getting his start at Ralph Lauren in 1984, moving on to oversee menswear at Calvin Klein and then returning to Ralph Lauren as head of menswear design. He launched his own label in 2000.
The Post’s Givhan writes that Varvatos is “a quintessentially American designer, but he does not wave the Stars and Stripes. Instead, he takes the blue-collar aspects of American culture that have seeped into rock-and-roll — the gritty, the urban, the been-to-hell-and-back cool — and elevates it all… He romanticizes the factory worker, celebrates the integrity of callouses and sees glamour in the metallic gleam of a stamping plant.”
“Look, I understand this town,” he told Crains in a recent interview. “My family still lives here. My brothers, they struggle in their business to make a living in their landscaping business. They’ve struggled over the years here as things have been tough… I look at it like there is an opportunity to bring people from the ‘burbs downtown, which you desperately need and to bring a lot of tourists.”
Making a business case for downtown retail, Varvatos told Crains that, “People want the city to win. If we can be a little spark to help ignite that, I’d be thrilled. There’s no ego involved. I look at this as a contribution.”
As a designer, the Post notes, Varvatos is inspired by the music he grew up with, from Motown to rock. It informs his collections, drives his advertising campaigns — which typically feature musicians — and is his after-hours passion. He even has his own record imprint. His new Detroit outpost opened quietly in March, but a grand opening is planned for April 16, when Alice Cooper, another Detroiter, will perform.
The Post’s Givhan concludes that “what Varvatos is actually selling under the banner of fashion is the idea of authenticity. He is investing in the glory of cities. He is moved by Diego Rivera’s exquisite conception of industry. He’s recalling the proud swagger of having produced some thing — not an idea or a service or a new efficiency. A thing. In a digitized life, Varvatos is selling analog pleasures — almost lost, still beloved — or at least the mythology of them. And in that sense, he is selling Detroit.”