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John Varvatos Says Menswear is Skewing Towards "F&%ked Up Elegance"

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It was like something from a dream. Last night, John Varvatos was hanging out with ZZ Top and photographer Mick Rock in a green room at Nordstrom. In town to sign his first—"and maybe only; it was a lot of work"—book, Rock in Fashion, the menswear designer and his rock-star pals participated in an onstage discussion about music and fashion. But first, they all sat down with us to chitchat about menswear, Miley, and the Jazz Record Mart.

So, your first book...
Maybe my last.

It's so much work! And I have a full-time job. It took me like three years to put it together, so I don't know. Now I'm actually enjoying it, but it's the torture of—you know, like what do you—getting it done on time to hand it off.

Well, was it more nerve-wracking to release this book, or to release your first collection?
My first collection, for sure. There's no doubt about it. I think with both of them there's some confidence, but you're always waiting for people's reaction, no matter what you do. It's part of what we [me, ZZ Top, and Mick Rock] all do. We're under the microscope all the time because people are expecting something great from us, all the time. So whether it's [launching] your first collection or making music or taking pictures or whatever, we do find ourselves under the microscope for sure.
Well, it's a beautiful book with so many great rockstar shots. What first got you hooked on rock 'n' roll?
For me, it was hearing The Kinks and the song "You Really Got Me," when I was a kid—a very, very young kid, seven or eight years old. Everything else I'd heard was my parents' music or maybe Beatles music, and I grew up in Detroit so I heard a lot of Motown. But when I heard this kind of crazy electric guitar that was distorted, I was like, "wow, that's for me!" So, I chased down everything—all that kind of music. The next thing was The Who, "I Can See For Miles."

And I lived in a little house, 800 square feet with seven people and one little bathroom. And it was tough. I shared a room with two other brothers so I had to put my headphones on. Music became like the thing for me to escape to a bit, at the beginning. And then it became an obsession.

So is music your first love?
Other than my family, it's my main love, yeah. I love designing, but music can go 24/7. On the plane this morning—I'm not sketching on the plane, I'm listening to music and reading the paper.

What were you listening to?
This morning? I was listening to the new Kings of Leon album, and I was listening to Miles Davis this morning as well.

If you could send a rockstar down your runway, who would it be?
Well, we've had so many great ones in our ad campaigns, so in a way that is my runway. I wouldn't put my finger on one, because there are so man that wear our clothes and have been in our ads and I'm honored for all of that. I also don't think rockstars belong on the runway. They belong on the stage! I think the models belong on the runway.

Fair enough. Well, rock stars are pretty legendarily stylish. But do you think any pop stars have truly great style?
Bruno Mars—I guess he's a pop star—he has pretty good style. But listen, I think that pop music is also influenced by rock 'n' roll as well, because if you look at the style of a lot of pop artists—everybody from Miley Cyrus to whoever—they want to look punk at some time. Rock 'n' roll is rebellious, and they all want to be rebellious.

Even though I call my book Rock in Fashion, there are people like John Lee Hooker in there, and he's one of the greatest blues players of all time. Blues was very influential for me style-wise, too, to see the blues players wearing suits all the time.

And women in rock, you can't forget about them! There are the Tina Turners of the world and the Debbie Harrys of the world, and Lady Gaga. Whether you like her or not, she's pushing the boundaries. Every day it's something new.

So rockstar style wasn't just alive in the '60s and '70s then.
If you go through this book, and you really look at it, you see this kind of continuum over time of people pushing the envelope. But you also see young people from today that look very much like the same people [from back then.] Like on the cover, there's Syd Barrett, and there are so many young bands that look like Syd Barrett today, because they were influenced by the way he looks.

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top: Take away the evidence of the automobiles dating these photos, and this [book] could be today.

Interesting! So, apart from you, John, who are the rockstars of the fashion industry?
Dusty Hill of ZZ Top: You're looking at one.
John Varvatos: I think Christopher Bailey at Burberry is one, from the UK, and I know he's a music guy too.
Mick Rock: The competition is thin, John. [Laughter all around.]

What is the most exciting thing happening in menswear right now?
Guys are dressing up. It doesn't matter what age—guys are dressing up again. They still want to wear their jeans, but they want to dress up, and they don't want to look like their dads. They want to do it a little differently. I kind of call it, like, a return to elegance but it's an elegance that's—excuse the expression—a little fucked up. It's an imperfectly perfect elegance. It's not the elegance of the '30s or '40s, it has a different edge to it. And I think you can be perfectly '30s or '40s for a black-tie event, but I think that what young guys like to do today is mix it up and create their own point of view again. It isn't really about fashion; it's really about style. Guys are trying to create something that becomes their own personal style.

Ok last question! What's exciting to you about Chicago?
Chicago has one of the few, great downtowns. Other than Chicago, there's only [real downtowns in] New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco—because Los Angeles isn't a downtown. Most of the cities don't really have a vibrant, working, busy, living downtown kind of atmosphere, and here it just thrives. Everywhere else, it just went into the suburbs.
Billy Gibbons: There's the Jazz Record Mart about a block away.
John Varvatos: Yeah! Hell with dinner.
· John Varvatos [Official Site]
· Nordstrom [Official Site]