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Mar 30, 2020

By Bella Carles

Photography By Tyler Mitchell & Words by Jesse Malin

I first met John Varvatos when I was asked to play at one of his men’s fragrance launches just after my first album came out. I hadn’t heard of him or ever played anything like this before, but it paid well and the word was that John was a big fan, not only of my record but also of rock and roll in general. They brought in the sound system we asked for, gave us some nice suits that we could mess up, and we signed on to play.

At the event, I met John and we started taking. Very quickly I realized he was a sweet and humble guy from Detroit that loved real rock and roll and really knew his shit. We had a few pops and talked about everything from Iggy to Wilco, Neil Young to the Dolls. It was the beginning of a long friendship, working together on a monthly radio show, charity events, and just going out to see shows.

When John opened a new shop at 315 Bowery, the old location of the infamous CBGB (where my friends and I spent most of our childhood), some were very skeptical, but I knew John would do the right thing. He didn’t just sell his clothes, he sold records, photo books from local photographers, and put on live shows with free admission and free booze. Paul Weller, KISS, Cheap Trick, Guns N’ Roses, Gary Clarke Jr., just to name a few. He set up the stage in the same spot it had always been, and every show, John was right there at the front, rocking out and greeting everyone with a big smile. He not only helped many cool bands look cooler, he also made a lot of regular dudes look and feel like rock stars just by wearing his stuff.

For a person that is out a lot I tend to keep to myself, but there was something undeniable about John I noticed early on. Yeah, he loved music and, yeah, he designed really cool clothes, but what I noticed more than anything was his true love of people.  

It’s funny how we have both been so busy these past couple of years, with me on the road so much and John doing so many things, that doing this interview was the only way we got to catch up with each other…

Jesse Malin: On the interview tip, I was thinking I just wanted to start at the beginning, just growing up in Michigan and getting exposed to rock and roll and fashion. What are some early things that impacted you?

John Varvatos: I grew up in a 900-square-foot house, this little three-bedroom bungalow. All little bedrooms with one small bathroom and seven people in the house, and my only way to transport myself out of there was to put on headphones and listen to music. For me, music became, as it becomes for a lot of people, part of my diet every day. I couldn’t exist without it. I went to bed listening, had my little earbuds in, and fell asleep listening to it. I did my homework with it. Whatever it was, it became a huge part until I was old enough to really be able to either sneak into some shows or go to some shows. Subliminally, I always thought about fashion because it was in every kind of music magazine back in the day. I was looking at Keith Richards and I remember the Stooges’ Fun House album. When you opened it up, they were laying on an oriental rug, and I wanted to be those guys. I wanted those clothes. I wanted that leather racing jacket. I wanted those jeans. I wanted those boots. There were always things that I liked from different people.

JM: Then getting into CBGB, into that to the Bowery location. How did that come about?

JV: I think that was, what, 11 years ago now? When it closed, I never thought about it, and then a guy called me one day and said, ‘I’m Elliott Azrak,’ and he has the master lease on the building. I had never been down there to see that space, and I went down there and it was like a cave. It was super cool and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to be in the club business. You know, my friend Jesse’s in the club business and it’s not an easy business, you know?’ I went home that night and, for some reason, I couldn’t go to sleep. I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something there. We could do something to keep the music alive in the Bowery.’ So the next day I came in and talked to my team about it. Of course, they walked in and they saw the shithole that it was, and the smell, and they came back and were like, ‘Yeah, you know, Bowery isn’t really where it should be now. It’s not evolved yet, our store in SoHo is 10 blocks away.’ And, god, it’s like the scene from Bonnie and Clyde, they were shooting me down here. A couple of days later I came in and said, ‘Guys, let’s have a meeting. We’re going to do the Bowery store. We’re going to do it and we’re going to take over CB’s,’ and they’re all kind of looking at me like…. Okay, now this is my senior team. I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m laying down the railroad tracks on this one. It’s something I feel is the right thing. I have something. I can’t explain it, I can’t sketch it for you right now, but I think it could be something really great for both the community and for us long-term, and I believe that I have something in my mind and the only way you’re going to see it is when the store opens.’ We opened with a lot of buzz, but we also opened with a handful of people that were from the neighborhood that weren’t happy that we were there.

