Q&A With John Varvatos

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

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FN: How much do you watch your footwear competitors?
JV: We’re aware. We’d be dumb if we weren’t aware of what’s going on. But we look to competitors only to see that we’re not doing something that’s already out there. We never look to anybody for what’s out there. We really talk about what’s good for us. We’re not really concerned about the competition.

FN: How involved are you in the design?
JV: I’m in the studio 30, 40 hours a week. It’s a huge part of what I do. And shoes are one part of that. Until two years ago, we really didn’t have a full-time shoe person. I was pretty much doing a lot of the heart and soul of it. Now we have a little team, but [design] is something I spend a lot of time with — footwear especially.

FN: Is the Star USA footwear customer different from the Collection customer?
JV: There’s definitely a different customer. In some cases, there will probably be crossover. In our own stores, we carry all the products that we [produce], between Collection, Star USA and even my Converse products. We make it easy for guys to shop because guys don’t really like to go to 52 different places. And their lifestyle is about mixing all that stuff together. To some, one boot will be a throwaway, and to another, it’s an entrance into our brand.

FN: You’ve said you don’t expect Star USA to cannibalize your other footwear. Why not?
JV: First of all, it has a different point of view than Collection. It’s not just cheaper product. Otherwise, we wouldn’t carry it in our store. We carry all this in one environment, and it automatically shows that each brand has its own personality. If not, you’re duplicative and you almost look stupid if you’re just doing cheaper versions. Every one of [the brands] stands on its own.

FN: Did you find that more buyers were looking for lower-priced items for fall?
JV: Yes, [they were looking for value]. Even Neiman Marcus, who we’ve been doing a great Collection business with, saw a huge amount of value for their customer, not just because of the price but because they thought they were great shoes with a designer point of view that had a lot of value. Everyone is looking for more value today.

FN: Overall, how well are shoes doing compared with other categories?
JV: At the luxury end, it’s tough everywhere. I’d be lying if I said anything different. In our own stores, shoes are performing quite well. But in the marketplace, the shoe business is tough right now. We have a lot of great specialty stores where we do business. They will tell you there aren’t as many customers coming into the stores right now. In our own stores, our average sale was bigger in March 2009 than it was in March 2008, but we have fewer customers, as well. Except for the Bowery store, which is an anomaly. It just keeps going like nothing’s ever happened over there. But is footwear doing better than other products? In the luxury sector, I’m not sure. Most of the business is tough.

FN: What do you need to do to succeed in the luxury market these days?
JV: You need to differentiate yourself from everybody else. You need to have your own handwriting and personality. Just to be another person doing expensive, luxurious product is not enough. The thing I’m most proud of in our ninth year is that we’ve created our own personality for the brand. When I read reviews or articles about the company and people say “it’s very Varvatos,” to me, that’s what most people struggle for: creating their own brand identity or personality.

FN: You’ve done some women’s products in the past. Would you ever venture back into the market?
JV: We talk about it all the time. Part of me is super-intrigued by it and really wants to do it. Then there’s part of me today that says our success has been by really focusing on what we do well, expanding it, making it better every season and not taking our eyes off it like so many brands do, trying to do too many different things. We have to try to be the best in our area, and we’re very good at men’s. It’s fun doing the women’s product, there’s no doubt about it. It’s definitely a possibility, but it’s not going to happen in the next 24 months. Originally, I was thinking maybe 2010, but [we have to] make the Star USA footwear business much better.

FN: Why has Converse been such a good match for you?
JV: Since 2002, it’s been a great relationship personally and a great collaboration for us. It’s added a top to their pyramid for everything they do. It’s completely different from what we do here, so it’s another avenue for me. It’s like a writer who writes nonfiction and all of a sudden decides to do fiction. And Converse was always a part of my life as I grew up. The earliest memories are [of being] 4 or 5 years old, playing T-ball, wearing those black Converse high-top sneakers. I’ve never gone through a time in my life without having Converse in my closet.

FN: Do you expect to continue the relationship for a while?
JV: I love working on it, and we just re-upped [the contract]. For what started as a one-year, two-season, limited-edition thing, it’s turned into something that’s important to both of us. People come in every season looking for it. We are in 40-something countries with Converse. Our apparel is probably in 24 countries. So there are people I meet who say they were first introduced to us in Converse.

FN: Do they give you guidelines?
JV: They don’t filter anything we do, but you have to be respectful of it. The reason we got hooked up was that they saw my respect for the past, for vintage. I’m very respectful of what they built with the Chuck Taylor brand and the Jack Purcell brand. I want to make it interesting and new for the 21st century, but I also want to make it something that feels like it lives in the history of Converse. They have an archive, and we’ve become an important part of that archive. We’ve created a couple of products over there that have become some of the biggest-selling shoes in Converse history, like the laceless sneaker. We started that whole thing, and so many people do versions of it today.

FN: What do you think of the brands that are doing Converse-like products now?
JV: The market’s flooded with that. But for me, that’s a turn-on. When I stop seeing the knock-offs out there, that means we’re not doing interesting things. Sometimes it pisses me off, but most of the time, [I just think] we’ve got to keep it moving, keep it interesting.

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