Fashion Week: Varvatos' Rock and Retail

by Catherine Curan
Portfolio.com, 09/11/2008

Now that he's turned legendary rock club CBGB into a clothing store, John Varvatos has to prove that carefully tended vestiges of indie cred can mix successfully with slick big-brand marketing.

Sure, Varvatos built a booming business partly by channeling his rock star fantasies into ad campaigns with musicians like his current pitchman, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell. He can get Farrell and bad boy guitarist Dave Navarro to play a corporate gig, as they did last night at the space now rebranded, like some glossy condo tower, with its downtown address: 315 Bowery.

But sometimes bad boy rockers ditch the corporate script. During his brief but energetic set, Farrell referred to the space as CBGB. He set the crowd cheering when a backup singer/dancer (his wife), clad in a corset-style mini-dress, clambered onto a speaker and spread her legs in a split so Farrell could plant kisses on her crotch. The moment was way more CBGB than buttoned-down VF Corp., the $7.6 billion manufacturing company that owns Varvatos along with Lee, Wrangler, and other brands.

It's not clear whether the cheering, dancing youngsters in the audience would be back to buy Varvatos' clothes. But the designer is confident enough in the corporate-meets-club retail model that he's searching for similar spaces in other cities.

"If you're going to do it well, you have to find something that has history that adds some aura to it," he said in a crowded V.I.P. backstage area before the show, as Farrell and Navarro shilled for the line and Gossip Boy Chace Crawford posed for photos. "You can't fake this, you know--an old club, old bar, old church, house, whatever it is that has some history you can kind of live with."

Attention-getting space is important, since retail stores are a powerful growth engine for his company right now. The Varvatos brand is one of VF's retail stars, among a small group of brands that boasted strong comparable-store sales gains in the second quarter ended in June.

Varvatos said the company is closing in on another Manhattan store--on the Upper East Side--and is looking in San Francisco. He added that sales rose 36 percent over the past year and the company is racking up its most profitable year ever. A European rocker is on tap for the next ad campaign.