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Wild Style: Inside John Varvatos’ ‘Rock in Fashion’ Book

Read the designer’s thoughts on the looks of artists ranging from Robert Plant to Axl Rose

Courtesy John Varvatos

"Music and fashion have had a kind of incestuous relationship since the Fifties," clothing designer John Varvatos says about the impetus behind his first book, Rock in Fashion, which is out now. "It started with people like Elvis Presley and pop icons like James Dean. Then it exploded in the MTV days. Now, with the internet, it's instantaneous."

Rock in Fashion, which Varvatos co-wrote with author Holly George-Warren, explores the relationship between music and fashion through photographs of musicians ranging from the Beatles to My Morning Jacket, some of which were previously unpublished. It breaks down different elements of artists' looks—hair, glasses, hats, scarves, shoes, tailoring, jeans, jackets and more—and it explains how the looks of musicians from one era influenced rockers decades later.

Fittingly, the inspiration for the book came from Varvatos' own style notebooks that date back to designs he had before he launched his own brand in 2000, following stints working at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Rather than assemble a book of rock-star photos, he put together everything from his thoughts on the history of music and fashion to his philosophies on runway shows and seasonal collections. "It contains the things that were influential to me," he explains, "whether they were culturally or literally from a design inspiration."

He says the most pivotal period in fashion for him was the early Seventies, his formative years. He cites the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, the Who, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix as his wellspring. "After the Sixties, it moved into an era of interesting fashion, where bands like Led Zeppelin were wearing tailored suits," he explains. "It was a time of dressing up again, but not in a father's kind of way. It was an imperfectly perfect way of dressing, which is really what my brand's all about."

To find out how music and fashion build off each other from Varvatos' perspective, Rolling Stone sat down with the designer to discuss why he picked some of the photos in Rock in Fashion. Click through the photos to find out how artists like Lou Reed and Scott Weiland impacted style in a big way.

By KORY GROW

 

Courtesy John Varvatos

A Slap in the Face

"Talk about an interesting group with an interesting style: You've got Jimi Hendrix, who is a black man playing really heavy rock and roll with a blues base to it, and he's got a white bass player who has a big 'fro. And he has a drummer, who's got all this curly, almost white 'fro-ish hair. And they really kind of set the world on its ear both musically and stylistically. And nobody dressed like them. It was a slap in the face of rock and roll. At that time, most of the people in bands, like the Beatles, were wearing similar outfits, like black suits. And all of a sudden you've got Jimi Hendrix, who's got these military jackets and the hair and all these scarves. There was nothing like it."

Courtesy John Varvatos

His Hair Had a Mind of Its Own

"That photo comes from a section in the book about hair. In 1971 or so, Robert Plant had that kind of curly, tussled kind of hair. As he said in my book, his hair had a mind of its own. And there was something really beautiful about it. Every woman that looked at Robert was gaga. Robert had his own hair style. He didn't follow what was happening at the time, which was a little bit more shaggy. He just let it go with all those curls."

Courtesy John Varvatos

Those Great, Silver Aviators

"That's from a section about wearing glasses and what it does to people's dynamic and personality. Sunglasses and glasses have become a big part of music and fashion. You've got guys like Elton John in that chapter and people like Patti Smith and Elvis Costello. But one standout is Lou Reed with those great, silver aviators. You can see that influence throughout other generations as well in rock and roll with the silver-mirrored lenses. At that point in time, people weren't really wearing aviators for fashion. But Lou Reed did, and you wondered what was behind those lenses. What was he thinking? What was he looking at? There's that kind of aura and that mystery behind those mirrored aviators."

Courtesy John Varvatos

Glam Done in a Tailored Way

"This is one of my favorite rock pictures of all time. It very much captures them in the early Seventies, in the whole glam scene. But it was glam done in a tailored way. That period was the most influential period for me — not necessarily that look, but there were a lot of stylistic things happening, between Marc Bolan and T. Rex doing a different kind of glam and Bowie doing something that was more cross-gender. It was a really intriguing time. I had this picture of Bowie and Mick Ronson, from Creem magazine, up in my bedroom in Detroit. It's one of those pictures that has lived with me through the years. I bought an original print by [photographer] Mick Rock. He later became a very close friend of mine." 

Courtesy John Varvatos

I’m Lemmy, I’ll Do What I Want

"Lemmy is one of the great characters of rock and roll. He's not a really attractive guy at all, though when he was younger, in a band called Hawkwind in the early Seventies, he was actually a pretty good-looking guy. Then he didn't take care of himself with drinking and drugs, and then that mole just got out of control." Varvatos laughs. "This is from a section on hats, and I included that picture because of his cowboy hat. I like juxtaposing him with some of the more classy rockers. His whole thing is a bit of a 'fuck you.' Between the American flag shirt and that hat, it's kind of like, 'Hey, I'm Lemmy, I'm Motörhead, I'm rebellious, I'll do what I want.' And he lives and breathes that to this day."

Courtesy John Varvatos

Chameleonic Fashion

"That's an outtake from a video shoot for Velvet Revolver. I love the poncho look with the hat. He really could be playing Clint Eastwood in a movie, but it's also very Scott Weiland. Scott's fashion sense was chameleonic, from black-leather-clad jeans and a leather jacket to a tailored three-piece suit with wide lapels. He definitely was a dreamer during that period. He wanted to be a bit of an actor in his presence onstage and offstage as well."

