The Rock ‘n’ Roll Designer

Since he began his menswear fashion business, Detroit native John Varvatos’ name and brand have become synonymous with Old World artisanship and rock and roll flair. He’s received numerous awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, was named GQ‘s Designer of the Year in 2007 and, in 2013, he published his first book, John Varvatos Rockin’ Fashion. His brand now extends to an entire lifestyle that includes eyewear in collaboration with REM Eyewear. VCPN spoke to Varvatos about how music has influenced his brand, the new era of style-conscious men’s eyewear and how critical it is to walk to your own beat.

VCPN: Who do you think you address with your style of fashion?

John Varvatos: He’s somebody that has a creative spirit, whether he’s a writer, an actor, a musician, an artist, a photographer. It’s somebody who embodies some creativity within them or has a burning desire to be somewhat creative and maybe never found the outlet for it.

VCPN: So it’s not a Wall Street guy necessarily.

Varvatos: There’s the Wall Street guy who has to wear a certain kind of tie and a certain kind of suit, and then there’s the Wall Street guy who still wants to look quite appropriate but he wants to have his own personality.

VCPN: I know that rock and roll is a seminal design theme. How do you merge your classic men’s styling with rock and roll?

Varvatos: When we started the company in 2000, it was just an organic thing that was part of my own personal DNA, my history and my love for a certain kind of style. So I sprinkled it throughout. It has evolved over time, and it has become magnified by the amount of artists who we work with and the amount of press that people talk about this subject. I just feel like my brand embodies an edge that I guess is perceived as being rock and roll and my love for music.

VCPN: How different is it designing cars and then shoes and then eyewear while maintaining your own kind of fashion identity and theme?

Varvatos: The difference between an ophthalmic frame or a sunglass is very different than designing a car. But I will say that the same viewpoint on attention to detail and connectivity to my brand runs through everything that I do. In fact, I don’t think that we look like anybody else in the eyewear world. In the end, it’s not putting the logo on it; it’s really how you express your identity in something that still is accessible, wearable, interesting, leading edge whatever your goal is at that moment.

We’re working on a collection called the Detroit Collection in eyewear right now that’s influenced by interesting details that were inspired by the automotive industry.

VCPN: Over the past couple of decades, men’s eyewear has largely been very traditional, utilitarian and conservative. Aviator styles or the rimless look were probably the most popular. Do you see men now embracing more fashionable, colorful or expressive eyewear ?

Varvatos: For sure. In the last 10 or even in the last five years, if guys had an ophthalmic frame, they had one, and if they had a sunglass, they had one. Today, guys have multiples of all of those things for different parts of their life. They’ve become more playful with their clothes, and eyewear has become a huge part of that. It can add to their signature style.

VCPN: What drew you to REM initially when you were looking at eyewear as a category you wanted to work in?

Varvatos: I loved the personal touch at REM. I loved the passion for my brand. They loved my brand and they had really done their homework. They were customers, which was great, so they really were believers.

VCPN: When you started your menswear collection at the turn of the new century, you decided to go black-less. So obviously you went against the grain. Do you consider yourself to be an iconoclast?

Varvatos: You know, that’s a big question, but I really just consider myself somebody who walks to his own beat. I’m not a follower. I’m aware, for sure, but I do my own thing and [follow]my own passion. You’ll win if you walk to your own beat.

The Master Mix & Matcher

Known for her oversized round glasses, chunky statement jewelry and global wardrobe choices, Iris Apfel has been part of the fabric of American fashion for more than five decades. A student of art history, she and her husband Carl ran a textile company for more than 40 years and afterwards, they worked on several design restoration projects at the White House for nine presidents including Reagan and Clinton. Her international travels exposed her to artisanal clothing that also became part of her trademark look.

Apfel is the subject of a documentary by Albert Maysles called Iris that premiered at the New York Film Festival in October 2014. With her latest venture, a sunglass collaboration (see right) with Selima Salaun and Paris department store Le Bon Marche, called Iris Apfel x Selima Optique x Le Bon Marche, this “œrare bird” (Rara Avis, the name of the 2005 Metropolitan Art Exhibition showcasing her unique style is also the name of her clothing and apparel collections) continues to stay in the forefront of fashion.

Apfel also designed a showcase with her vintage clothing called “œIris Takes Paris;” she chose her 10 favorite activities and places to visit in the City of Light and created an ensemble for each one.

VCPN had the honor of speaking with the 94-year-old firecracker.

VCPN: How did you enjoy Paris Fashion Week?

Iris Apfel: Oh, it was fabulous! It was unbelievable. I was treated like a rock star and the Queen of England. The American Ambassador gave me a party at the embassy residence, which was fabulous.

VCPN: What were some of the factors that made Selima Optique an ideal partner for the sunglass collaboration?

Apfel: She has a lot of style and taste and she also understands big glasses. She had a pair that was a little bit different from mine but just perfect. We chose the colors and it was a very pleasant arrangement.

VCPN: When did you really start to embrace eyewear as a fashion accessory?

