NEW YORK – Famed Greek-American designer John Varvatos is known for his rock-inspired fashions for men. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), he spoke about growing up in a suburb of Detroit, the son of first generation Greek-American parents, and the influence of music on his journey to becoming one of the top menswear designers today.
Varvatos, 64, told the WSJ, “I was born in Detroit, but my family lived in Allen Park, a working-class suburb about 20 minutes south of the city. We lived in a 900-square-foot ranch house that my parents had bought in 1955. In addition to my parents, there were five of us. Evan is the youngest followed by Elaine, Dennis, me and Christine. There was one phone and one bathroom.”
Of his parents, he said, “My father, George, was an accountant for a nationwide milk-carton manufacturer. My mother, Catherine, was a homemaker, but she had art in her fingertips. She made clothes for all of us. My parents had only so much money to buy us clothes at Sears. She also was an amazing baker and cake decorator, as well as a superb illustrator. Everything she touched looked great.
“My parents were on the strict side. They grew up as first-generation Americans. Their parents had come over from Thessaloniki and Sparta in Greece. After church on Sundays at 2 p.m., we had a big dinner at our house or the house of a relative. Both of my parents were great cooks.”
Rock music soon became an influence on the young Varvatos and his style through the music magazines he bought at Sam’s Jams, a store near the family’s home. “In high school, I was known for wearing the type of thin scarves favored by Keith Richards,” he said, the WSJ reported, adding that “I was 18 when I went to my first arena rock concert. I saw Led Zeppelin at Detroit’s Cobo Hall in July 1973…the concert changed my life.”
The “cutting-edge clothes” worn by guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant made a major impression on his style and eventually on his designs as well.
Varvatos was 16 when he began “selling menswear in Detroit at Hughes & Hatcher, a Michigan clothing chain,” noting that he didn’t really know what he wanted to do in college, but continued working and “in their Grand Rapids store, I watched the tailor and learned the basics of making clothes,” the WSJ reported.
Following his college graduation, Varvatos went into retail, opening a men’s store with business partners, noting that “we were among the first to carry Polo Ralph Lauren,” he told the WSJ.
He was soon working for Ralph Lauren as the head of their Chicago region, eventually moving to head the company’s sales and merchandising in New York where he began studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology and designing clothes in the 1980’s. He then headed the menswear design for Calvin Klein, starting the CK brand and the underwear division, creating the boxer brief, WSJ reported.
“In 1999, I started my own company and designed clothes for men with an edgy, tailored look that had an authentic rock ‘n’ roll feel,” Varvatos told the WSJ, adding that “today, my wife, Joyce, and I live with our 10-year-old daughter, Thea, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a block from Central Park.”
He shared a few “musical muses” with the WSJ, including his first 45 record-
The Kinks’ You Really Got Me from 1964 and summed up Detroit rock in five words, “Passion, rebellion, raw, industrial, free.”