I grew up in a very humble household in Detroit. We were five kids in an 800-square-foot house with one little bathroom. As much as I loved my family, there comes a time when you want to do your own thing. I got sucked into music. I would go to my neighborhood record store, Sam’s Jams, and sit on the floor and read through all the music magazines. I’d look at the artists and what they were wearing. I had a paper route and was always thinking what I could spend my $4 on that week. I would say to Sam, “This Led Zeppelin album, they didn’t write all the songs.” And he’d go, “You don’t know who Willie Dixon is?” and he’d put on blues records for me.
Back then I knew I didn’t want to dress like anybody else. When I saw Jimi Hendrix I loved that he didn’t look like anybody on the planet. And I liked that Keith Richards didn’t look like the rest of the Stones. I thought if they could create their own look, maybe I could too. In junior high I would take whatever little money I had and buy a jacket or a pair of corduroys. And at the age of 14 or 15, you start to be interested in girls and girls start becoming interested in you. They’d say, “You look cool. That’s a cool jacket.” So I got a job at a clothing store after school because I wanted the discount.
I need to stay true to my roots but push the walls out and do new things.
I studied science in college and eventually ended up working in sales at Polo Ralph Lauren, where I fell in love with the whole process of designing and creating from inception. A switch flipped in my head that said “This is what you have to do.” I was in my late 20s, and I decided to give up an amazing job and change the entire direction of my career. Eventually I went to Calvin Klein to be head of menswear and then back to Ralph Lauren as head of design for men. I was lucky to work with two of the best brands in the world. One day I was walking through Barneys New York; it was a Sunday back in 1999, and I was checking out the fall season. I saw Prada, really successful, and it was all black nylon. I saw Helmut Lang, and it was all this black. Jil Sander. All falling into a modern genre. And I thought to myself, My God, what a time in fashion to do something completely the opposite of classic—to mix a kind of old-world vintage look with a modern sensibility. And that happened to be my personal style.
My creative process is the same every season: I know I have to get from A to Z, with a calendar to get there. And the first thing I need is inspiration. I need to stay true to my roots but to push the walls out and do new things. I might be looking at architecture—say, the amazing Santiago Calatrava winged building in New York—and I’ll be thinking it might be interesting for seams on the back of a jacket. Or the way we knit a sweater—nothing ever literal, but always looking for a spark.
I love what I do, and I feel I’m blessed. And I get to combine design with my other real passion in life, music, which has been there all along. Most people have a hard time finding one job they really love, and I have that and a record label. I don’t have a hundred artists; I have six, and the label is a little more than a year old. It all happened so organically. I never had this grand plan that I was going to start a record label or that I was going to put artists in my ads. It really happened through the one word I use to describe it all: It’s passion across all those fronts. Because of that, I get respect. And that’s the thing I feel most honored about. You can’t ask for anything more.
JOHN VARVATOS LAUNCHES A PLAYBOY TEE
Enjoy, and learn more about the Playboy Graphic Tee here.