As one of the mentors on the reality show/contest “Fashion Star,” designer John Varvatos has a wealth of knowledge not just from creative standpoint but also from a business standpoint of selling clothing at retail, since he owns his own chain of retail stores. NBC’s “Fashion Star” stands out from other reality-show contests for aspiring fashion designers because the winning clothes in each episode are available to the public immediately after the episode airs. (The clothes can be purchased online the night an episode airs and at retail stores the following day. Episodes are done months in advance to make this availability possible.)
The winner of “Fashion Star” gets $6 million orders from Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and H&M, which each have buyers on the show who choose the winning collections. “Fashion Star” mentors Varvatos, Nicole Richie and Jessica Simpson offer advice and guidance to the contestants on the show. Supermodel/fashion entrepreneur Elle Macpherson is the host and an executive producer of “Fashion Star.” Varvatos and “Fashion Star” executive producer Ben Silverman talked about the show in a recent telephone conference call with reporters.
A lot of brands have become popular with creative marketing and fashion that appeal to the masses. What will this new star need to bring to create that kind of impact? And will there be support for the star after the show?
Silverman: Johnny, you want to answer that with your perspective?
Varvatos: Sure. First of all, the exposure that they’re getting on television is great number one. But the whole show is about building a brand. It’s not just about building a product. So it’s about the life cycle in a way that these people have to think about creating a product.
How do you market it? How do you brand it? How do you image it? How do you get it sold? How do you get through those buyers, that in the end are from a wholesale part of the business are the gatekeepers of is the world going to get to see it or not? Unless you’re going online yourself or you have the money to build your own store you have to get through those gatekeepers.
So our role there is to really help guide them through that process to be able to set them up to be a brand when they leave that show. So they’ve created a breadth of product that’s not a one-trick pony, something that they can perpetuate and also has a broad-reaching consumer base which is interesting which is one for me one of the most intriguing parts of the show is that you have to be able to understand how to sell products through H&M, all the way up through Macy’s, to Saks Fifth Avenue at all different price points.
[In one episode of “Fashion Star”], it’s called the “high/low.” How do we do a great dress that we can sell at the top level and then also do its little sister that’s still is exciting and has a consumer breadth to it as well that they can buy it at open price point because not everybody can reach to designer as well? So it makes the designers think about everything from the fit, to the styling, to the fabric choices to the colors. And it’s a whole process.
It goes well beyond just being creative at that point in time. You really have to have a little bit more of a left side right side in terms of that. And in the end, that’s really what builds the brand is execution of the left side and the right side.
You’re trying to find the next fashion icon which is something that normally develops over the course of a career. How difficult is that when you’re also catering to the immediate needs of a purchasing audience?
Varvatos: Wow. That’s a great question. From my point of view, the world has changed. Everything is more immediate today whether it’s the moment that you do a runway show. And I don’t even get back to my design studio 15 minutes later and it’s already online. It’s you can already see the show and you already have people commenting on it.
So I think the immediacy, part of it has changed the way people shop, the way they think about fashion. And from that end of it I think it’s important to understand what’s happening. And things move quickly. The world has changed so quickly because of communication that it used to be well Paris was a leader, or Milan was a leader, or then New York.
And now everything is the same. It’s an even playing field around the world. And even in fashion between high fashion and opening fashion it becomes immediate today because inspiration and trends are of the moment. They’re not so much of next season because the minute the trend is starting at the high end the middle tier or the lower tier is already on it. Everybody’s moving so quickly today.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who’s still on the show?
Varvatos: You’ve got to think big. You know it’s really you got to think big. You can’t get caught up in the one thing that you’re doing at that moment. You got to think big. You got to be listening to the buyers. You have to be listening to the mentors.
You really have to be a sponge. I’ve said this all along. You have to be a sponge and suck up as much information as possible and filter that through your system to what’s right for you because it’s navigating these waters to get that product bought. And as we go through the next group of episodes here each one of these people have to sell something.
In order to get to the final, the finals really they have to sell something to each one of the retailers. They can’t just be bought by Macy’s all the time and get to the end … They definitely have to understand. It’s not even thinking. You truly need to have to understand the difference between high and low and today, how that gets to be a smaller definition maybe the quality or the fabric choices. And it’s the difference between cashmere and cotton that type of thing as well. But in the end, the consumer is not a naïve consumer today at the lower end. They may not have the money to spend but their much more fashion astute than they used to be.
Can you comment on “Fashion Star” contestant Sarah Parrott?
