Clothing designer John Varvatos has built his reputation on bringing together fashion and music, and his fall ad campaign is no exception. Its lavish black-and-white photos spotlight two British singer-songwriters in different stages of their careers: 26-year-old indie-rocker Miles Kane, who plays alongside members of the Arctic Monkeys in the Last Shadow Puppets, and rock legend Paul Weller – the latter whom Varvatos was especially excited to feature.
“I think he’s one of the most iconic singer-songwriters in the world,” Varvatos tells Rolling Stone. “He’s an ever-changing man; he’s always on the move.”
In the Seventies, Weller cut his teeth with his New Wave group the Jam, earning big hits in Great Britain with their upbeat numbers “Going Underground” and “Town Called Malice.” The group set themselves apart from their punk peers by paying visual tribute to the sharp suits and sleek haircuts pioneered a decade earlier by mod trailblazers like the Who, the Kinks and the Small Faces. Since then, Weller has never ventured too far from those fashion instincts and earned the nickname “the Modfather” when he played with the eclectic Style Council in the 1980s and established a career as a solo artist in the 1990s. In March, Weller released his eleventh solo album, Sonik Kicks, which showed off more electronic touches than had been present in his music before.
To celebrate Weller’s legacy, Varvatos invited him to play at his store on the Bowery in New York City, which is located on the same site where the punk venue CBGB stood. “It was pretty special for us and definitely special for him, as well,” Varvatos says. “It was 35 years almost to the week from when the Jam had first come to America and played CBGB, too. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do with Paul for a number of years.”
Rolling Stone called up Weller in Santa Monica, California, to discuss the Varvatos campaign, his return to the site of CBGB and the style misstep that can ruin any good suit.
What was it that first appealed to you about the mod look?
That look is very deep in the English psyche. For the last 50 years, it’s existed in one shape or permutation. I think it’s just in our culture, and it keeps adapting and changing. Maybe musicians adapted it, but I think it really is a street look. They got it from people in their audiences.
John Varvatos said that the inspiration behind the shoot was a photo from 1980 of you and another artist who pioneered the mod look, the Who’s Pete Townshend. What do you remember about that shot?
I’ve always loved Pete’s work and all the early Who stuff, but it was funny because, meeting Pete, I just realized we had fuck-all in common, absolutely zero. I wasn’t disappointed. It wasn’t like, “You should never meet your heroes.” We were just entirely different sorts of people. We were ponds apart in our mentalities. Pete’s an intellectual, you know, and I most definitely ain’t. But it was cool.
A couple of months ago, you played Varvatos’ store where CBGB used to stand. How did that feel?
It was kind of weird going back after all that time, but it was a lot cleaner than I remember it. I think they have mopped up most of the sick in the back. It was cool to see what they’d done with the shop. They kept the walls, which was really cool. It was interesting doing it. It was nice playing a club gig, as well, to get that kind of intensity and sound in a club environment. It was a buzz, man.
Thinking back to when the Jam played CBGB in the Seventies, what were your first impressions of New York?
Well, it was pretty tough. It was pretty mean, especially on the Bowery. It was scary at first. We don’t see places like that in London. So we were three sort of innocent little people from England. Like, fuckin’ hell, it was kind of overwhelming, really. We didn’t know so much about CBGB and it turned out to be a bar, which we were very used to playing in England. So it was cool. The Ramones came by, and we met people from Blondie. So that was a real buzz. Especially meeting the Ramones; I was a big Ramones fan as well, so it was cool to meet them. It was one of the first times I’d been anywhere in the world, so it opened my eyes, really.
Is playing New York still an exciting experience for you?
Well, it’s a special city anyway, isn’t it? It is especially for English people. You grow up where it’s this mythological place that you only ever see in glimpses on TV. So I think for most English people, it’s a bit of a buzz to go to New York. And I suppose, as opposed to most American cities, it’s as close to England in some ways, especially London, as you can get. It’s a tough sort of town. I’ve always liked the audiences there. I always feel they really listen. It’s always a good crowd to play to.
How was your first meeting with John Varvatos?
It was really lovely. You never know with people from the fashion world. That sort of person can really be up his own ass. But they were really lovely. He and his team were our sort of people. They were down-to-earth. We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs.
What appeals to you about his clothing?
I’ve bought some of his stuff in the past in London. It’s something I would naturally wear anyway. The suit he chose was really perfect for me. It was sort of a double-breasted suit. I like the stuff he’s doing.
What do you look for in a good suit?
It’s got to look well-cut, and you’ve got to feel comfortable in it. It’s got to make you feel good. When it’s the right kind of suit, I think you always grow a few inches when you put it on.
Lastly, what is the biggest faux pas men attempt when wearing a suit?
Trainers [sneakers] with suits always doesn’t do it for me. And I can’t really get behind the cowboy look either. There’s a time and place for cowboy boots – on the ranch, not the city.