Rock and Soul: John Varvatos Taps His Musical Roots


By Richard Nalley

This story appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of Forbes Life.

“Simon Doonan of Barneys had a line about our brand years ago that has stayed in my head,” says the American menswear designer John Varvatos. “He wrote that ‘They have a secret weapon: Every guy wants to be a rock star.’ And that’s what we do–we sprinkle a little rock star dust into everything.”

That goes for the rock riffs he puts on classic men’s clothes, from Converse Chuck Taylors (laceless) to dinner jackets (one button, with the subtle patterning of a faded tapestry). The rock star dust gets sprinkled on Varvatos’ musician-heavy ads, and on his retail stores from London to Bangkok, especially his image-making Bowery outpost in downtown New York, which once housed the legendary punk club CBGB and which he regularly clears out for concerts.

Group Fund: Thanks to Varvatos, Stuart House has support from other brands including Chrysler and Hasbro. (Forbes Media)

Group Fund: Thanks to Varvatos, Stuart House has support from other brands including Chrysler and Hasbro. (Forbes Media)

And for the past 13 years, Varvatos has reached out to the music and entertainment communities to help open minds and wallets for Stuart House, a haven for sexually abused children at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center Rape Treatment Center. It is a huge undertaking, an event that shuts down two blocks of Melrose Avenue outside the Varvatos store in West Hollywood for a whole day every spring and brings together musicians, from Dave Matthews to Chris Cornell to Willie Nelson, and celebrities from Ben Affleck to Cindy Crawford to Judd Apatow.

The Varvatos benefit has raised $6.3 million for Stuart House through the years, thanks to one-of-a-kind auction lots like a tour of Canadian wine country with members of Rush, a day in the studio with Howard Stern, or a trip to join KISS on their European tour and fly with them on their private plane. And it is growing every year. This April’s benefit, featuring Chris Pine and Ziggy Marley, raised a record $1.1 million.

John Varvatos with Chris Pine. (Paul Archuleta/Getty Images)

John Varvatos with Chris Pine. (Paul Archuleta/Getty Images)

The event’s origins, back in 2002, were considerably more humble. The John Varvatos brand itself was, well, brand-new. Varvatos had established his personal bona fides on two tours of duty at Ralph Lauren–where he was eventually head of all Polo Ralph Lauren menswear design–sandwiched around a landmark stint at Calvin Klein. (Remember those Marky Mark underwear ads? Varvatos’ epitaph will probably note him as Inventor of the boxer brief.) These days the John Varvatos brand employs more than 300 people, and sells fragrances and apparel in over 40 countries. But the brand was barely two years old in 2002, with about 12 employees at the Chelsea HQ and another 12 at the single dedicated Varvatos store, in SoHo, when he decided to conquer Los Angeles.

John Varvatos stands with friends Cindy Crawdford and Rande Gerber. (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

John Varvatos stands with friends Cindy Crawdford and Rande Gerber. (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

“We wanted to do something when we opened our store that made a statement about how we think and that demonstrated to the community that we weren’t just another designer coming in and doing some black tie party. We wanted to do something for now and into the future that would be about the community.”

And for as long as Varvatos can remember, the notion of giving back has been linked in his mind with children’s causes. “As a kid in Detroit, I grew up with really nothing: seven people in a three-bedroom, 800-square-foot bungalow. So when you got even a little bit, you thought of all the people growing up without much of anything, and you wanted to give back. Even growing up I got involved with children’s charities. And when I didn’t have anything to give back financially, I could still give my time and effort.

The Stuart House Benefit has brought out Dave Matthews and more. (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

The Stuart House Benefit has brought out Dave Matthews and more. (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images)

“Then, as the company started and you could see that your brand and your name means something important to people, you look at places to use your name to give back.”

For Varvatos and his team, that meant visiting an array of children’s charities in Los Angeles. When he arrived at Stuart House, he knew he had found his signature cause.

“It was a bad day when I visited the Stuart House,” he recalls, “meaning that three children had been brought in overnight who had been sexually abused, two of them under 5 years old. It just ripped my heart out.”

As he thought about it, he came to another realization directly related to his male clientele. “I wanted to raise awareness, because people for some reason think of this as a ‘women’s issue.’ You don’t see too many guys out there fighting for it. So I put together an all-male committee for the organization. Today we’ve gone much broader, but that’s what we did for the first five years to make a statement. Every one of us as parents have a fear of it; it’s an unbearable thing.”

For men or women, sexual abuse of children is also an extremely uncomfortable topic, and something Varvatos had to be sure internally that his people–and other brands–would line up to support. “I’ll tell you where we got the pushback from,” he says. “We reached out to the big brands in the children’s world, I won’t name any names, and they loved the concept, but it was a topic they did not want to touch.” Today the event receives its major funding from Chrysler and from Hasbro, which hosts a children’s play activity tent that is a perennial highlight of the event. (Of the 1,500 attendees at this year’s benefit, about 300 were children.)

That corporate underwriting is huge for an event that Varvatos says donates 100% of all money raised to Stuart House itself. “Between Chrysler, Hasbro, ourselves and our other donors, we support the whole thing. It’s expensive to put this on–the development and production, closing down the street, building the huge tents–but not one penny goes anywhere but Stuart House.”

And the whole undertaking comes out of work by Varvatos’ staff; they have never hired an outside events company. “Internally there is a sense of heart and pride that we do these things,” he says, “and every week we’re not just talking about sales. I think it’s one of the attractions for our employees.”

The benefit is 12 months a year in the making, from soliciting auction items (200 to 250 for the silent auction, 5 to 7 big-ticket live auction items and another 100 to 150 for the online auction) to securing commitments from the musical guests and celebrity emcees, all of whom donate their time.

Willie Nelson performs. (Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images)

Willie Nelson performs. (Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images)

Back in 2002, the notion of a glamorous West Hollywood event that would close down Melrose all seemed a glimmer. That first benefit took place in-store, with movie producer and New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch, a friend of the brand, stepping up onto an alterations box to conduct an auction that raised $75,000.

But the momentum built. By year three, the Stuart House Benefit had Jackson Browne and Lucinda Williams playing out in the parking lot, and Varvatos saw “a scary but exhilarating” sight: “The streets were just packed and shut down. That was kind of a magical thing. As far as you could see, there were people standing on the sidewalks, up on top of walls, on top of cars, watching everything going on.” Up on the main stage, Garry Shandling, Tim Allen and Eric McCormack were goofing on one another, and the auction totals began to rise, finally climbing above $250,000. “We knew then we were on to something,” Varvatos recalls.

Today his company, and Varvatos personally, are involved in a welter of initiatives, including John Varvatos’ triumphant return to his hometown this April, as one of the pioneering retailers looking to revitalize downtown Detroit. Typically, the opening was accompanied by a free concert, featuring Alice Cooper. But the Stuart House Benefit remains the centerpiece of the company’s philanthropic efforts.

“It’s an exciting thing to use your brand not just to put money toward the bottom line,” says Varvatos, “and I’m not saying that everything we do is charitable by any means; we have to make money–but it’s incredibly important to be involved in other things that you’re really passionate about.”