The problem with surprises is that people don’t know how big to dream. You have to manage expectation. Tell your other half that you’ve booked a surprise weekend away – “So pack a bikini” – and you better be damn sure she’s not thinking she’s headed to the Seychelles when you’ve booked a Spa weekend in Whitby. So it was last night as John Varvatos, the Detroit clothes designer who’s conquered the world of rock’n’roll fashion in the last few years, opened his first UK store with a gig from an unannounced surprise act.
With Ringo Starr the face of his current ad campaign, for example, it seemed only fair and natural to wind people up in the queue for the toilets that The Beatles were playing. (“Oh, yeah. Paul McCartney will do anything for a free scarf.”) And when Jimmy Page walks through the door with Iggy Pop and Ringo we’re surely not the only ones working out the angles (“We’ve got a singer, a guitarist, anyone can play bass – if only we had a drummer! Hang on: what about Ringo? Of course! Ringo’s bound to know a drummer…”)
When The Hives bound onstage – because this is a shop with a stage, we’ll get to that in a minute – then it’s hard not to be underwhelmed. It doesn’t last for long. Singer Pelle Almqvist seizes the room by its impeccably tailored collars and yells in our faces for half an hour. With a schtick that’s part James Brown, part Muhammad Ali, part Iggy Pop and part southern preacher, Almqvist is 100% bug-eyed charm and charisma, swinging from the rafters, diving into the crowd, grabbing a camera off a photographer down the front and shooting the crowd.
Well-dressed, European and influenced by Varvatos’ beloved Detroit rockers MC5 and the Stooges, suddenly The Hives make perfect sense.
And this is Varvatos all over. A band playing at the launch of a high fashion label should be a boring, self-congratulatory affair where people curl their pinkies around champagne flutes and feel applaud themselves on their great taste. This is nothing like that. This is loud and sweaty and unashamed fun. Because John Varvatos is a genuine rock’n’roll fan - a guy who grew up around band in Detroit, who fell in love with the music of the British invasion, and having worked his way through the fashion world, launched his own label, taking inspiration from rock’n’roll.
He’s a music nut – which is why he bought the former CBGB in New York, saving the Ground Zero of Nu Yawk punk from being turned into a Starbucks, and putting on gigs there regularly, from Guns N’ Roses to Ian Hunter, Kiss and a host of young guns. It’s why he has the world’s biggest collection of Fender Custom Shop guitars for sale in the basement of his London store, and why there’s a vintage vinyl store selling mint condition copies of some of the coolest records ever made (which you can listen to on high end audio equipment, naturally, aided by sale men who’ll tell how Long Player by the Faces features their favourite Faces track, Bad N Ruin…).
And it’s why he has a stage in that basement – a copy of the CBGB stage – and it’s why we’re deaf today.
Postscript: Ringo Starr meets Sex Pistol Paul Cook – two drummers from two of rock’s most notorious bands. Ringo’s Peace & Love Fund is raising awareness and money by asking everyone to flash the peace sign when they have their picture taken (Varvatos is donating $1 for every peace sign selfie tagged #peacerocks), so Ringo puts his arm around Paul and pulls out the peace sign. Paul pulls a different two-fingered salute.
“No man,” says Ringo, “it’s the peace sign.”
“Not in my fucking band it isn’t,” says Cookie.
This picture with thanks to Ross Halfin.
_John Varvatos can be found at 12-13 Conduit St, London. http://www.johnvarvatos.com _