Light My Fire: One on One with John Varvatos

 Three fashion lines, five fragrances and a slew of collaborations later, it seems that was a risk well worth taking.

John Varvatos finds inspiration in unlikely places. Namely, his love for rock ‘n’ roll.

The American fashion designer has many accolades to his name, from stints with mega-designers like Ralph Lauren, where he created Polo Jeans Company, to Calvin Klein. In 1999, Varvatos set out to create his namesake brand John Varvatos, a classically cool menswear line infused with a rock ’n’ roll edge. The garments are timeless; their fit is immaculate; yet a roughness around the edges remains.

More than a decade later, the line has since grown to encompass the John Varvatos Collection, John Varvatos U.S.A. and Converse by John Varvatos, born out of a collaboration with the iconic sneaker company. Also under the umbrella are five fragrances: John Varvatos U.S.A., John Varvatos Vintage, John Varvatos Classic, John Varvatos Artisan and John Varvatos Artisan Black. The self-proclaimed music enthusiast has even dressed music legends such as Joe Perry of Aerosmith, who also appeared in the brand’s ad campaigns. Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Velvet Revolver and Chris Cornell have also appeared in campaigns.

Varvatos and his line are nothing if not effortlessly cool.

“It was just one of those things where I had this thought and had this impulse,” Varvatos said of the decision to start his own brand. “It all happened in a matter of days. This switch in my head flipped. It said, ‘If you’re ever going to do it, this is the time.’ A big jump, a big leap of faith, but I never really stressed or worried about it. I just figured, I’m gonna go for it. And that’s exactly what happened.” Three fashion lines, five fragrances and a slew of collaborations later, it seems that was a risk well worth taking.

Varvatos’ latest project is NBC’s new series Fashion Star, where he serves as a mentor to aspiring young designers alongside fashion moguls Jessica Simpson and Nicole Richie. The reality show, hosted by supermodel Elle Macpherson, aims to find the next great brand.

Taken for surface value, one might not see the cohesiveness of Fashion Star’s cast, but according to Varvatos, it works.

“We are all involved in fashion, [but] very different kinds of fashion,” Varvatos said. “Elle has lingerie and undergarments; and Nicole has been doing accessories, footwear and eyewear; and Jessica has this billion-dollar brand. She’s like America’s girl. So very different than the world I’m usually in.”

Even buyers–Caprice Willard for Macy’s, Nicole Christie for H&M and Terron Schaefer for Saks Fifth Avenue–are major players in the show, giving it another layer of reality in a world where the genre has become anything but.

“Not only do you have what you think is a great design, but you have to convince the buyers of that, because they don’t always see it the same way,” Varvatos said of the show’s creative processes. “And sometimes some of your great things don’t get bought by the stores. So that was a big part of my mentoring, to say to these young designers, ‘It isn’t just all about the things I just talked to you about; you also have to get through to these buyers. You have to understand what they’re looking for or how they’re following trends.’”

The buyers actually play a much larger role in the process than one would originally think.

“The buyers end up becoming the judges in the end,” Varvatos said, “because they [say,] ‘Ok, this is what our customers and our stores [want,] and this is what America wants.’”

Varvatos compares the show, set to debut March 13, to working with the younger designers in his studios at John Varvatos. “You’re trying to find a spark in somebody, help them ignite it to a flame,” he said. “It’s no different than going through the interview process when you’re interviewing people for your design team. You’re meeting people, getting to know their personalities, getting to know their design sensibility.”

However, the point of Fashion Star isn’t to convert aspiring designers to said mentors’ style. Varvatos makes it clear it’s about cultivating each aspiring designer’s signature style.

“The last thing I would want to do is impose my sensibility upon anybody,” he said. “It’s [about] trying to help them focus, help them to create a brand and curate an image, because the show is not just about the clothes. It’s about the importance of being clear and what your message is, what differentiates you from your marketplace.”

Like any mentor/protégé relationship, the show was not without its conflicts.

“Some of them were just beyond humble and gracious and wanted to be a sponge and suck up every little thing you could tell them,” Varvatos said of Fashion Star’s contestants. “And some of them already thought that they knew everything when they came to the table. So it was very interesting and very intriguing. It was something I never thought I’d do before, [being] on a television show”

Varvatos himself boasts an impressive resume. He’s a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA;) won the Perry Ellis Award for Menswear in 2000, an award bestowed upon a promising new talent in the industry; clenched the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year award in 2001 and 2005; and was named GQ’s Designer of the Year in 2007. If his laundry list of awards is any inclination, we’d advise these young designers to listen up.

And just who is a John Varvatos man? The designer himself paints a wide range of clientele, differing in nearly every way but one – style.

“It’s not an age thing,” he said. “It’s really about a spirit. I think this guy has a spirit, there’s some creative bone in him. It may not be that he’s an artist, a photographer, a painter or an actor or any of those things, but there’s something creative, a sense of wanting to have his own style. Not so concerned with fashion, but more concerned with style, because style is lasting and it transcends time.”

Music, as clearly evidenced by the rock ’n’ roll sensibility of Varvatos’ designs, is another passion.

“My passion in life, besides my family, was always music,” Varvatos said. “From the time I was a kid, I was obsessed. I’m like the ultimate fan,” he said.

But it’s not just all about his brand and his music. Varvatos’ philanthropy of choice is The Stuart House, which serves sexually abused children. Varvatos, who has been involved with the charity for upwards of a decade, has made the annual Stuart House Benefit his personal project.

The first Stuart House Benefit ten years ago was a small affair with a musical act for entertainment, but it wasn’t long until the event exploded with popularity.

“It started in a relatively small way in the fall of 2002,” Varvatos said. “We did [our first event] in a parking lot under a tent in West Hollywood. It was a big success, but on a much smaller scale. That proceeded for a few more years, then got to the point where we were bursting at the seams. The music performances were causing traffic because people were trying to get near to it. The city of West Hollywood said, ‘You really cant do this anymore.’”

Varvatos and the benefit team managed to keep the city on their side. The Stuart House Benefit has since expanded into a can’t-miss event, shutting down an entire block of Melrose Avenue for the daylong event.

“Unlike most of the events in Hollywood, [where] you have to be uptight in a black tie, you can come in your shorts and t-shirt and jeans and flip-flops on Sunday afternoon with your kids,” Varvatos said. However casual the event may be, the fundraising certainly isn’t. Varvatos is expecting to raise upwards of half a million dollars at this year’s benefit.

The 9th Annual Stuart House Benefit is slated for Sunday, March 11 from 12-5 p.m. at 8800 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles, Calif. The headlining musical act is Dave Matthews Band and honorary co-chairs are Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow.

Also part of the fundraising efforts is The Stuart House auction, featuring a 2012 John Varvatos customized Chrysler 300S, a Green Day autographed drumhead and guitar, a shopping spree with John Varvatos in New York, two tickets to Judd Apatow’s next movie premiere and after-party, a golf outing with Alice Cooper or a set visit on Mad Men along with a lunch to meet the cast.

For more information, visit charitybuzz. com/johnvarvatos