Even though John Varvatos has experienced enormous success, with international clothing, fragrance and shoe lines, along with accolades from her peers — he was recently the first menswear designer honored as ACE Designer of the Year for his footwear line — you'll likely find him on the sales floor at one of his 24 stores.
"I love the engagement with the customer, for sure. I like to hear what they like, what they don't. I like being with my sales team on the floor. Hearing what they have to say," he says. "I'm a sponge to learn what we can do better."
Not too long ago, in his Soho store in New York, a customer tried on a coat from Varvatos' fall collection that looks similar to one Bob Dylan wore in a famous Central Park photo in 1964 but didn't like the belt. "I said, 'Give me two minutes if you really want it.' I went downstairs and took the seam ripper, cause the tailor wasn't there, and I took the loops off. And (the customer) said, "I can't even tell where they were."
"Hey listen, the customer is always right you know?" Varvatos said. "It's great to win awards, get nice press and all those kind of things, but what I love more than anything is having the customers love what you do."
In a freewheeling interview when Varvatos was in Houston to visit his Galleria store and sign copies of his book, Rock in Fashion, that's not the only new and interesting thing we learned about the fascinating designer.
He thinks Houstonians are more stylish than Dallasites
Varvatos said the reason he opened a store in Houston — his only store in Texas — is because he was already doing a lot of e-commerce in the state and often ran into customers from Houston at his stores in New York and Costa Mesa, California.
"There has always been a big fashion component here. Some people that live outside the state are surprised. When you say that on the East Coast, they don't get it. They think of cowboy hats and that kind of thing," he says. "It's much more significantly fashion forward here than Dallas. Dallas is a great city but it's a little more conservative."
He finds music is a blessing and curse
Varvatos' styles have long been inspired by rock music. "It's about pushing the walls out, being a rebel," he says. "And as a young kid, you want to walk in the opposite direction of your parents' generation. The music thing sucked me in very young because I saw these artists that seemed to be rebels. They seemed to be different than anybody else."
But, he laments, he does more than make rock 'n' roll-inspired clothes.
"I always say that's a bit of a blessing and a curse because everybody expects it. The curse part of it is that sometime the consumer who doesn't know us sometimes thinks that's all we do. But when they walk into the store they find a whole different discovery of what we are. It's a fine line, but it's not a terrible thing to be connected with."
His new fragrance is a Dark Rebel
Varvatos says his newest fragrance, Dark Rebel, is inspired by his hometown of Detroit, where he just opened a new store.
"In the last few years, I've really seen (Detroit) starting to bubble up with cool little galleries, things that wouldn't normally happen in that city. One morning I was coming out of my room and I opened up the shades and I just thought, from the darkness comes the light. And that's where that whole Dark Rebel thing came about."
He came back to New York and told his fragrance team he wanted an aggressive badass scent that pushes the envelope. "It's only been out for a month, but it's killing it. Everywhere it's in the top 3 fragrances and a lot of times, it's No. 1," he said.
Why women are the biggest rebels nowadays
While in the past the world's biggest rebels were men, particularly in the music world, now women are the rebel leaders, Varvatos says.
"When I was growing up, Steve McQueen was the guy and musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. I don't really know that many (male) rebels now. It's really the women.They walk to their own beat," he said.
"Think of Taylor Swift. She's a powerhouse as a businessperson, as a celebrity, as a singer, as a songwriter. Miley Cyrus, whether I like her or not, I think she does her own thing. And I love the rebels. I love the ones that walk to their own beat."
Why women and not men?
"They've worked harder than the guys. And they're bubbling up right now," Varvatos said. "I find it really intriguing, whether it's women leading big corporations or to the point we could have a woman president. It's just their time. From a rebel standpoint it used to be the guys with the aggressive behavior, now it's the women. It's pretty cool."