Varvatos: I think the thing about Sarah too is that it virtually no experience but has talent. And I think Sarah’s biggest challenge is being able to do exactly what I just talked about, which is being able to understand the different levels of business out there. She definitely has what I call “the spark.” Our jobs and the show and their jobs is to ignite it into a flame. And she has this spark.
And that spark is not so easy to find in our industry. You can interview hundreds of people for design jobs, and a lot of them, they know what’s going on out there but to create something on their own is much more difficult.
It’s innate. It’s truly innate. People can help you ignite it. People can help guide you. You know if they really ignite it, it turns into the Dow Chemical explosion which is fantastic. Then you’re Ralph Lauren … It’s not something that’s so learned. It’s taking it someplace else you can. Someone can guide you. But to start off it’s got to come from within.
Why do you think H&M seems to be working with Sarah Parrott’s clothing?
Varvatos: I think H&M is pretty savvy. She’s kind of right on trend for the marketplace. And I also think she’s commercially appealing. And H&M does very large volumes of very great value, reasonably priced. And I think what she’s delivered so far has been in that world.
Contestants need to appeal to all three retailers to win on “Fashion Star,” so what do you think she needs to do to get the other two on board?
Varvatos: She needs to think bigger picture. She needs to think about, “OK, if I’m going to be on the Saks floor, what’s the competition look like in the Saks floor? And what would my adjacencies be with other brands that where I see myself fitting? And what’s the competition? What are they offering in terms of look, quality, finish, fit, whatever it is?”
Because in the end that’s what they’re thinking, “Where would I put it in the store? Where would it sell next to? Who’s the consumer that I have presently?” And that’s what’s so exciting for me about this show is because these people need to think on their feet. They don’t have a lot of time. And they need to do as much research as possible and they needed to do as much coming into this competition as possible to understand the demographics of these customers that shop within these stores and what who the customer really is.
And importantly, which some of them didn’t think about much, is where would I want to be in that store? Because in the end they just can’t stick it next to the front door. Where would I want to be? And who’s the customer that’s shopping in that area of the store, and am I dialing in to their look, and their sensibility, and their price point and so on and so forth?
That’s what makes it exciting. And that’s what makes every week a little bit different is because you can hit it out of the park one week in the next week you can stumble around the bases because you really got caught up in one little thing and you weren’t thinking big picture.
Any thoughts on “Fashion Star” contestant Edmond Newton?
Varvatos: Edmond’s another kind of diamond in the rough. Edmond’s got a good eye. His enthusiasm and passion is as high as anybody on the show. He’s just got an electrifying personality, and enthusiasm, and passion for what he does. And again he doesn’t have a lot of experience. I think Edmond’s a barber.
And I think he’s a little bit like Sarah, in that this is a big burning passion within him. And he’s got he has less experience than the other people. But it’s also like watching the final four in basketball right now. If everybody had a 29:2 record it would be less exciting than the one team that’s got a 19:15 record, and they’re the Cinderella team. And I look at like Edmund and I say, “Could he be the Cinderella story?”
John, how have the buyer’s surprised you in terms of their needs as compared to your eye with guidance and the designers?
Varvatos: Well it’s no different than when I deal with the buyers every day. It’s one thing to have your own stores and you can do it anyway you want to. And we’re lucky we have that as well. But we still need to get through the buyers and shops in Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus and Barney’s and stores like that across America. Nordstrom’s. And we still need to get to the buyers.
And you can be super-excited about what you’re presenting to them in certain cases and they can just like wash right over it or it’s not right for me and it’s no different. It’s no different, really. So I’m not surprised. I know it’s not easy. And it’s the one thing we talk these designers every week about when were working with them … They know their business. They know their customer. That’s what they’re paid for and how difficult it is to try to outguess them.
And really what you need to understand more than anything else is their stores and who their customer is. And if you can dial into that, you’ll get bought. If you’re trying to dial in with a personality of Nikki, or Karen, or whoever on the show, then you’re missing the fact because in the end they have been open to buy dollar in their pocket.
And they have to be fiscally responsible to Saks Fifth Avenue or H&M or Macy’s. And they’re only going to buy that if they feel like it’s going to get sold. I mean that’s what it’s really about. This show is not about just having some things for fluff in the store. It’s really they are seriously looking at this product as being sold. And that’s why their particular. And that’s why the exciting thing is that the products selling out which means they’re pretty good buyers, I guess.
