Tuesday night, 315 Bowery in New York saw the worlds of fashion and technology collide in a fascinating discussion between John Varvatos, founder and owner of the eponymous design house in conversation with Shannon Duffy, SVP of Product Marketing at Salesforce.
The conversation – which ranged from the power of rebels, to the impact of new technology on the fashion industry, and the responsibility of business as a platform for change – kicked off with a story about the venue itself.
315 Bowery – as punk rock fans no doubt recall – is the former home of legendary music club CBGB and still ‘a pilgrimage site for legions of music fans.’
The story of how it came to be John Varvatos’ flagship New York store speaks to Varvatos’ belief in business’ responsibility not just to shareholders, but to the wider community.
“This was the former home of CBGB – a club I started going to back in the 70s to watch gigs, when New York was a very different neighborhood to today," Varvatos said. "There were cars burning at the end of the block, graffiti everywhere. I found that exciting. I loved that grittiness. Eleven or twelve years ago, I found myself back in the neighborhood. The club had closed down a couple of years earlier, and I got talking to the person that held the lease. He told me this was going to be a drugstore, a restaurant or a big bank."
"I thought ‘Really?! Something this iconic?” Varvatos added. "This space represented something special and unique to the world, to the millions of people who had gone to thousands and thousands of shows here, and it was just going to turn into something like that. That night I lay in bed thinking how we could keep this space, and keep music alive in the Bowery. We weren’t trying to make it CBGB, but we wanted to keep the soul of it alive.”
The result is a combined fashion store and live music venue. Over 150 artists have performed in the space since Varvatos took it over, including Kiss, Guns N’ Roses and Gary Clark Jr. Varvatos has managed to preserve something of the venue’s magic for the broader community. As Varvatos puts it, “the [artists] all felt that something was still brewing here, that the walls were still talking to them.”
Varvatos’ story speaks to his belief that a company must have a broader responsibility than simply making money – but play a full and positive role in the communities it’s a part of. “Philanthropy is something I grew up with," he said. "I saw it with my grandfather – who came over to the US from Greece before the First World War, unable to speak a word of English."
He arrived in America and immediately signed up for the U.S. Army and went back to fight for the U.S. in Europe. Once he was back after the war, he continued giving back. Whatever money he was able to make he sent right back to his family in Greece.
"Giving back like I did is part of my upbringing, and I’m happy to say it’s now a part of the company’s DNA," he said. "We take pride in thinking about the communities we have stores in, like this venue in the Bowery, and how we can give back to that community. It’s a part of our company’s soul.”
Rebelliousness, Revolution and Innovation: Keeping John Varvatos Relevant
Something else that’s part of the soul of Varvatos? Risk taking, rebels and being comfortable with constant change. That’s how John Varvatos has kept the company relevant for over 20 years at fashion’s top table.
“Part of it is in your personal make up," he noted. "You’re never satisfied – because I think that if you’re satisfied, you stop. You think everything’s good. And then you’re going to get lost, especially in today’s world.”
Over those 20 years, the fashion and retail industries have changed almost beyond recognition. When the John Varvatos label launched back in 2000, there was no real eCommerce industry of any real consequence, and very few of the major fashion brands had much of an online presence to speak of. That has all changed.
“The iPhone came out and changed the world," he said. "Before we can upload a video of our own runway show, there are tens of thousands of videos posted and reposted online by our community. Everything is instantaneous now. It has changed so much. The way we gather and share information has changed completely. You can’t stand still in a world like that. You’ve got to love that change.”
And Varvatos is under no illusion that technology is both driving and powering that change.
“Technology has become the sexy part of what we do," he said. "If you use technology the right way, it’s such a dynamic force. It’s not just about gathering information. It’s about building new connections with your customers”
The partnership with Salesforce is fundamental to the company’s journey: "We don’t usually bring other companies into this space, we tend to only do our own parties here," Varvatos said. "But I think that there’s something special in the relationship we have with Salesforce. They help us power our communication with our customer, and that is everything today.”
A fascinating conversation – part of a full day’s programming from Salesforce at NYFW – ended with a call to arms for the rebels and the trailblazers:
"If you don’t take risk, you don’t win,” said Varvatos.