Can a high-end boutique prosper in Detroit? John Varvatos has a vision

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

DETROIT — The John Varvatos store in New York's Bowery neighborhood is — as is so often the case — vibrating with the pounding drums and the extended guitar riffs of peacocking musicians. On this occasion, during Fashion Week, the lights are flashing hot pink; the line at the bar is three deep, and it's impossible to get a good look at what anyone is wearing.

When menswear designer Varvatos took over the former CBGB music hall in 2008, he weathered the criticism of both rock purists and business consultants. The former saw him as an opportunist; the latter took him for a sentimentalist.

Varvatos took a business risk — one that was driven by emotion rather than spreadsheets. He wanted to honor the musical history of the club with regular concerts, connect it to the rock-and-roll aesthetics of his brand and, perhaps, build traditions.

Now, he is making another — even bigger — gamble. He has opened a 4,600-square-foot store in downtown Detroit in a neighborhood that has been bereft of significant fashion retail for decades. He has set up shop in a city just emerging from bankruptcy, a town that is at once a hipster magnet, a developer's dream, an economic case study and a source of frayed hope and stubborn disappointment for longtime residents.

Varvatos has likened his decision to open a Detroit boutique to his opening the Bowery store. But in New York, he was merely betting that a gritty neighborhood would eventually gentrify. In Detroit, he is betting that a strip overwhelmed by empty buildings will someday become a neighborhood, period.

"First of all, there's an emotional connection," says Varvatos, explaining his recent leap of faith. The New York-based designer grew up in the Detroit suburb of Allen Park, a working-class community about 15 miles downriver from the beleaguered, but rebounding, city.

Three of his four siblings still live in the area, and his regular visits gave him an intimate understanding both of Detroit's long-standing struggles and its potential.

A few months after signing the lease for the new store, Varvatos made a trip home for Thanksgiving 2014. He went downtown for dinner at Wright & Company, one of the many restaurants that have sprung up in the city's core. On the second floor of a turn-of-the-20th-century Queen Anne building with old-fashioned lighting in a big, open loft, it looks like so many restaurants in Brooklyn that have long been a rarity in Detroit.

It was a revelation. And a confirmation that he'd made the right business decision.

"We saw this space packed with young people, and they weren't (passing through on their way to) a baseball game, but people were coming for a social time," Varvatos says.

The restaurant's windows overlook Woodward Avenue, once a dynamic boulevard flanked with retailers and dominated by the J.L. Hudson department store. And as Varvatos glanced out, he saw Christmas lights forming a thick curtain of red and green — cheerfully attempting to obscure the fact that those stores were otherwise dead.

For Varvatos, it was a cinematic moment — a fast edit of images flickering through his memory: A little boy whispering his Christmas wish list to the Hudson's Santa Claus. A young Varvatos waving a Detroit Tigers baseball pennant during the 1968 World Series. A teenager in love with local rockers Iggy and the Stooges. "I felt this kind of emotional gush," Varvatos says. "I wanted to be able to get up on a table and yell, 'Detroit is great!' "

"I remember my roots very clearly. ... There's the whole thing of being blue collar, working hard and giving back," he says. "Heritage is super important — so is authenticity."

The question of what is and is not authentic in Detroit can be debated ad nauseam at recently opened craft cocktail lounges, at pop-up restaurants, at a wine bar masquerading as a dive as it squats in the shadow of a White Castle hamburger joint, or at any number of the city's actual dives. But the depth and drama of Detroit's history — bootstrapping industrialism, soulful factory workers, dying Rust Belt town, hardheaded optimism — is both truth and mythology.

It is a marketing strategy as well as a pure data.

As the fashion industry continues its fascination with clothes that bear evidence of a human hand, eccentric imperfection and the luxury of simplicity, Detroit has a particular selling point. Shinola, the Detroit-based watchmaker, has linked its creation story with Detroit's arc of success, failure and — maybe — revival. The company, which began selling its wares in 2013, isn't just hawking a timepiece with Swiss movement; it's selling determination, integrity, history. It is peddling a parable. So is Detroit Denim, which touts its made-in-America lineage and accompanying authenticity. It boasts "a tradition of denim" even though it wasn't established until 2011.

Varvatos's is one of many fashion brands that eschews slick modernity. From lesser-known labels such as Vetements, Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh and Yang Li to global companies such as Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens, Prada and Maison Margiela, luxury now comes with unfinished hems. And in Varvatos's collection, his Sharpei boots, which are artfully creased and wrinkled, are stitched from weathered leather. His T-shirts have been pre-faded, his leather jackets judiciously beaten.

There's also an increasing interest in clothes that speak directly to the hurdles of urban life with brands such as Public School, Tim Coppens, Rag & Bone and Ovadia & Sons blurring the line between tailored sportswear, athletic gear and street style.

They all have an aesthetic that could have been spawned by Detroit's wounded landscape. But Varvatos is hoping he can help heal it.