And since we’re now living in an age where everyone’s becoming a brand, how do you see the future of fashion if more and more designers are becoming gatekeepers?
Varvatos: I love that. You know, I’m not the youngest designer on the street today as when I started in the industry. And I love it. I think it raises the bar for everybody. I love the competition. I love that it’s gotten much broader. Somebody was doing an interview with me the other day and was talking about, “What was it like when you were in Ralph Lauren in 1985 versus today? What was the marketplace? What was the consumer?”
And it’s just drastically changed and it’s changed. It’s just like the speed of technology has changed. In the last 10 years since I even started my brand, it’s just drastically changed with the amount of just in America the amount of denim brands. There was 80 something denim that were sold in America in 2000. And today, there are over 800 brands based in America — not just sold here, but based in America.
So I think the competition is great. I think the consumer has lots of choices. They’re going to be more particular because they have choices. The buyers are going to be more particular because they have choices and they see lots of things out there. So as a designer you need to have your bar raised high every week, every day, every minute. You need to be putting more into your product giving the customer more value.
You have to have your own personality because if you’re another me too you’ll only win if you have the lowest price. And that’s a tough one to win for young people outside of the big boxes. So but I think it’s the most exciting time. And I think a lot of other designers would tell you the same thing. It’s a stressful time at moment but it’s also the most exciting time in fashion right now because the competition is so great out there.
It’s like in sports when there were only eight teams in the league or something. And now there are 12 teams in the league and there’s more competition out there makes it more challenging. And if you really competitive and you’re good at what you do you can win big.
“Fashion Star” actually puts a lot more focus on the runway and only offers a very small feature on the designers’ work in the studio. And as a designer yourself, do you think that that’s a good way to represent the work of the designers or should there be more of a focus on the blood, sweat, and tears that are going into making their designs?
Varvatos: I’d hate to be doing the edit on this show. It’s a tough show to edit because it was never set up to be just about the design. It was about the whole business end of it, and the commerce end of it, and the shopping end of it, and the buying end of it. And then there are the personalities behind the scenes and the personalities that represent each one of those designers. There’s a lot of stories to be told.
So I think it’s a juggling act. And I think that as you go further into the competition you’ll see more and more of behind the scenes because there are less designers as we perceived with the competition as more get eliminated. And there’s more of what really makes them tick and how our interaction with them and the guidance is …
And I think Ben would agree as the season goes on you really get it really becomes this dynamic of the interaction … You start to see more of the buyers behind the scenes; there’s just a lot more going into it. So yes, as a designer to answer your question, it’s always important to see that. But because of the type of the show it is, it’s multifaceted. It’s not as simple. But you will see a lot of that as the show progresses.
Since you and the other mentors spend a lot more the time with the designers in the design studio, do you how much will the buyers be taking into account your opinions on that choice?
Varvatos: Well, they always take into account my opinion. I’m just joking. But no, I think that I think there’s a respect for each one of the mentors. I think in the end though, it has to be right for their store and for their customer. But I definitely think that they definitely listen to what we have to say and I listen to what they have to say.
It makes you think why something didn’t get bought. It makes you think why something did get bought. They have to think sometimes when they’re looking at it going down the runway or when they saw it in the studio that maybe they had a preconceived idea, maybe they thought it was going to show better. I’ve heard Caprice [Willard, the Macy’s buyer] say, “Well, that doesn’t have the hanger appeal that we’d want it to have.”
There’s a lot going through their heads. And sometimes we’re looking at just the garment on what it looks like on the runway at that moment. It’s another thing you’ll see more and more. And if we all agreed the world wouldn’t be interesting. And I think that’s the other great thing about fashion and the show is that Jessica [Simpson] and I sitting there don’t agree about the same thing.
And that’s what makes the world go around is that we all have our own opinion. And that’s why there’s so many options for consumers out there in fashion. And also why the opportunity is there because just because there’s a brand that’s a high profile brand that does well. It doesn’t suit a lot of people’s personal taste. And that’s what’s great about this show. It’s great because it offers the opportunity for more thoughtfulness in terms of where peoples come from within their design ethic and their deliberation in terms of where they take that to the product to the consumer.
What advice would you have for “Fashion Star” contestant Sarah Parrott, who sold her design to H&M three episodes in a row?
Varvatos: Sarah needs to dial into now Saks and Macy’s. She needs to get to their floor if she doesn’t know it. She needs to get online if she doesn’t know it enough. She needs to understand where she’d want to sit on the floor, who she thinks her customer is and where else they’re shopping. What other zone in the store they’re shopping in?
