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Q&A With John Varvatos

The designer cranks up the volume with a new footwear line and global expansion.

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NEW YORK — John Varvatos isn’t letting the economy keep him down.

While many companies are scaling back, Varvatos is launching a footwear collection under his bridge line, Star USA, for fall ’09.

“With the way the world is today, you need to offer a large variety of what I call ‘entry into your brand,’” Varvatos told Footwear News in an exclusive interview at his Star USA showroom in New York. “You can’t have your nose turned up and think it only can be [high-priced] because even those guys who were buying there may not be buying there right now.”

Varvatos said he wanted to create designer shoes with a “younger, funkier edge” at an affordable price. For the 44-SKU debut, retail prices are $225 to $345, with spring ’10 prices slated to start at $165 for sandals and other sockless styles. The shoes will be made in the Far East, using Italian leathers and then hand finished.

Varvatos’ Collection footwear accounts for more than 20 percent of his company’s total revenue, and he estimated shoes to be one of the fastest-growing categories in the business. In fact, he expects Star USA to outpace Collection footwear within two years. Barneys and Neiman Marcus have already picked it up, and it also will be available in specialty stores and the nine John Varvatos locations across the U.S.

As the company, part of VF Corp., looks ahead to its 10th anniversary next year, global expansion tops the agenda. In January, Varvatos opened a European headquarters in Milan and moved his runway show there from New York. “[The switch] was a big move,” he said. “We know that’s a bigger stage in menswear than New York.”

Closer to home, the designer in 2008 bowed three stores, including a much-ballyhooed location in the former CBGB music club on Manhattan’s Bowery, where music still reigns supreme and concerts are a frequent event.

Varvatos also is continuing his much-hyped Converse collaboration, which has helped him attract more attention globally. “Between Collection, Star USA and Converse, it’s a lot,” he said. “But it’s my passion.”

FN: Why is footwear such an important category for you?
JV: I’m kind of a shoe junkie. It started when I was a kid. I had no money growing up, but I always had an inordinate amount of shoes. And I love leathers and the whole art of making shoes and the whole finishing process. I’ve always had an affinity for vintage. For me, it’s about how you keep that whole thing alive and not make it look like it was just manufactured.

FN: Is there too much sameness in shoes?
JV: Most of the industry is much more commercialized, there’s no doubt about it. There’s definitely some beautiful product out there, but overall, and especially when you get to this kind of [lower] price range, it’s commercialized. The [motto] we use here is “put more love in the shoes.” We see our prototypes and say, “You’ve got to give it more love.” And I don’t see that much love out there in $200-to-$340 shoes.

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