Apfel: When I was a little kid, I always fancied spectacle frames and I used to creep around all kinds of flea markets. Whenever I saw some frames I liked—you know, they didn’t cost very much — I bought them and put them in a box. As I grew, occasionally I would take them out and try them on. And I thought, my God, they’re a wonderful accessory! So sometimes I wore them without any lenses just for fun and everybody laughed a lot. When I finally needed glasses, I decided, well, if I’m going to wear glasses, I want to wear glasses. So I picked the biggest frame I had and I had lenses put in them. Everybody would remark about the size because they were so unusual back then and they’d say, ‘Why do you want them so large?’ It got me crazy, so finally I said, ‘The bigger to see you!’ That shut them up! I had no reason for a trademark, but everybody says that’s what it has become.

VCPN: What’s your take on following trends?

Apfel: I don’t pay any attention to those. I do whatever I feel like. If I see something that I feel good about, I try it. I’m very anti-trend.

VCPN: Tell me about your favorite activities that you selected outfits for ‘Iris Takes Paris’?

Apfel: There was going to a fashion show, going to the museums, taking a ride on the Bateaux Mouches, going to the opera, going out for a great dinner, having cocktails, going to the
[Marseilles Pouche].

VCPN: What do you think are the three most important accessories that a woman should own?

Apfel: It depends upon the woman, but jewelry is the most important accessory for me. I find jewelry extremely transformative. If you have a simple architectural outfit, a little black dress, a black sweater and a skirt, you can go from morning to night and if you change your accessory, you’ll have many different outfits.

VCPN: Do you have advice for opticians when they are trying to help somebody select a pair of eyewear?

Apfel: It depends upon the optician and the client. The optician [should learn about]the client’s lifestyle. I think they should help them get a pair of glasses that suit their face and not what the trend is. Eyewear should be attractive on the person and appropriate for the outfit.

The TV Tastemaker

Emmy-award winning co-host and mentor of Project Runway, New York Times best-selling author and long-time eyeglass wearer Tim Gunn has been the brand ambassador for Transitions Optical since May of last year. His signature rimless lenses give him a neutral look that allows his wardrobe choices to shine through.

Gunn, whose well-known phrase “œmake it work” has been uttered by fashionistas for more than a decade, spoke to VCPN about how wearing Transitions lenses saved him from losing countless pairs of sunglasses, the best news he recently received from his eye doctor and how opticians can help perform “œmake betters” with their patients.

VCPN: How would you describe your personal eyewear style over the years?

Tim Gunn: For the most part, I’ve worn different tortoise frames, basically horn rims. The shape would change-sometimes they would be rectangular or round. Then when I took over the fashion department at Parsons in 2000, I thought I needed to disappear, style-wise. I needed to be extremely neutral. I started wearing black turtlenecks and black khakis, and I got these frameless glasses. I was happy with the look-basically it was a no-look.

Then who knew that Project Runway would come along and that it would be such a phenomenon? Now I’m branded with these glasses! I keep thinking about making a change and eventually, I will.

VCPN: What about a crystal frame?

Gunn: I could see myself in a crystal frame-it’s similar to the rimless. In a manner of speaking, it goes away.

VCPN: What helped you decide to try Transitions lenses?

Gunn: I had been flirting with getting Transitions lenses for easily a decade and I just didn’t take the leap. When the Transitions Optical people approached me, I’ll be really blunt — I didn’t know whether or not I would like them. So I said, ‘Look, I’m so happy that you contacted me. You’ve given me this nudge because I needed to do something about this.’ I thanked them for the offer, but I paid for the [lenses], because if I didn’t like them, I didn’t want to feel obligated.

VCPN: What happened once you started wearing them?

Gunn: I had a kind of epiphany about how enhanced my experience is navigating the world. I know it sounds rather dramatic, but I couldn’t believe the difference. The true seamlessness of the transitions from light spaces to dark spaces—it’s phenomenal. In fact, the only other time I’ve had that kind of epiphany about eyewear was when I was nine, when I first got glasses and I realized, good heavens, there are individual leaves on the trees!

VCPN: Prior to wearing Transitions, did you used to change into Rx sunglasses to go outside?

Gunn: I did and it was a big pain. Where do you put them? I can’t begin to tell you how many pairs I’ve lost and it was a serious inconvenience. I think it is for most people. My eye doctor said to me, ‘I don’t want you walking around outside without sunglasses on.’ I never thought of [wearing sunglasses]as being a medical issue, but it is.

VCPN: Can you share the status of your macular degeneration?

Gunn: I have it in my right eye. I just saw my eye doctor last week and he said that the macular degeneration has actually arrested. He said it hasn’t altered at all in the last year, and this is my first annual visit to him when that has been the case.

VCPN: How do you think opticians can help their patients find the perfect pair of eyewear?

Gunn: You need to consider the shape of the individual’s face relative to the eyeglasses, and you’re looking for something that is opposite. Other than that, I think it’s a matter of personal taste on the part of the wearer. But there are so many people who have difficulty looking at themselves in the mirror and see what we see. I go through this with clothes when I’m working with people-I don’t call them makeovers, I call them ‘make betters.’ That’s where professionals in this industry can really help customers see themselves.


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