John Varvatos: 'Paul Weller Brought the Magic to Us'

The designer talks about his new ad campaign with the Jam's frontman and his forthcoming book

Paul Weller and Miles Kane for John Varvatos
Danny Clinch
Paul Weller and Miles Kane for John Varvatos
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Few designers have united rock and fashion quite like John Varvatos, whose ad campaigns over the past decade have featured the Roots, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and Green Day. His latest ad series for his Fall 2012 collection spotlights two artists from different generations – former the Jam frontman Paul Weller and 26-year-old indie rocker Miles Kane – who are connected by the common threads of their impeccably fitted mod-rock suits, a look pioneered by groups like the Who and the Small Faces.

"We wanted to do something like the Modfather and the young gun," Varvatos tells Rolling Stone. "Paul has always been this super-cool, stylish guy, from the first time I saw him with the Jam in 1977 to today. He's probably one of the best-dressed, best-looking guys in rock & roll. And we thought Miles had an interesting look, as well as the ability to become another icon."

The campaign includes a fun, two-minute, Hard Day's Night-style video with music taken from Weller's latest album, Sonik Kicks; it was inspired by a black-and-white 1980 photo of Weller with the Who's Pete Townshend as they stood in front of London's infamous Marquee Bar and Club. The portrait, taken by Janette Beckman, had been hanging on Varvatos' wall for close to a decade when the idea for the campaign hit him. "It was kind of the juxtaposition of a younger and somewhat older mod rocker," says the designer and Fashion Star mentor. "Paul was about 22 and looks super chic in a skinny suit, cigarette in his hand, and Pete Townshend is wearing a trench coat, looking not that much older than Weller but more worldly." For the 2012 revamp, the latter role was given to Weller.

That sort of rock and fashion lineage has been especially important lately to Varvatos, as he's currently working on a book about the intertwining histories of music and style, tentatively titled Rock and Fashion, due out next fall through HarperCollins. "It's an unusual backdrop on my fashion career," the designer says, "telling how I've followed fashion and rock & roll, and also telling about the influences rock has had on me." Case in point: the photo that Varvatos hopes to secure for its cover is the Beckman shot of Weller and Townshend. If included inside the book, it will join 400 or so mostly unpublished portraits of musicians tendered by photographers like Danny Clinch, Mick Rock, Robert Knight and Bob Gruen, with stories by the photographers and some of the musicians themselves about their wardrobes and careers.

"It will cover how fashion has had a big influence on rock & roll and, at the same time, how rock & roll has influenced fashion back," Varvatos says. "But it's also about how some artists have influenced others. It's interesting to go back and look at pictures of Jimi Hendrix and somebody like Lenny Kravitz in the Nineties, when he was doing 'Are You Gonna Go My Way?' because it was kind of like the Jimi Hendrix Experience."

Weller and Kane's sartorial sensibilities in Varvatos' ad campaign provide a similarly interesting contrast. Once the designer had the pair committed to the shoot, he hosted a celebratory Weller concert at his New York boutique, which is located in the same space as the now-defunct, legendary punk club CBGB. Held in late May, the show took place almost 35 years to the day from when Weller first came over to America with the Jam and played the club. "When it was done, Paul told me, 'This has gotta be the best show we've done in the past hundred shows,'" Varvatos reports excitedly. "We've done well over a hundred shows since we first opened the Bowery store four or five years ago with everybody from the New York Dolls to Guns N' Roses. For me, Paul's concert was in the top couple of shows we've ever done there. The space brought something magical to him, and he definitely brought the magic to us."

The shoot, which happened the next day in front of a Lower East Side pawn shop, proved to be just as thrilling for the designer, who hit it off splendidly with Weller and Kane as they posed coolly for the still photographs, then showed off their silly sides as they grabbed props ranging from mannequins to blow-up dolls for the video. The resulting images, taken by Clinch, turned out so well, in fact, that the designer expects his images will endure.

"I think Paul and Miles really embodied the point of view that we wanted for the collection and for the season," Varvatos says. "Not that it's an ultra-mod collection, but their stylish look in the photographs, to me, has a timelessness to it. It's the kind of picture that I think someone's going to want to revisit – just like I did with the one of Paul Weller and Pete Townshend. They're gonna pull that picture out 20, 30 years from now and they're going to be influenced by it. And that's pretty special to think about."

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