JM: Sure, it was a brave thing to do. As somebody—I started playing when I was 12 years old, as you know—in hardcore bands and had so much history—got there signed out of there— but I knew you and I was like, ‘This guy loves rock and roll… you’re going to complain about the prices of the clothing and this and that.’ Then you go in there and put on shows that were free, give out free booze, kept the stage in the same direction. So many conversations I had, I think a lot of the tougher community, East Village cultural preservation activist types, started to become your biggest supporters.

JV: Which was so great to see. They would end up being at the shows, you know. Even somebody like Debbie Harry, who was never negative about me, she was just sad that CB’s was gone, and then she came to see Michael Monroe play there and realized that this is a real thing here.

JM: I’d say also, besides what you did for the music community, my friends, and bands, I’ve seen some people do their best shows in there. There’s a mojo in that room still. Not to blow smoke, but I really feel that you could tell somebody that never was there—if I had a kid, they could go in there and squint, and the wall, the way he kept the flyers, you could get a feel of what it was. Then you got on the table, you’re supporting photographers, we could buy a record there, you could see a flyer and look in a book and see what it looked like, and kind of just get a taste of that, and that was something that you did. A real balance, and of course you do good business. I always thought it was a win, and I know, from a guy that’s put on shows and played there with you, what goes on.

JV: We didn’t do it initially. Of course, you know, there’s always a commercial aspect to everything, but our goal was to go in there just to break even. It was, really. When we went in, we thought, ‘If we can break even in here and use the profit from this store to support the music thing…’ Probably close to 200 artists have played there over time.

JM: It’s a lot to keep up. I saw a conversation there with Jimmy Page, and Lou Reed. Lou Reed’s final public appearance talking there.

JV: The Faces. I mean, we’ve had a lot of interesting… I mean the Jimmy Page thing and Lou were once-in-a-lifetime kind of things.

JM: It must be insane standing there. The kid that came to CBGB and then standing up there watching shows.

JM: Are there a couple of shows from when you were in Detroit or Chicago that really made you go, ‘This is life to me. This is something I’m going to carry all the way.’?

JV: The Stooges and MC5 at the Grande Ballroom. I was super young, but I knew that it was like nothing else that was being played on the radio, and it was mind blowing. That was for sure.

JM: To lead into another brave thing that I thought you did, to take on a documentary on punk rock, which is so needed because so many people hated punk rock, and inside punk rock there’s a lot of haters. You did that with Iggy Pop as the producer, right?

JV: Executive producer, yeah.

JM: This being the first film that you’ve worked on, right?

JV: Yeah. It was it was one of those passion projects. I wasn’t necessarily looking to do music, but we thought it would be the first step to get into doing [films]. We both started talking about different genres, different people. There are lots of people still to do things on. Then we talked about punk. Think about it, a genre that kind of transcends every generation. Every generation embraces it to some degree. There’s never really been the story of where it started, where it went, where it’s at, and where it’s going. Where it is today? If it’s anywhere. So we decided to do a four-part series, going to networks to talk to them about that. We ended up going with EPIX because we loved that they wanted to really make noise with us. We got to be with so many people that you love and I love, that were inspiring, and that had great stories, starting with the guys I grew up with, Iggy and Wayne Kramer, from the Stooges and MC5, talking about the birth of it in Detroit. Then coming to New York and having Sylvain was amazing.

JM: And all the proper women were represented. It was a lot about bands like the Slits. And I thought my favorite, and not because I was a part of it at that time, but because there’s not a lot on it, were the hardcore episodes in the ‘80s. You had so many of the right players and people that came out and spoke. I mean, it’s always going to be hard to get everybody in.

JV: It is… but, I will say, in the end we had 65 or 68 different cast members that came to it. Almost every one of them was in a band, and all the bands we know, so it really was a great experience.

JM: When the ad campaigns came out for your clothing and your stores in the subways and buses, there were these iconic images from rock and roll photographers. You’d see this cool Debbie Harry [ad] in the subway, and I thought that was really intriguing.

JV: That’s where EPIX was really great with us. There’s not a lot of people doing outdoor stuff anymore, everything’s digital. We’re like, ‘It’s punk, this is old school, so let’s take over the subway.’ Then in L.A. we took over with billboards, and we really were in everybody’s face with it, which was pretty cool.

JM: It’s really cool. Is there something that you learned, like one or two things that stick in your mind from doing those interviews and watching?

JV: Well, first of all, you think you know a lot and then you realize that you only know so much. I had even to become a bigger student when I was working on the documentary and writing some of it, just the episodes, where they were going to go, the questions, and that type of thing. I think what you constantly learn in life is that, whether it’s a performance from someone or someone with a camera, things that happen in the moment are the things that stick with you the most.

JM: Now you have the label, and you do a yearly show with God’s Love We Deliver, which I know from the days when they first started, they used to do home meals for people with AIDS and expanded.

JV: Now they serve 8,000 meals a day to people around the New York metropolitan area that are too sick to cook for themselves. It started with AIDS and now these people are afflicted by up to 200 different illnesses. It’s not just for them. It’s also for their caregivers, because when you’re around sick people it also brings down family and caregivers. This is our fourth year and we’re over 10 million raised. For this year, we will break over 3 million in one night raised to give to the charity.

JM: I’ve got three more little, fast questions. So some band comes to you and asks, ‘Hey John, what should we dress like, how should we look?’ Would there be something to say to a band? Obviously, you’d have to see them, but is there some advice?

JV: I’m really cautious about that. The first thing I want to say to them is, ‘What’s inside you? What do you really mean? Or, what’s the story that you want to tell, what’s your image that you want to portray?’ I don’t want you to look like John Varvatos models. I want you to have an image that you want your voice to portray, because I think that when I saw the Stones back in the day, or I saw the Stooges, the reason I wanted to be them, not only because musically I was sucked in, but I was also sucked into their style.

JM: I think that kind of answered my next question, which was if you had advice for some young designer. But I think that’s the same thing of just being yourself. Like what Ralph Lauren said to you: ‘Do you think you have something you could add to this? Do you think you have something new to say?’

JV: Most of what’s in the market is a version of versions of versions. Coming up with something, just like coming up with a sound that’s your own, is not easy to do. If you’re going to give advice to someone, it’s like, what do you want to do with your career? Because if you want to work for another designer and design in their style like I did for a while, that’s cool. If you want to do your own thing, you really have to find your own voice and your own point of view, and it needs to be something that you can…you need something that you can dig your heels into and people can connect you with.

JM: That makes total sense. Last question. Designing, running a company, being dad, making movies, documentaries, a tequila company, running the label. Where’s your play? How do you sustain all of that?

JV: I think it’s passion, and I have a tremendous amount of energy inside of me. I can’t stand still, so I like having a lot going on. Now there are days, as you know, where you sit there and wish there wasn’t so much going on, but most days I like having all those things.

JM: Having all these things branching out probably keeps it interesting?

JV: I like it. But, you know the documentary, there’s something about storytelling. Fashion is storytelling, and music is storytelling, and even working with artists…in everything that you do, the storytelling is so important. And even with tequila, our whole story behind it is kind of what’s getting us out there in a big way. I mean, we’re in 1,300 locations just in the New York metropolitan area already and we’re just a few months out with it.

JM: It’s you and Nick Jonas?

JV: Yeah, and Stoli.

JM: Well, if you drink a few tequilas and you go out, stories just happen. You create history by having a fun, loose night.

JV: Yes. So, I love all of it. And then the dad part is the hardest part because you want to make sure that you give—and I think I do with my little one—but you want to make sure that you’re there for all the important things. I definitely miss some of those with my older kids, but I don’t want to miss any of the really important things with my little one. I also think that as you get older, you look at things differently and you realize what are the really important things in life. It’s your friends, your family, and you say, ‘Life’s too short, enjoy every moment.’ So doing all these things is also doing stuff that stimulates you, that you love, because I don’t want to do anything that I don’t like at this point in time. I’m on the back end of my life now, you know, so you don’t want to do anything on that part of this that isn’t important.

JM: Yeah, you know what Warren Zevon says, ‘Enjoy every sandwich.’

JV: Yeah exactly. That was an album cover, too. I remember him on David Letterman. He asked what it means and he said, ‘You know what it is? Life, you’ve got to enjoy every day.’

Photographer: Tyler Mitchell @tylermitchellphotography

Words by: Jesse Malin @jesse_malin

Hair: Tanya Pacht @tanyapacht Using CHANEL Beauty @chanel.beauty

Print and download Available Here https://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/1757709

Watch the full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1X5qPXBBv4&t=54s

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