Courtesy John Varvatos

Beatle Boots

"That's from the section on shoes and boots. Across the page from the picture of Paul are the Beatles, just from the knee down. They're all wearing those Beatle boots. And above that is Jimi Hendrix, wearing a pair of Beatle boots, which had a pointed toe and a little higher heel, called a Cuban heel. They became quite popular in music. They transcended everything from the Beatles to James Brown. It was an interesting time. Back when Paul McCartney wearing those shoes, it became a big, intriguing part of their look. And then we kind of moved out of it, going into platforms."

Courtesy John Varvatos

A Little Higher Heel

"I was quite influenced in the Seventies with that type of shoe. I wore those types of shoes myself. Even though I wasn't short, I always liked a little higher heel, something a little more elevated. I just love that shot, which was taken by Baron Wolman. It wasn't a posed shot. I loved everything about the composition, with that little kid and the shoes. The book also has shots of David Bowie and Ryan Adams wearing those shoes. It's always the same kinds of tones, colors and patterns on the shoe as well. The book shows the influences that artists have on other artists and fashion."

Courtesy John Varvatos

Western Wear, Done in a More Refined Way

"The whole embroidery thing, taken from Western wear but done in a more refined way, in the early Seventies became an influential part of fashion. That chapter also has pictures of Jimmy Page wearing an embroidered dragon on his suit in about 1973 and pictures of John Lennon wearing something embroidered. I love this picture of Wayne Cochran. That guy is so crazy. And to his left is Gram Parsons with Nudie Cohn, who made what Cochran's wearing. During that period of time, I saw Gram Parsons's band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, open for the Byrds. I had never seen anything like that. I grew up in Detroit. We didn't have anything like that. I could never have worn what he was wearing because I was living in Detroit. Where would you wear that? But I also thought, Wow, how freaking cool is this?"

Courtesy John Varvatos

Kiss in Suits

"This is from a section of the book on tailoring and dressing up. The Kiss photo has an interesting story. Bob Gruen, who has done a lot of amazing, iconic pictures over the years, took that. They went to the apartment of a friend of Bob's, and they all put on his suits. So they're kind of ill-fitting, because the guy was whatever size he was. They fit a couple of the guys pretty good. But you never thought of Kiss like that. Kiss in suits was something really crazy and impressive. That's really what that section's all about."

Courtesy John Varvatos

Vests

"Vests are a huge part of what my brand has represented. When I grew up in the early Seventies, I saw Jimmy Page wearing a vest with his shirt out. Robert Plant, Jeff Beck, Bob Dylan and lots of intriguing people all wore vests. So starting in high school, I always wore a vest. I went to a second-hand store and bought all these vests for a dollar apiece from old suits. It became a big influence in my wardrobe. To this day, I have probably a third of one rack, three-feet long, of just vests. I just thought that Bowie shot shows you the elegance of where the vest can take you."

Courtesy John Varvatos

They Took the Cape to Another Element

"They're both very dressed up in these photos. They took the cape to another element. I've used a cape in a very chic way before in my runway show, as well. And we've produced a cape. That was kind of rock and roll at its ultimate elegance." 

Courtesy John Varvatos

Iggy the Way We Think of Iggy

"This is from my section about denim. When I think, "Who looks great in jeans?" Come on, Iggy Pop! And he never wears a shirt. He's very sexed up that way, as well. The photo is by Danny Clinch. I have it in my office. I just love it. It shows Iggy the way we think of Iggy."

Courtesy John Varvatos

Thank You, Jimi, For the Influence

"This is from a series of photos Gered Mankowitz did with Jimi in 1967 at Mason's Yard in London. That series may be the most important pictures to me. I have a big, limited-edition print of that photo behind my desk. I look at it every day when I come in. There was nobody that looked like that when Jimi came on the scene, and there are not very many people who could pull that look off. He's wearing real military pieces in those photos. If you were to turn the pages in the book, you'd see Adam Ant wearing something almost identical. And we did an ad with Green Day and, in it, Billie Joe Armstrong was wearing an all-grey jacket done in linen, influenced by the one Jimi is wearing. That's my way of throwing my hat in there saying, 'Thank you, Jimi, for the influence.'"

Courtesy John Varvatos

Glamorous, Even When She Wore Almost Nothing

"Stylistically, Debbie Harry was and continues to be one of the most interesting and intriguing women in music. For me, she always was a standout. She was glamorous, even when she wore almost nothing or was stripped down or torn up or whatever; somehow she pulled it off looking sexy. Also, she and Patti Smith were both able to wear menswear and look interesting in it as well."

Courtesy John Varvatos

Wearing the Message

"We make T-shirts that feature some of the iconic artists we work with. What's interesting is, when they see how well the shirts are done, they want a bunch of them. We've done them with Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, ZZ Top and Guns N' Roses. They want to wear their own T-shirts. So that's part of why I have the picture of Suzi Quatro wearing Suzi Quatro. But at the same time, Axl is wearing Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders is wearing Marilyn Monroe. It's what I call, 'wearing the message.' There's just something about how important T-shirts have become in terms of spreading a message in both music and fashion."