Varvatos was not a child of privilege. He estimates that his childhood bungalow was about 1,000 square feet, with seven people sharing a single bathroom. He worked briefly at a Chrysler plant assembling brake pads. He still has a Midwestern accent of flat, drawn-out vowels.

Sitting in his New York showroom, wearing a black leather jacket, slim jeans and motorcycle boots that he designed, Varvatos, 59, looks like an age-appropriate rocker — balding with a buzz cut. "We make stretch leather jeans. I'm in my 50s. I'm not going to wear stretch leather jeans," he says.

As a designer, Varvatos is inspired by the music he grew up with, from Motown to rock. It informs his collections, drives his advertising campaigns — which typically feature musicians — and is his after-hours passion. He even has his own record imprint. But he's not tapping into the iconography of the electrified rock star. He does not revere emaciated young men who have the luxury of wallowing in their own discontented malaise. He doesn't believe that rock 'n' roll has to be defined as old jeans and ripped T-shirts.

Varvatos got his start at Ralph Lauren in 1984, oversaw menswear at Calvin Klein and then returned to Ralph Lauren as head of menswear design. He launched his own label in 2000. He is a quintessentially American designer, but he does not wave the Stars and Stripes. Instead, he takes the blue-collar aspects of American culture that have seeped into rock-and-roll — the gritty, the urban, the been-to-hell-and-back cool — and elevates it all.

He romanticizes the factory worker, celebrates the integrity of callouses and sees glamour in the metallic gleam of a stamping plant.

For his Detroit store, Varvatos did retail reconnaissance in the depths of winter 14 months ago, stepping off the plane into below-zero weather with a windchill factor reminiscent of "The Day After Tomorrow." The ground was frozen solid, the sky a flat shade of gray, the salt-stained streets as empty as ever.

Varvatos arrived with his company's recently hired president and chief executive, Cristiano Quieti, to meet with Dan Mullen, vice president of leasing and development for Bedrock Real Estate Services, which owns a critical mass of buildings in the heart of the city.

The privately held John Varvatos label is 15 years old and reports yearly sales of $250 million. But it is not one of fashion's billion-dollar Wall Street brands. Mullen hoped that meant the company would be freer to make decisions from the gut rather than solely based on accounting.

He also had personal reasons for wooing Varvatos. "He can make me look like a million bucks," says Mullen, who is also a Detroit native. "I was sick of traveling to New York to buy his clothes. I love his brand. I love his vision."

Mullen wasn't consciously focusing on menswear, but in doing so, he tapped into the most energized part of the fashion industry. "Guys are willing to try different things, they're willing to evolve," Varvatos says. "Right now is a really great place in the evolution" of menswear.

"It was very static for many years," he continues. "Now, even my doctor, who's not a fashion guy, he asks me questions about fashion. I see he's aware."

Mullen spent four hours walking Varvatos through the company's properties, pointing out the landmark buildings designed by Albert Kahn, Minoru Yamasaki and Daniel Burnham. He introduced him to the founders of the Library Street Collective, a gallery of contemporary art that opened a few years ago. They wandered over to the enduring Henry the Hatter, established in 1893 and one of the few fashion retailers still in downtown Detroit.

"As we walked from building to building, our eyes are watering, our noses are running," Mullen says. But he made his pitch: "I know no one is on the street. I know it's 30 below. But really, the sales are going to be good."

Varvatos and Quieti were convinced. And although Varvatos will not discuss the size of his investment, he notes that "this is a different thing from opening a store on Madison Avenue. This is Detroit," he says. So no, the numbers did not make a compelling case. But, "do we want a disaster on our hands? No. But there's something to say about being part of something from the ground up."

In August, he signed a long-term lease for the ground-floor space just below Wright & Company. The store opened quietly in March and has attracted office workers taking a lunch break, the new crop of young downtown residents and even a Filipino pop star in town for a concert. A grand opening is planned for April 16, when Alice Cooper, another Detroiter, will perform.


In the Detroit store's design, Varvatos wanted to recall the building's history as the Schwankovsky Temple of Music — a retailer of instruments. So there is a stage in the center of the store with a permanent band setup and a balcony for prime viewing. One could even argue that the music paraphernalia on display and for sale — the electric guitars, baby grand piano, vinyl LPs, turntables and monster speakers, the moody blue-collar allusions and the emotional "gush" — almost overwhelm the clothing.

The racks are filled with $800 suede jackets, $559 sweaters, plain white T-shirts for $128 and carefully faded "Detroit" logo shirts for $78. But what Varvatos is actually selling under the banner of fashion is the idea of authenticity. He is investing in the glory of cities. He is moved by Diego Rivera's exquisite conception of industry. He's recalling the proud swagger of having produced some thing — not an idea or a service or a new efficiency. A thing. In a digitized life, Varvatos is selling analog pleasures — almost lost, still beloved — or at least the mythology of them. And in that sense, he is selling Detroit.

bc-fashion-varvatos (TPN)