Category Archives: Press

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.”

Speaking Out About the ‘Unspeakable’

The Huffington Post
By Cheryl Saban
July 22, 2013

Some atrocities are so repugnant, that we are loath to even think about them, let alone utter the words. Rape of children is an unspeakable atrocity. Child sexual abuse is a crime that thrives in a climate of silence, secrecy, and shame. Unspeakable! It is so horrible that the victims — some so young that they haven’t yet learned to speak — are burdened with a physical and psychological trauma that robs them of their innocence, their confidence, their vitality, their sense of self-worth, their happiness, their health, and sometimes, their lives.

So if it’s so hard for us to talk about it, how can we expect these young victims to be so brave?

Here are some facts that may shock you. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused, and 90 percent know their abuser. And these horrible acts are not just happening in someone else’s community. You’ll find child victims everywhere, in every single socioeconomic bracket, in every neighborhood. They are babies, three-year-olds, nine-year-olds, and 17-year-olds. These children are living in poverty, and living in luxury. They are being raped by teachers, coaches, scout leaders, priests, fellow students, family friends, and family members. The rapists are people who generally have power over the children; people the children are typically trained to trust. Often, they are people the kids thought were friends. Friends? The act is unspeakable. The perpetrators are predators. Rape and sexual molestation are criminal acts. We read about these stories in the news and squirm. But these are not made-up stories. These horrible things are the truth — and these unspeakable atrocities are happening much more often than any of us want to believe.

The children who have been raped run the gamut of our society, and they are scared into silence. Often, they feel isolated and fearful about what will happen if they tell. Can you imagine? They have a right to be afraid, because their attacker may threaten them with every nightmare imaginable. The fear of what else might be done to them or done to others they love stuns them into obedience, making them even more vulnerable. Children are easy targets — easy to manipulate, easy to humiliate, easy to bully, easy to scare.

This atrocity tears our social contract to shreds. How can we allow this to continue? How can we sit on the sidelines, silent — while we know this is going on?

I’m a rape survivor, and though I talk about it now, I was silent about it for years. I know firsthand how long it can take to reclaim some semblance of self-worth, vitality, and self-esteem after being brutally violated. I know how long it can take to feel safe again. And I wish it could have been as easy as taking a self-defense class, like Krav Maga, but trust me — those classes don’t repair the inside damage. When I was a rape victim, I didn’t have the benefit of psychological help, nor was there a program that taught the police how tointerview, not interrogate rape victims. In my case, the police were insensitive, and made me feel worse. Suffice it to say, I was re-victimized by the system, which is often how a rape and assault victim feels. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

While it may be next to impossible to prevent every case of rape and molestation, I’ll be darned if I’ll sit by silently and watch these children continue to suffer. The very least we can do as a society is provide a safe place where they can tell what happened to them — where they can heal, and begin to live again.

Stuart House is such a place. A nationally recognized model, it’s an extraordinary program of the Los Angeles Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, and a partner of the LAPD, and other law enforcement agencies, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Department of Children and Family Services. Its mission is to serve sexually abused children. At Stuart House, a child will see every professional she/he needs to see, and it will all occur under one roof. There are specially built, non-threatening child-sized forensic examining rooms, where evidence is gathered in the gentlest way, with the end goal of sending it to a criminal court. There are comfortable rooms with toys where children can relax and just be kids.

Stuart House therapists, social workers, police officers, and prosecutors treat the children with the kindness, gentleness, and respect they deserve. Stuart House helps the families deal with the trauma of knowing their child was raped, and helps them navigate the justice system. Stuart House helps their young victims heal, and protects the rape victims from more harm.

Stuart House in Los Angeles is a beacon of light, safety, and healing for these violently wounded, frightened children and their families, and that’s why Viola Davis and I are Co-Chairing The Rape Foundation Capital Campaign to expand Stuart House. We’re raising money to build a larger building so we can help even more children and their families. It’s heartbreaking that we need such a place, but as I mentioned at the onset, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused. We must take care of them.

One father, the parent of a 13-year-old, had this to say about Stuart House:

When our daughter was raped, every strength my wife and I had established over three decades of marriage — and the raising of our three children — was marshaled in the battle to bring our daughter back from the brink, and rescue her from the terror and loneliness into which she had disappeared. Stuart House understood the scope and urgency of that battle and, in times of our deepest despair, they stepped up and fought it for us. They gave our daughter her life back, and they gave her back to us. That is the gift of Stuart House.

Please help us do something vitally important for children who need us now. 
Call us, (310) 451-0042 or visit us online.


Stuart House: Haven for Child Victims

Los Angeles Times
By Nita Lelyveld
July 9, 2013

It didn’t take long to settle the fate of Edgar Humberto Somoza.

Few people were present that morning in the small 15th-floor courtroom. Somoza chose not to speak. The judge said he hoped “two sweet little girls” would not be permanently scarred.

Then he sentenced Somoza to the maximum 65 years to life for sexually assaulting his 7- and 8-year-old stepdaughters.

On a bench in the back, one of Somoza’s adult daughters burst into ragged sobs.

For others in the room, though, this was a moment of triumph.

LAPD Det. Supervisor Moses Castillo had worked the case from Day One. At the start, he said, there were big challenges. There was no DNA evidence on the children. No confession. All the prosecutor had was the girls’ story.

Success was possible, Castillo said, because of the work done in a pale-pink, two-story building in Santa Monica.

The entry way of Stuart House, a program of UCLA's Rape Treatment Center, creates a warm welcome for children. (Photograph by Christina House / For The Times)

The entry way of Stuart House, a program of UCLA’s Rape Treatment Center, creates a warm welcome for children. (Photograph by Christina House / For The Times)

The mission at Stuart House is to fight for child victims — and make them feel safe. An enormous plush dog sprawls in welcome just inside the entry, next to a playroom full of toys and games.

When investigating sex crimes against children, so much can go wrong.

A child can tell, but not be heard or believed. Evidence can be neglected or collected too late. Shuttled from office to office to be questioned by stranger after stranger, a young victim can shut down. Even strong cases often come undone as they bump slowly through the system.

Stuart House, a program of UCLA’s Rape Treatment Center, was created in part to improve the odds. Here, in a setting that isn’t institutional or scary, traumatized children and their families receive the help they need — and all the key players required to build a legal case share their expertise and collaborate.

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Our Silent Institutions

The Huffington Post
By Stephen Grynberg, Founding Member
Men’s Advisory Council
The Rape Foundation

Last Sunday, I read an article buried below the fold in the metro section of the New York Times about a high school football coach who abused his players over a 25-year period starting in 1966. Despite eyewitnesses and school officials who were made aware of the abuse, the coach was never brought to justice. He was feted in a retirement dinner in 1991, seven years before he died. A RICO case has now been filed around the circumstances at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep.

As the Penn State, Syracuse and Poly Prep cases unfold in all their disturbing colors, the list of bystanders keeps growing. By bystanders, I mean not just those who witnessed the abuse and did nothing, but also those who were informed or sensed something was wrong and still chose silence. So far the master list includes a district attorney, child welfare investigators, a coach’s wife, a myriad of school administrators and employees, campus police, multiple coaches, athletic directors, and at least one university president. Continue reading