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Relaxed Fit

John Varvatos's Subtle Designs Are a Cinch Inside the Beltway

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page D01

On a workday evening last fall, one of the display cases at the Saks Fifth Avenue Men's Store in Washington was transformed into a bar, and a line of extremely well-groomed gentlemen waited for green-apple martinis, champagne and cosmopolitans.

It would be fair to say that the assembled gentlemen -- enjoying the cocktail hour that preceded a John Varvatos menswear show -- were as fashionable a group as one can find in the Washington area. They were dressed in expertly cut Hugo Boss and Hickey Freeman suits. They were wearing Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent accessories. Engage them in a little small talk and one quickly discovered that when they visit New York City, they like to shop the aisles of Barneys New York, the Bergdorf Goodman Men's Store and no small number of designer boutiques. They are familiar with the new men's shopping magazine Cargo and can offer thoughtful appraisals of it.

"I think I make masculine clothes that have enough edge that even a fashion guy can find enough to push him," John Varvatos says, "but it's not so much that every piece has to be in your face." At right, clothes from his fall line. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post; Right: By Lucian Perki)

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Their familiarity with Varvatos, however, was a bit sketchy. "I thought he was the Greek prime minister," David Browne of Arlington says with a teasing chuckle.

These men were not lured into Saks by either the fashion or the martinis. They were there because the evening benefited the Whitman-Walker Clinic, and the guests respected the organization's mission of supporting those who are living with HIV and AIDS. That is the way that fashion works in the nation's capital. The clothes are not the center of attention. There is always something more important, more diverting that dominates the spotlight. But fashion is always there, putting the polish on a business day, signifying that an evening is something special, offering a gentle boost to self-esteem or keeping a man from looking like any old Washington bureaucrat.

"I think we'll always be a conservative town," says Don Hirsch, who works for C-SPAN and who was wearing a Barneys New York private label suit and Calvin Klein shoes. "But I think men in general are more aware of fashion than they've ever been, and there's spillover in Washington."

Eric Kole, another guest, elaborates: "It's becoming more acceptable for men to care" about fashion. Kole lives in Washington and owns Vastu, a home furnishings company. The big problem, he says, is that men don't yet understand how to be creative with their clothes. They don't understand how to make their style personal.

"If it's okay to wear a striped shirt untucked, you go out at night and see 90 percent of the men in the same trend," Kole says.

Varvatos is the perfect designer for Washington. He offers style, not trends. And at age 50, he is a designer who understands that although many men may harbor fantasies about the rock star lifestyle, they do not want to dress like Lenny Kravitz.

Varvatos is not as well known as Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren -- both former employers whose collections benefited from his aesthetic sensibility -- but he is one of the few American menswear designers to debut in recent years who seem interested in dressing a broad range of gentlemen, not just those who populate the pages of InStyle or Vibe. Varvatos does not aim to dress the Everyman -- the fellow who swears by pleated chinos and sees no reason ever to spend more than $45 for a pair of bluejeans. But he is aiming for a large sweet spot in the menswear business.

He wants to dress men who consider themselves fashionable but who do not follow fashion. These gentlemen want to look sophisticated and modern but would prefer to accomplish both without the aid of large logos. The Varvatos man is not fey or waifish. He is not a dandy. He may be straight or gay. He could be 25 or he could be 55. But he's got a macho sensibility, and he wouldn't mind looking sexy.

This man must also be willing to spend a great deal of money on his clothes, as a Varvatos cotton shirt can be $200 and a pair of trousers $300. A sport jacket is easily $700 and more; an overcoat will cost a man thousands.

"I think I make masculine clothes that have enough edge that even a fashion guy can find enough to push him," Varvatos says, "but it's not so much that every piece has to be in your face.

"I think there's this confusion about what is sexy. There's this idea that if it's more feminine, it's sexy," he says. "I think you can be buttoned up in a suit and tie and be very sexy."

Varvatos menswear can, at times, be breathtaking. It is defined by uncluttered lines and luscious fabrics. He chooses woodsy colors that are deep and rich, and nothing ever looks too shiny or nouveau riche. His leather coats bear marks of character, as though they have been beaten up by life. And his velvet jackets never look as though they've been stitched from the cover of a cheap banquette.

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