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The Drapers Interview: John Varvatos on bringing his brand of rock ’n’ roll to the UK

Fifteen years after opening his first store in New York, US menswear designer John Varvatos explains why his sights are firmly set on further expansion in the UK.

John Varvatos

John Varvatos

Entering American menswear retailer John Varvatos’ UK store on London’s Conduit Street is like wandering into your favourite record shop or gig venue, if only the owner had suddenly decided to branch out into premium fashion. Merchandised like a rock music collector’s treasure trove, rows of electric guitars and shelves of vinyl sit alongside soft leather jackets, sharp suits and dark denim. 

Opened exactly a year ago this week, the 10,000 sq ft flagship is the largest in a 20-store portfolio spanning America, Canada, Mexico and Thailand. The store also boasts the largest traffic to sales conversion rate of any in the Varvatos portfolio, at 39%.

The designer is now focused on growing UK wholesale with high-profile department stores and luxury boutiques beyond its existing three majoraccounts, including Opening new standalone retail in the capital is another key goal.

“We were excited by our first year in London, which went better than expected,” says Varvatos, although he refuses to provide any specific figures for the UK. Wider company sales reached $130m (£83.7m) in 2014.

He initially opted for Conduit Street following his search for something different. “I like that it’s not Bond Street. As beautiful as Bond Street is, it’s a little too stuffy for me and Regent Street is too high street. Savile Row is great but a little quiet, so Conduit Street is the best of both worlds.”

Now on the lookout for his second store, his quest for the perfect location means he has already discounted a proposed store in Westfield London. “We’re looking at different areas in the city and a few have been presented, but they’re not as on-brand as we want. Westfield just didn’t feel like it was the next thing we wanted to do in London. The next place needs to be somewhere a little funkier.”

With the chilled-out demeanour of a rock star fresh off stage, the Detroit-born designer leans back on the black velvet sofa downstairs in the basement of his three-storey UK flagship. A keen guitarist himself, music from The Smiths, Foo Fighters, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie pumps out of a set of Marshall amps rigged up on a stage. Designed to double as a gig space, the basement room is modelled on Varvatos’ Manhattan Bowery Street boutique, which opened in August 2008 on the site of the iconic 1970s punk club CBGBs.

While the designer keeps his cards close to his chest on potential new locations, Jace Tyrrell, deputy chief executive at the New West End Company, the body which represents core retail streets in central London, identifies a number of potential locations for the next John Varvatos store. “East of Oxford Street could be good, with all the culture in Fitzrovia and the new shopping development Tottenham Court Walk on Tottenham Court Road.

“Another possible area would be Soho, particularly Berwick or Broadwick Street, which have a great mix of office buildings, media companies, independent coffee shops and edgy brands. Space is a premium, with eight or nine businesses typically looking at any site, but a smaller location off main the shopping streets always benefits from the sheer volume of footfall.

“Also, as the retailer is looking to widen its portfolio, it’s good to have a range of store sizes and it helps to cluster with likeminded brands. In these areas brands also benefit from a mixed offer of dining and culture, which is difficult for a shopping centre to replicate.”

John Varvatos

John Varvatos’ Conduit Street flagship in London

Varvatos would not be drawn on how many stores he plans to open, but expansion could involve standalone stores for the John Varvatos Star USA diffusion line. Launched in 2006, the label is aimed at a younger demographic of 20 to 35 years and pitched at a lower price point than the mainline collection. For example, Star USA leather jackets wholesale for up to £895, compared with prices in excess of £2,995 for the mainline collection. Spanning denim, sportswear, tailoring, footwear and accessories, the Star USA collection has a looser cut and worn-in look Varvatos describes as “preppy-meets-punk”.

Surrey-based two-store premium menswear indie Robert Fuller has stocked the John Varvatos Star USA line since autumn 2009, after seeing the brand at the Magic trade show in Las Vegas in 2007. “I wanted something a bit different and as an indie it’s nice to stock product you can’t get everywhere,” says co-owner Richard Chapman.

“The collection has a rock and roll edge and provides good quality for the price. Key pieces include the Burnout T-shirt (£69 retail) and the Bowery jean (£149). The collection appeals across several generations, but I’d say the core customer is 35 and over. I think the brand has the potential to grow in the UK market. I buy direct from the US, but it would be good if they used the space upstairs at the West End store as a showroom.”

