While many of today's edgiest designers seem to cut their clothes with a Black & Decker, John Varvatos approaches his with a decidedly sharp pair of professional shears. Design for him is the art of refinement; he revels in the small detail, the accuracy of fit, the nuance of silhouette and proportion.
The care seems to have paid off. Last year his first men's collection earned him accolades from both the fashion media and retailers—two groups that frequently do not think in tandem. Varvatos moved into a 9,000-square-foot showroom/design studio in Chelsea in 1999, and just this past October opened a shop in SoHo—not to mention his 800-square-foot shop in Barneys New York and a recent Council of Fashion Designers of America award for menswear. But make no mistake, Varvatos has paid his dues. After his start working for Polo Ralph Lauren, he moved to head of menswear design at Calvin Klein, where he launched Klein's Men's Collection and was instrumental in developing the CK line; he then went back to Ralph Lauren to head up its men's design division.
By background, training, and inclination, Varvatos is grounded in classic style with a contemporary twist. "But our twists aren't quirky," he hastens to point out. "They're concerned with finesse. My own taste, and that of our customers, is directed towards the subtle feature." It is, after all, rather easy to be bizarre; sophisticated buyers have more respect for tradition. "When we are going too far I say it's not for me," he adds.
The clothes have an old-world sensibility—the entire collection is made in Italy. "Everyone's a little more concerned with his appearance these days," says Varvatos. "Guys are more aware. They want comfort and elegance." After all, suit silhouettes haven't really changed much in a century or so, which means that tailored clothing becomes about newer fabrics and finesse. Varvatos designs and develops many of the fabrics; a particular favorite for spring is a cotton suit that looks surprisingly like a fine tropical worsted. Suits are relaxed and easy—three-button, soft-shouldered jackets and full-cut, flat-front trousers. Stylish simplicity is emphasized by eliminating lapel buttonholes and chest pockets. A double-breasted tuxedo takes on a natty Edwardian air with a high-set four-button closure and refined grosgrain facings on the narrow lapels.
Sportswear has the same clean lines and modern fabrics. A classic sport shirt gets its ethereal pattern and texture from a unique process by which linen and paper yarn are woven together; the latter is washed out in a high-temperature rinse, resulting in an unusually textured linen shirt with an airy, gossamer quality.
Sweaters are a major part of the collection: cashmere, flat-knit linens, and silk blends. There are higher-cut V necks with crocheted trim, cable-knit turtlenecks where the cable goes right up the neck, and there's leather lacing on the side vents of crewneck sweaters.
Mr. Varvatos designs a full collection, everything from overcoats and shearlings to neckwear and shoes. "I try to create a collection that has versatility, where you can mix different items without looking too studied," he says. "My customer has an ease in putting things together."
Boutique: 149 Mercer Street, New York City; 212-965-0700; Web site: www.johnvarvatos.com