The family car bore no "Proud parent of an Alice Cooper fan" bumper sticker as John Varvatos blared Cooper's shock rock from his suburban Detroit bedroom in the early '70s.
But behind that door, Varvatos' teenage obsession with rock 'n' roll was setting the stage for his own chart-topping career — as a menswear designer. Merging his two passions landed him an autograph session at Nordstrom on a recent fall day, alongside ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, and British photographer Mick Rock.
Their life's work, and that of other virtuoso musicians and photographers, mix in Varvatos' first book: "John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion" (Harper Design, $60), which celebrates icons such as Robert Plant in his skinniest jeans, Lou Reed with platinum hair and dark nails, the Ramones in leather jackets and Keds, and Debbie Harry in anything.
Varvatos' menswear line, three parts polish to one part rebel edge, draws influence from all of them, and is worn by some. ZZ Top, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Lenny Kravitz, Cooper and other artists have starred in Varvatos' marketing campaigns since 2005.
About 300 fans assembled at Nordstrom in Chicago for Varvatos, Gibbons, Rock and Hill to sign copies of Varvatos' book. Here's an edited transcript of their verbal jam session.
Q: What was your first rock poster in your bedroom?
Varvatos: The MC5, from Detroit, they did an album called "Live at the Grande Ballroom." That was on the back of my bedroom door. Then the whole room was taken over — Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Stones. It all started with bands like the Kinks. They didn't sound like anyone else — it was noisier, it wasn't poppy. As much as I'm a Beatles fan today, as a kid I wasn't.
Q: How did this book arise?
Varvatos: About 20 years ago, I started carrying around these leather notebooks with a tie, that I'd sketch in and cut out pictures and put in there, kind of my inspiration books. There were a lot of music icons in there. I had them all on a bookshelf, and someone started looking through them and said, you should do a book.
Gibbons: We've had a copy of it on board our touring coach the last few weeks, and on the not-so-rare occasion of visitors being to the front lounge after a show, they all gravitate to this.
Q: At what point did your passion for rock and fashion intersect?
Varvatos: I grew up in a very humble household; I did paper routes and all those things. When I had any money, I would buy clothes that were interesting to me when I was 14 or 15. When I realized girls related to it too, I knew I had to get a real job. So I started working in a men's clothing store, so I could get a discount. As I went to college — not for fashion — I found that my passion really stood more in that (realm). So I went back when I was 29 years old for design.
Q: What are some of the signatures of rock style?
Varvatos: No. 1 is it's about individuality. When you look at Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top or the punk movement, they all did something that was against the grain both musically and stylistically. When you look at the book, you see a bit of what comes around, goes around. A younger band, like Kings of Leon, their haircuts are very much like Mick Ronson from (David Bowie's) Spiders from Mars. There's this incestuous interplay between fashion and rock 'n' roll.
The picture of Syd Barrett (a founding member of Pink Floyd) on the book cover, if you change the cars out, he's in a lot of young bands today. Every young band wants to look like they just rolled out of bed with their hair a little greasy and uncombed. His look is very timeless in a way.
Q: In 2008, you opened your Bowery store in the space of the legendary rock and punk venue CBGB in New York. Did you debate whether it was a good idea?
Varvatos: It had been empty for two years, a shadow of what it was at an earlier time. I went over to the neighborhood to look at something else. The gentleman I was with said he had the lease on the space. They were talking about restaurants and drugstores, and I thought, it can't become one of those. The next day, I came back with my management team. Everyone looked in; there was one bare light bulb.
They said, "Yeah, yeah, it's great, but it really isn't great. It's 10 blocks from the other store; it's too risky."
That was one of the few times you can't be democratic. I said, "I can't explain it, but it's something I want to do." And it's turned into something that's part of the DNA of the brand.
We just did a great event with Lou Reed (still alive the day of this conversation) and Mick Rock. Every time we do these, I get goose bumps.
Q: Dusty and Billy, did you create your bearded look intentionally? Rock style always looks effortless, but is it always?
Gibbons: These different stylistic changes, many times, were not necessarily by design. It was more of a rebellious outpouring, an "I'm going to do this."
Rock: It was probably done for cheap.
Hill: It doesn't get much cheaper than this: Throw your razor away.
Varvatos: It isn't about how much you spend on your wardrobe.
Rock: The Iggy Pop jacket that's considered the Holy Grail of rock fashion, the Raw Power one with the leopard's head on the back, that jacket wasn't even leather; that was Naugahyde.
Q: John, did you set out to build your line around rock?
Varvatos: No, that was another thing that was very organic. In 2003 or 2004, we started seeing so many musicians buying our clothes. I thought, there's something more there.
Varvatos:A lot of artists who are still living and the ones who have been in our ads are ones I've grown up with or today I'm really turned on with, and at the same time they're also turned on by what you do, and then you have this ongoing friendship; it's a very special thing.
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