For a designer whose first love is rock 'n' roll, and whose brand enjoys a big following in the music world, an anniversary bash with live music is a must. If said bash occurs in the former CBGB, and the designer is John Varvatos, then we're really talking about some world-class head-banging.
Varvatos, ecstatic and hoarse, periodically took the stage on the evening of September 11—in the middle of New York Fashion Week—to introduce the performers. Merely a few highlights: Cherie Currie of The Runaways belted out "Cherry Bomb"; Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top did a blues number, "King Bee," and then bandmate Dusty Hill joined in for "Rock Me Baby"; Alice Cooper surprised with the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" before giving the crowd "School's Out," and Perry Farrell closed with the Jane's Addiction classic "Mountain Song."
Revelers, lubricated by Original Moonshine whiskey cocktails, thrust their horn fingers overhead.
"I'm the luckiest guy on earth to have friends with so much talent and passion," says Varvatos. "These artists continue to inspire me, and are as much to thank for the success we celebrate tonight as those I work with every day."
Celebrity guests spanned the worlds of music, sport, comedy and Hollywood, and included Serena Williams, Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Kimmel, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Jeremy Piven, Kelly Rowland, Paz de la Huerta, Julian Lennon, Mario Batali and Rachael Ray.
Earlier that day, during sound checks, Varvatos interviewed and recorded musicians for his Sirius satellite radio show, "Born In Detroit."
"I love doing this show," he said. "They give me 100 percent freedom….Part of me would love to do it all the time, but if I did it more than once a month, I don't know how I would, because it takes me a lot of preparation. It's a big passion of mine."
The anniversary party was the culmination of 10 years of building the John Varvatos brand. "There wasn't that much rock 'n' roll [in the collection] when we started, but there was something in every season that went back to my youth," says Varvatos, who grew up in Detroit in the late Fifties and Sixties and says his taste in music is much broader than he lets on. After co-founding a store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Fitzgerald's, Varvatos rose through the ranks of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., doing sales. He went back to school to study design, which led to stints as design director at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Then, with support from Nautica, Varvatos launched his own line for fall 2000.
After proving himself so adaptable to the visions of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, he created his own concept—vintage craftsmanship and refined tailoring for a modern lifestyle.
"In 2005, after doing a lot of beautiful and romantic lifestyle advertising…my heart said to do something with musicians, although a lot of people had done that before," Varvatos says.
"I didn't think my clothes were that rock 'n' roll, which to a lot of people means black leather jackets," he adds. "If we were all rock 'n' roll, we wouldn't have the business that we have. Guys just wanted to dress up in a different way."
He ended up putting Ryan Adams in the campaign, which set a tone. A bigger star, Joe Perry from Aerosmith, followed and raised the bar. Iggy Pop marked the real turning point, after which many musicians (or their managers) sought to connect with the brand. Campaigns eventually featured Alice Cooper, Slash, Franz Ferdinand and ZZ Top. For the anniversary campaign, the brand created a Sgt. Pepper–inspired collage of 39 musicians who have either appeared in past ads or are simply friends of the designer.
"John Varvatos gets it. He's probably the only high-fashion designer I can handle," said Slash, who couldn't be at the party.
By 2008, when Varvatos secured the former site of CBGB, the seminal downtown rock club on the Bowery, and reopened the space as a concept store, he had big-name musical friends in his corner. And the store, a sometime concert venue that sells vinyl records and audio equipment as well as apparel, virtually changed the complexion of the brand because it enshrined the relationship to music.
"We keep the music alive, we support the artists and we use it for charitable things," says Varvatos. The anniversary event benefitted the VH1 Save the Music Foundation.
In the words of Gibbons from ZZ Top: "John Varvatos has written a new chapter in the saga of the sharp-dressed man."