When I was a teenager in the Nineties and discovering the music of ageing rockers, I noticed they all had a certain look. Black jeans, a comfy shoe and a shirt untucked to hide the paunch. Rock sapiens was set for a difficult slide into senescence but around the millennium, when his mean age was 50, someone came along to give him a makeover. We are all aware of the designer John Varvatos whether we know it or not – because we can all picture the resting rock star as he stands today: the slimfit, collarless jacket bearing the ghost of the British invasion; the narrow jeans to emphasise the spindly leg. The beautifully distressed Beatles boot (still modelled by a Beatle). And the silken scarf, brushing the silken hair of Jimmy Page or Steven Tyler as he picks up the latest Golden God Award from Classic Rock magazine.
Varvatos made his name in boxer briefs (long in the leg, tight in the crotch) when he worked for Calvin Klein. His model for those was Marky Mark – but a second life emerged for him, making the musical gods of yesteryear feel confident again. I ask him down the line whether he remembers the untucked shirts of the Nineties.
“Yes,” he says soberly. “And it was an awful period.”
At the London Varvatos store near Bond Street, a finely crinkled pair of jeans and £1,000 military jacket with a whiff of Sgt Pepper hang beneath a photograph of Freddie Mercury in a kimono circa 1977. Yes plays over the speakers. The Varvatos customer falls into two camps: there’s the actual rock star who buys the stuff (Paul Weller, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Iggy Pop) and the guy who longed to be a rock star, but went into business instead, has money to burn, and still feels cooler than his colleagues.
And so it is that, in a unique convergence, rock god and fan shop side by side at the Varvatos stores of Detroit, London or LA, united in age and purchase power. The Bowery store is housed in the old CBGB’s building. The basement of the London branch also replicates the club – and the banker from Lazard round the corner, popping in on his lunch break, is met with walls of memorabilia, all of it for sale, including two dozen expertly “aged” Stratocaster Relic guitars. The rockers have the real vintage Strats but the ordinary guy may treat himself, Varvatos tells me, as you would when you’re on holiday. After all, how many of the world’s most beautiful guitars are sold to men who actually play them?
Varvatos says he didn’t target rock stars but was thrilled to see Weller and Page pictured in his threads (“These men are like gods to me”). He won’t analyse the appeal of the clothes but goes as far as to say that they are “youthful but still appropriate”.
His recent model Ringo flouted the Beatles’ strict rules on commercial campaigns to be the face of fall 2014, wearing a “Peace Rocks” T inspired by his own famous V-sign.
The 5ft 6in legend got a standard model’s fee.
There are still those who plough a more eccentric furrow – Jeff Beck with his boxing boots and Lycra, Brian May with his Zandra Rhodes blouses. “And there are some from the Seventies who have no style at all,” John says. But like the Wall Street guy who buys the rock’n’roll suit to give him the confidence to close the deal, the rockers get a boost from lines of middle-aged elegance. Tyler (Aerosmith) gave Varvatos an epic tour of his closets with all his Seventies stagewear. Then he told him, “I still look cool in your stuff.”
Maybe the truth is that rock stars don’t like shopping any more than the average man? Maybe the Varvatos shops appeal because they are places where you can pick it all up in one go – this jacket, please, those boots – and throw in that vintage turnable as a treat while you’re at it. Elvis Costello did just that the other day. There are even fragrances – including one called Vintage, with a threatening hint of patchouli.
Rockers text Varvatos when they’re in town and meet him for dinner. “It’s not because they want free clothes.”
Next week: Tracey Thorn
This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning