There’s rock and there’s how John Varvatos rolls.
We sat down with the designer during New York Fashion Week at his store on the Bowery to get his take on brand identity, technology in fashion, and driving change. Rock ‘n’ roll runs deep for his namesake brand, which is fitting given the store is the former home of CBGB, the famed rock hall where the Ramones, Television, and Blondie once performed. You can see and feel the ethos of the bands from the past come through in the space — and the brand purposefully kept it that way, its identity intertwined with the soul of the music institution.
Varvatos has a rebellious spirit that has made him a trailblazer who never stands still, as seen in his decision to keep the essence of CBGB in the space even while others doubted him. During our discussion, he shed light on how technology is transforming the fashion industry and why, in order to keep up and stand out, you must be comfortable with change. Here are some top takeaways.
Music has always been an integral part of John Varvatos’ life, but it wasn’t until a turning point in 2005, five years after he started the brand, that it became part of its DNA.
“I saw a lot of beautiful, romantic advertising and I thought, ‘We need to stand out and separate ourselves – we need to own something,’” he said. “The one thing that I knew for the first four-to-five years of our business was that a lot of musicians loved what we did. I decided to take a stand and own a space where we would take iconic artists that were rebels in their own genre – because I felt like what we were doing was rebellious.” The brand featured artists like Iggy Pop and Gary Clark Jr. in campaigns, establishing mutual admiration between musicians and the brand. “Every artist that we had was a rebel in their own spirit.”
Skyrocketing customer expectations are accelerating change, as brands leverage technology to evolve faster than ever before. No other industry has experienced this more than retail.
“Even 10 years ago when you would talk to people about technology and what their perspective was on it, we were very analog at the time. No one really wanted to change that much or accept things,” he said. “Technology has become the sexy part of what we do. If you use technology the right way, it’s such a dynamic force. It’s not just about gathering information. It’s about building connections with your customers.” The brand uses Salesforce Commerce Cloud to power the best shopping experiences that transcend channels and resonate with consumers everywhere.
“Part of it is in your personal makeup,” he said. “You’re never satisfied — because I think that if you’re satisfied, you stop. You think everything’s good. And you’re going to get lost, especially in today’s world,” he said. “I think that’s probably the thing that drives me the most — never standing still — is loving change.”
“I find in fashion, it’s moving so quickly that we need to move,” he continued. Immediately after a runway show, but before official videos are loaded online, Varvatos’ team pours through tens of thousands of posts and reposts of the show to see how influencers, journalists, and the industry feels about the collection. Everything is instantaneous, which makes it more important than ever to consistently reframe strategies and evolve to meet customer expectations. “If you get yourself locked into getting comfortable with something, you’re in the wrong place because everything is moving so quickly today.”
In addition, philanthropy is a foundational part of the brand and very much a part of the designer’s identity, growing up with parents that always prioritized helping others. “It’s part of the DNA and soul of our organization,” he said. “We think about what we can do in communities that we have stores in to give back.”
For more of the discussion, including the full story behind saving the CBGB space and pivotal moments in his trailblazing career, watch the broadcast from New York Fashion Week.