And of course you can’t attack them both at the same time but she needs to understand … So Sarah has the opportunity to do something for definitely zero in on that Saks customer being the high … And even if she’s not thinking about Macy’s at this moment she’s definitely thinking about Saks because that’s the high. That’s going to be the high. That’s the opportunity to go after the high.
Have you learned anything new from any of the “Fashion Star” designers, or the mentors, or the buyers?
Varvatos: I learn something every single day. You know, in my studio, in my office and on that show listening to the three buyers and the way they approach their stores and their customer makes me think a lot about my business and how I approach it. The designer, sometime you’re looking at something and you’re saying, “Guys, I’m not sure where you’re going with this or I might guide you to go a little bit different.”
And then three hours later I might go back to them and say, “You know what? I want to take another look. I’ve been thinking about this. You might be onto something here.”
And I think that you’ve got to be open just like we’re asking them to be open and be sponges I feel that I have to be the same way. And it’s been a great just it’s been a great experience like that. And I know that Jessica [Simpson] and Nicole [Richie] would say exactly the same thing for mentors that every week and every day we’re in the studio and every day we’re talking with the buyers, there’s something to be learned, and it’s something that we use in our own world.
John, you talked about it a little bit just then but it seems like often the “Fashion Star” designers get quite stressed. What’s the dynamic like when you’re working with them?
Varvatos: I feel like my days are stressed generally because there’s so much going on and we’re working on so many different seasons at a time and project. But they have this 24 hours or this very short period of time that they’re working on this product that they need to find the fabric, make the design, make the patterns, do the fittings. It’s definitely stressful, you know?
And especially if you don’t have a clear thought. And it’s like not everything pops out at every moment. And they don’t know the challenges till they’re presented. So it’s not like they just can be working on these collections and have this bag by the side of their design table that they can pull the next trick out of.
They don’t know what the challenge is ‘til a day before the show, two days before the show. And sometimes even in my world you start on a project and you think you’re on a path and it’s not going exactly the way you wanted. And you either have to decide to trash it and start over or fix it.
And they have to be much quicker because they have such a short period of time to make that decision. And that’s hopefully where we can be somewhat of a guide to them to say you’re just too far away from where you need to be here. You might be better off starting because the amount of work to repair, it it’s like buying an old car an old house and how much work that could go into the house. And how long it would take to do. And what it would take to buy a new house that’s totally clean. And that would be a good analogy possibly.
But it’s stressful, and we’re there to try to help calm them down a bit. And some of them don’t ever get very stressed. There’s a handful. But at some point … I think just about everybody get stressed at some point in time because the pressure gets bigger as it goes on. And the pressure to be bought is so important because they don’t want to be eliminated. There’s a lot going through their heads.
I’ve said to them many times the pressure that you’re feeling is as much pressure as I feel and mine might be bigger financially or whatever. But you’re talking career opportunity all the way through survival on the show sitting in front of them in a short period of time. Hopefully, we’re there to hold their hand a bit through it. We can’t make the final decisions. We can’t sew their product. We can’t design it for them. But hopefully we’re there to help hold their hand a bit through that.
Have you found they’re quite receptive to your advice, or have you had any sort of arguments or clashes backstage in the studio?
Varvatos: Never an argument. I would definitely say that internally I’ve rolled my eyes a few times internally, not externally just because I’m thinking, “Are you kidding me? You don’t want to even listen to anything here?”
But I will tell you that that was probably more in the beginning episodes when people were cocky and then all of a sudden they didn’t get bought and they were shot down … But you kind of learn. If you’re smart, you learn that if you’ve got another chance maybe you should listen a little bit.
So and there are other ones that from day one were just sponges, and they wanted everybody’s thoughts, and they wanted to sift through it and because that’s what they’re there for, you know? And I can’t even say some of the ones that are bit cocky about it maybe they deserve to be in a way with the talent that they have.
But again, it’s not my job to in the end to fight with them or tell them what they should do. It’s really to say, “Hey, listen, I’ve done this before. I can guide you somewhat here. I can try to tell you where I think the buyers are going to be. I can try to tell you where I think the consumers are today. I’ve got enough scars on my knees from falling down and making mistakes over the years. If you want to listen to a little bit of that and sift through that it makes sense to you, great. If you don’t want to hear it, that’s OK too.”
Ben, how did you go about casting the show’s contestants?
