Fourteen below zero: That was the arctic blast awaiting John Varvatos and Cristiano Quieti when they stepped off a plane at Metro Airport one morning early last year — the polar opposite, one might think, of a chamber of commerce-friendly kind of day.
“Cristiano had never been to the Detroit area before, so I had no idea what he was going to think,” Varvatos says of Quieti, president and CEO of the designer’s New York-based company.
Having grown up in Allen Park, Varvatos was accustomed to a Michigan winter, but his Italian-born CEO? “I kept thinking, ‘Omigosh, what’s he going to say?’ ” Varvatos remembers.
The duo had arrived in Detroit for a scouting expedition, invited by the two Dans — Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans chairman, and Dan Mullen, vice president of development for Bedrock Real Estate Services, the commercial arm of Gilbert’s company — a team that has played an integral role in downtown Detroit’s burgeoning growth.
Now in the 15th year of his eponymous label, Varvatos boasts 18 freestanding boutiques around the globe — his largest opened in London last September — all featuring the casually elegant, rock ’n’ roll-inspired looks that have garnered “Designer of the Year” awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and GQ magazine.
But a Detroit location was always in the back of his mind — the chance to put a footprint in the place he was raised and to contribute to the revitalization of the city.
“I was always considering how we could work in Detroit,” he says, noting that colleagues had suggested Somerset Collection. “I knew I wanted it to be more than a store; the fit for us had to be just right.”
Mullen spent the day with Varvatos and Quieti, taking the pair through Quicken Loans’ headquarters and several Bedrock-owned buildings, while also showing them other businesses that had found success by investing in the downtown renewal.
But as they traversed the neighborhood and the wind chill approached 30 below zero, Varvatos kept wondering whether his CEO thought he was crazy. The extensive tour over, the two of them got in the car to head back to Metro Airport.
It was then that Quieti issued his verdict to Varvatos: “I only have one thing to say: We have to do something here.”
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking,” the designer responded.
Shoppers will soon experience the results when John Varvatos debuts his latest boutique — slated to open in mid-March — at 1500 Woodward Avenue. The 4,000-square-foot store occupies the street level of a brownstone known as the Wright-Kay building, designed by Gordon Lloyd and completed in 1891.
If the address sounds familiar, chances are you also know it as the location of Wright & Co., the second-floor restaurant helmed by chef Marc Djozlija, which quickly became a hot spot after opening its doors last summer.
“I brought my family there over Thanksgiving weekend, 12 of us, and it was packed,” Varvatos says. That night, as with so many others he’s spent readying the store during the past nine months, people introduced themselves and talked about the excitement they felt for his brand’s arrival downtown.
“For the most part these have been people coming from the suburbs, but they’re cool, affluent, and they’re thinking about downtown Detroit,” he says. “They aren’t just going there because it’s someplace to go for dinner; they’re liking what’s going on downtown. I’ve been so blown away with the welcoming and the passion for what’s going on.”
A Rock ’n’ Roll Vibe
Varvatos was the second oldest of five children growing up in Allen Park; his father was an accountant, his mother a homemaker. They lived in a tract house Varvatos estimates was no more than 1,000 square feet — “with one bathroom for seven of us,” he adds. “We would have to line up in the morning before school or before church to wait our turn.”
In the close-knit, crowded house, his outlet came courtesy of a transistor radio and a pair of headphones, allowing him to shut out the familial noise.
He quickly fell in love with rock ’n’ roll, especially local artists like Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Iggy & the Stooges, the MC5, and Bob Seger (these days Varvatos routinely employs musicians for his ad campaigns; recent layouts have featured Kiss, Ringo Starr, and Ziggy and Stephen Marley).
Varvatos also loved listening to Ernie Harwell calling Detroit Tigers games, but it was the music that truly transported him.
When he was 16, he worked for the now-defunct Hughes & Hatcher chain. “At that age everything was about getting money to buy music or clothes, and I figured there I could get a discount,” Varvatos says. “I also figured out that when you wore the right clothes, girls paid attention.”
Two summers of working at Chrysler’s Trenton plant followed. That full-circle memory came back when the automaker approached him a few years ago about collaborating on a limited-edition 300C.
His designs for Chrysler had been his most high-profile effort to take part in something Varvatos felt could help make a difference in the city — until now. He says the moment truly clicked for him on that wintry morning last year when he first walked into 1500 Woodward.
“[The first-floor interior] has a balcony and an elevator that only goes to the balcony level, and I just found myself thinking, What was this place?” Varvatos says. Research indicates the space likely was home to a haberdasher around the turn of the century, and later a speakeasy; both add a certain symmetry to what Varvatos is hoping to achieve with his latest boutique. “We’ve got this perfect space that looks like a club, and that works really well for us,” he says, comparing the location to his Bowery Street store in New York, housed within the former CBGB, the legendary punk-rock nightclub.
“It’s inspired by what we did [with CBGB], but very much has its own Detroit roots,” he says. His goal is also to celebrate Gordon Lloyd’s original design. “When you look at the photographs from the turn of the century up until the 1930s, you immediately see this is a really cool building. If we can make it look close to that, and bring it back to its original glory, that will be pretty incredible.”
The Detroit Connection
And how will his collections fit within that idea? Varvatos’ aesthetic has always been grounded in a rock ’n’ roll vibe, highlighted by great denim pieces, essential T-shirts and button-downs, and ultra-cool leather jackets, often mixed with more tailored looks imbued with a British Invasion flavor. Even so, he plans to take a wholly pragmatic approach to this product selection.
“It’s Detroit, not Madison Avenue, so we are trying to be a little more sensitive to the balance of price point,” Varvatos says. “We’re not going to be all about serious suits. We’ll have some, but that’s not how we see this store.”
In addition to pieces from his signature collection, the John Varvatos Star USA Collection, and Converse, he’s also planning to more deeply infuse his love of music into the offerings, via an exclusive line of vintage-style T-shirts that pay homage to Detroit’s rock icons.
Like other John Varvatos locations, the store’s balcony level will also feature a vintage audio and vinyl room, as well as a shop-in-shop showcasing custom Fender guitars.
After entering into a partnership with Republic Records last year, creating John Varvatos Records, he’s exploring opening a recording studio in the city. Meanwhile, a stage on the store’s street level will play host to local up-and-coming musical acts, while at press time Varvatos was also exploring partnerships with local artisans who could sell their denim or leather wares within the store.
While commerce is the goal, Varvatos’ overall ambition seems geared toward big-picture ideas. “Of course I want the store to be successful, but this is also about making a contribution, and maybe a little about legacy,” he says. “I want to see Woodward Avenue bustling with people and perhaps open the path to show other retailers it can be done.”
Indeed, Varvatos also foresees a time in the not-too-distant future in which his Detroit location will be at the core of a downtown heritage festival, similar to a philanthropic event he’s hosted in LA for several years, one filled with families, great music and, he says, the undeniable soul of the city.
How real is that possibility? Varvatos just smiles. “With everything I’ve witnessed the past few months, I definitely see it happening,” he says. “But what can I say? I’m a dreamer.”