20 Years Of John Varvatos Have Rocked The Menswear World In A Way We Should Never Forget

In the long-running soundtrack to the story of John Varvatos and his menswear company, there might be no anthem more fitting to describe its current moment than this one from Aerosmith:

Livin’ on the edge
You can’t help yourself from fallin’
Livin’ on the edge
You can’t help yourself at all
Livin’ on the edge
You can’t stop yourself from fallin’
Livin’ on the edge

The song doesn’t simply work because it has carries an air of defiance amid apocalypse, but because you can easily imagine Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler wearing a John Varvatos jacket while performing it.

While rock n’ roll has been a source of inspiration for countless mens’ fashion brands, no one has channeled it as consistently or as specifically as John Varvatos.

Even when news sites like Bloomberg reported on the company’s recent bankruptcy filing, they took time to note that John Varvatos was not only worn by rock n’ roll fans but actual rock n’ rollers. This included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top and Dave Matthews.

“My philosophy is about reaching back to move forward,” Varvatos said early on. “I have something different to say with a sensibility that is both old and new.”

Here’s how I would articulate what those clothes said: “Even if you become The Man, you can still dress like you’re ready to stick it to The Man.”

Sharp Dressed Men

When you look at the collection over the years, for example, there are jackets, jeans and other items that look exactly what an aspiring rocker might pick up at a vintage clothing store. The difference was that it was new, and about 1,000 times more expensive.

This made actually buying the clothes somewhat problematic, at least for me. I remember visiting the John Varvatos store within Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas about two years ago. I loved almost everything in it, but the items I could most easily afford — like a T-shirt with a star on it from the John Varvatos USA collection — were still around $150, and I’m not sure anyone would have realized it wasn’t actually from a vintage store.

There was at least one jacket, however, that my wife agreed suited me to a T. It was long, dark and made me look as though I should be holding a guitar. It was also about $1,500, and I knew I would probably only be able to pull it off on very rare occasions, like a themed party or perhaps a fashion industry event.

In some ways it’s remarkable that a brand like John Varvatos existed at all. Take a second look at that celebrity client list. This was a label that continued to grow long after rock had become a genre exiled within the shadow of pop, almost belonging to a bygone era.

(Almost) Like A Rolling Stone

That said, the clothes were not so much nostalgic as a testament to qualities of certain kind of achievement. They seemed intended for men (probably middle aged, like me), who wanted the world to know they had not lost their sense of rebellion or iconoclasm, even if many of their initial battles had already been won.

A John Varvatos outfit was what a rock star (or a rock star at heart) wore when they still wanted to wear vintage clothes, in other words, but without the vintage store smell attached to them. They were the clothes you would wear for your greatest hits tour, whether those hits represented platinum albums or the management of a hedge fund.

There was also something inherently American about John Varvatos. In thinking about the company I was reminded of an old interview I recently watched with David Bowie, who pointed out that many rock stars in Britain came from an art school background. American rock stars, on the other hand, grew up decidedly blue collar.

That may help explain the real ethos of John Varvatos — egalitarian but not really aspirational. Instead, his clothes showed us what the epilogue of those aspirational dreams could look like. His customer was the renegade who could now afford to relax without losing his style.

Maybe it makes sense that John Varvatos would go bankrupt at a time when attending a concert is, for the forseeable future, impossible. And yet there’s a part of me holding up a metaphorical lighter, hoping that he, and the rest of us, will find a way to rock on.

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