CO-OP’s approach to branding is unlike that of any other agency. We don’t manufacture desire for our client; instead, we take the most desirable aspect and connect it with those who would appreciate it most. At CO-OP, we’re not about gimmicks; we’re about creating a relationship that works.
Perhaps that is why we were drawn to John Varvatos, a fashion brand proudly rooted in the designer’s passion for rock ‘nʼ roll. The John Varvatos brand exudes a character as distinct and modern and quite simply, cool, as the music from which it is inspired. Which adds up to an unforgettable experience in its clothing and its stores.
We recently stopped by the John Varvatos Bowery store—which is housed in the former rock ‘n’ roll landmark CBGBs—to meet with Tor Caracappa, Visual Director for Varvatos (and band member of Joker Speed Five). Tor shared some fascinating insights into John Varvatos, re-affirming CO-OP’s belief that “strong brands are rooted in simple truths.”
Well, to be honest, I think it was sort of fate. Even though I had been an admirer of John’s work for a while, I didn’t know much about the man, I just knew his clothes. When we met he had on an old Cheap Trick T-shirt, which happens to be my favorite band. We spent the following three hours talking about music. So we just hit it off very well and we spoke a very common language, which was rock ‘n’ roll—which is what the brand identity is about.
It’s kind of important for the person who is head of your visual department, who is showing the world what you’re all about, to really understand your language and your vocabulary. It was a natural progression for us to work together.
Absolutely! He loves it! It’s a labor of love. He has a 25-hour day, an 8-day week and he does not sleep! But somehow, even after putting in his 25 hours a day, when I meet with him the next morning the first thing he says is, “I saw this band last night. You gotta check them out.” And it’s a band I’ve never heard of. I’m like, How do you do that, there’s gotta be like three of you roaming the earth. But that’s why his name is on the front of the store.
The stores are all his vision. Because I inherently understand where he’s coming from, I can execute his vision. I put my own twist on it, but ultimately it’s really his dream and vision.
When we’re opening a new store, we sit down and he says, “All right, this is what I’m thinking.” And I’ll come back with ideas. Sometimes his ideas work and sometimes mine do. But the important thing is that he has a specific image of what he wants to see and how he wants it presented. He is very hands on. John does a lot of the shopping for the stores and once in a while I’m lucky enough to go along.
What you see in the stores is just an extension of John himself. This couch for instance is something he would have in his home. If he had three living rooms, this would be in one of them.
We do a lot of shopping at the flea markets in Paris. Some of it is done here in the States. The Paris flea markets are about the size of Staten Island. It’s a huge, huge district in Paris. Just vendor after vendor. All this stuff. Some beautiful, some not. We’re able to find very unique pieces there. That’s why you see pieces in our store that you haven’t seen before.
The basis of it all is rock ‘n’ roll and all that that encompasses. For us, rock ‘nʼ roll isn’t just music, it’s a lifestyle. It goes far beyond all the fads and trends you see out there in retail. Our clothes are more what a rock star would wear when he goes to the Grammys, or to the recording studio, or is on stage. The interiors of our stores are what a rock star’s home may look like. The posters on the wall and the books in the store are indicative of different periods of rock ‘n’ roll.
We don’t pretend to be involved in any other sort of branding activities beyond rock ‘nʼ roll. It’s not that we don’t like skateboarding or other such identities, but that’s not us. Rock is what John grew up with, it was always his love. He knows more about music than anyone I know—way more than me, and I know a lot about music. If John could, he would rather be a musician, but his talents lie in fashion.
This space [the Bowery store, in the former CBGB location] was going to be a Bank of America! They were going to transform it into a bank. People would never know what was here before! Luckily, John saw the space on a fluke while we were looking at other spaces in New York. The broker, knowing John was a rock fan, managed to get his hands on the keys for the old CBGB location. When we walked in, it was a mess, it was disgusting! You would never think of putting high-end menswear here. But John had a vision. He could see beyond that, he could see the potential.
The light bulb went off, and on a regular, daily, hourly basis the ideas for what we could do with this space kept spewing. We knew it would be like no other store, it would have its own identity. Let’s face it; there is only one CBGB in the entire world.
We were lucky enough to re-open the doors of CBGB to the world, and that meant a responsibility to all those music fans. And even knowing that, we didn’t realize the magnitude of that responsibility till we started construction and people from around the world started showing up at the site and saying, “I came all the way to see CBGB’s. What is going on? Where is it?” We would bring them in and show them what we were doing. We did it because we feel we have a responsibility to the music community and the fans.
It was important to us to maintain the authenticity of the space. You can still see the walls the way they were, you can still feel it. There is still a vibe here. As much as we had to change up the floor for safety reasons, we wanted to keep that vibe alive, keep those old ghosts here. That’s why we do shows every month. We have a band play here every month. Sometimes on the weekends we have a stage set up, so that if a band walks in they can play anytime they want. If someone walked in right now, they could play. Where would you ever see that in a retail environment? We were just respecting the space.
We tried to keep whatever was left of the original space we could, like the walls. There’s a portion of the walls that had all these old flyers on it. We wanted to maintain that, so we put it behind glass. This place was really made to be an interesting hang—you’re stimulated, you’re inspired, you see furniture you’ve never seen before and you hear music you may have never heard before. John and I pick all the music that plays in the store. It’s that hands on, it’s that homegrown. It’s like “I just got this album. You gotta put it in the store. It’s great” or “They just reissued this album. You gotta play this” or “You know what, I was in the store the other day and they were playing such and such. You should take that out. We’ve heard it enough.”
It’s a retail store, but we wanted the experience to be relaxed. Men shop differently than women, and men don’t really like to shop, so you need to give them an environment where they are comfortable. We wanted to create an environment where men can come in and hang out, where they don’t need to buy anything. Flip through books, strum a guitar, listen to music…just hang out. If they find something, they’ll buy something. And if they don’t, they’ll come back. You might see a band that just pops in and plays, or you might just experience the room. And you’ll become a customer before you lay down any money.
We wanted our shoppers to think, “I don’t want to leave this place. I can just hang out here all day. The music is good, this place is comfortable, it’s stimulating. And even though I’ve been here a million times before I still spot new posters on the wall each time.” It’s an all-encompassing experience.
Contributors: Rupam Patheja, David Kao, Neves Rodrigues, Jessie Keyt