Silverman: It was just unbelievable process because we utilized not only the Internet and newspapers and fashion oriented press, but we also had people in multiple markets doing castings and looking for people who had real fashion chops. And we had thousands of entries. It was incredible to see the range of people as John referenced who didn’t have that much experience to those who already owned their own stores.
And I think that the other part that was really invaluable in our casting process was being able to talk with the stores generally so that when we had our final 50 people. the stores also could have a little point of view about whether they were people who not only had a great story to tell but had real chop in terms of fashion expertise.
Did the talent meet your expectations or exceed it? Were you surprised by the level of talent?
Silverman: I think as you watch the show, you see people who our exceptional. And as you continue to watch the show you see them flourish too with that guidance that John, Nicole and Jessica give but also with the input the buyers are giving from what they like or don’t like.
And then there are others who just can’t rise up in that kind of competition and deliver at the scale that’s needed. So overall, we were very happy with the talent pool and the contestant pool. And I think it’s demonstrated in the amount of immediate sales they’re making and the impact their designs are having with the consumer.
Have you noticed any designers who have maybe had their personal style sacrificed in order to make it through the show to please the buyers?
Varvatos: No, I haven’t. It’s I think that they knew what they were walking into when they started. I think that they in the end their handwriting is still as clear or even probably clearer by the end because they learned a lot about themselves and where they need to go by the end of it and how to build create their own personality and their own brand.
So I don’t think so. In life, there’s always some compromise I guess. But I don’t think any of them really felt that way at all, you know. We never heard a word about it and from any of them complaining about it at all. I think they’re thrilled with the opportunity, thrilled with the exposure, thrilled with the competitiveness of the show. I don’t think that that was even a question really.
When the buyers are making a bid and for a product, for instance, an $80,000 bid, how does that translate by the time the designer’s done fulfilling that order?
Varvatos: They get a percentage of the bids, you see. And then if there’s long-term success they’ll participate. They get a percentage of those bids, like a royalty, which is typically how the retail business works.
And then in success, if as it continues as an item is reordered or sold, or beyond the initial advance, they’ll also participate. So this is not only a big time statement of their arrival on the national fashion scene but it’s also potentially a lucrative endeavor if they have great success with an item.
And when you asked about how many dresses it all depends on which store. So if it’s H&M and its $80,000, it’s a lot more dresses then if it’s Saks Fifth Avenue because H&M is selling the dresses for $29, $39, $19.99. I’m not sure exactly, but in that range. And Saks is selling the dresses in different fabrics and different constructions and all of that for $300 or more. So there’ll be less at Saks and more at H&M.
John, Howard Stern is a friend of yours. How excited were you to get the opportunity to dress him personally for his judging duties on “America’s Got Talent”?
Varvatos: I can’t say that I’m close friends with Howard. I’m friendly with Howard, and I’m a fan for more years of my life than I remember — all the way back when he moved to Detroit early on in his career and so all the way through his New York, all those different iterations in New York all the way to Sirius Satellite. I’ve been a huge fan.
And I guess Howard discovered us a few years back and became very excited about the clothes and how they looked on him and started talking about them on the show. And long story short, as just part of the process for doing his wardrobe for “America’s Got Talent.” I think he’s going to be amazing on that show, by the way.
And in that process, I got to know Howard a lot more. And I love him. He’s a sweetheart, on top of everything else I mean. And he really got locked in where this is it. You’ve got my look. You know what I want. I put a lot of things together for him. It was very dialed right in. I don’t think there was one thing that I showed him that he didn’t love the way it all worked for him.
And I thought a lot about who he is and what his personally personality is and what his body shape is and everything else. And so it’s just it’s great. And I’m excited that he’s that he loves the clothes as I am with anybody who loves what you do. It’s much more exciting than winning awards and all the things that I’ve been lucky enough to do. The most exciting thing is that when people love to wear your clothes and somebody like Howard who loves them and also loves to talk about how much he loves them.
What did that mean to you when you start getting those accolades and be able to get that kind of personal relationship with Howard Stern?
Varvatos: It’s a great feeling. You know, it’s a fantastic feeling. Like I said, even if someone’s on an airplane and they walk over and they tell you they love what they do or they’re wearing your clothes or whatever it’s always a bigger feeling. I’m very connected with the music industry, and we work with a lot of musicians in that.
And a lot of these were like my idols and growing up. And now for them to be like a big fan of what we do and loving what we do it’s like I’m kind of like a little kid about it. It’s like it’s super-exciting.
For more info: “Fashion Star” website
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