Jack Green, owner of premium menswear independent Green’s of Sunningdale in Berkshire, has stocked the John Varvatos mainline collection since 2001, adding Star USA in 2006. “The collection fits everyone and the fabrics are luxurious, in keeping with the brand’s exclusive image. Prices range from £60 for a Star USA T-shirt to £1,800 for a mainline leather jacket. I stock around 70% of the range, but no footwear. The mainline collection in particular sits well alongside other brands I carry like Zegna and Nudie Jeans.”

Despite being popular with a select number of independents, the brand remains relatively unknown among UK consumers. To boost wholesale accounts Varvatos is intending to strengthen relationships with luxury department stores and boutiques but he didn’t outline specific numbers or targets, and he is adamant the push will remain restricted to protect the exclusive nature of the brand. Varvatos is also planning to double both print and digital marketing spend from autumn 2015 onwards, although he declined to share the level of investment.

Anusha Couttigane, fashion consultant at retail analyst Conlumino, agrees the brand has a relatively low profile in the UK but she sees potential. “The UK menswear market is roughly half the size of womenswear, so there’s growth potential. There’s been a big focus on men’s tailoring, which John Varvatos could benefit from,” she says.

“The only concern is that it has a very specific 1970s rock and roll aesthetic, which limits the lifespan of the brand, as it might be hard to hook younger customers than the over 40s. The price point isn’t aimed at the mass market, so the focus will be on cultivating a brand identity that speaks to premium consumers.”

Outside the UK, Varvatos sees opportunities in France, Germany and Russia, as well as the Middle East, where it has a strong network of stockists, although no standalone retail as yet. His approach will be a considered one. “We will put a larger emphasis on the UK. Being in the right multibrand stores is key, but our biggest push is on standalone retail and online. We feel Europe is a big continent and you can’t win everywhere all the time.”

John Varvatos

The basement gig space at John Varvatos’ Conduit Street flagship

In terms of product, a move into underwear is being mooted, although there are no firm timings in place. This sector is familiar to Varvatos. While working as head of menswear design at Calvin Klein from 1990 to 1995, Varvatos created the boxer brief by cutting the legs off a pair of long johns. “I thought there was something very cool about that fitted look. It was one of those things that happened in five minutes and now boxers are the biggest part of a man’s underwear range.

“I haven’t branched out into underwear yet, because I want to make sure when I enter a category there’s something new, both conceptually and product wise. The same is true of womenswear. I’ve learnt over the past five years that focus is crucial. You can’t just translate the fit and overall aesthetic, you need to tell the whole story. So womenswear is on the back burner for now.”

While he is yet to move into underwear and womenswear, Varvatos has not been afraid to branch out into jewellery, accessories, fragrance and footwear. The designer claims his 12-year collaboration with US trainer brand Converse is the longest running in footwear. Characterised by rich embossed leathers and zip details, the collection is at a premium price point ranging from £115 to £174.

Not bad for a man who never set out to be a designer. The lightbulb moment came when aged 28 he decided to give up his job as Ralph Lauren head of sales to study illustration and pattern making, after which he became head of menswear design at Calvin Klein. Five years later he returned as head of menswear design at Ralph Lauren, where he honed his craft before leaving to start his eponymous label in 2000.

From the beginning the brand drew its inspiration from music culture. Varvatos grew up in 1970s Detroit, a heady environment mixing rock, jazz, blues, Motown, soul and gospel influences. “I came from a humble home and the only way for me to go somewhere else was through music,” he recalls. “From as young as I can remember music had the ability to suddenly transport me away.”

Over the past 15 years, Varvatos has aligned his brand with musicians, dressing rockstars and bands such as Iggy Pop and Kiss. US rocker Jack White is his latest target. “He loves the label, but he’s not a guy who wants to put his name with brands, which makes me want to do it even more.”

Varvatos is hoping his rock ’n’ roll aesthetic will strike a chord with UK consumers, through a concerted push on marketing, growing wholesale and increasing his retail presence in London. While competition will be fierce on the British high street, the combination of his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle offering and the premium price point could help Varvatos carve out his own niche.

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