February 27, 2019

The Creatives – John Varvatos

Written by Megan Deem

The Creatives: John Varvatos and Rodrigo Flores-Roux, moderated by Ann Gottlieb

The soaring Weill Music Room at New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall was the setting for the latest installment of the Fragrance Foundation’s Creatives panel held Wednesday, February 27th. The most recent conversation in the series featured fashion designer John Varvatos and his longtime fragrance collaborator Rodrigo Flores-Roux, Givaudan Vice President of Perfumery, in a discussion moderated by fragrance icon Ann Gottlieb. As Fragrance Foundation President Linda G. Levy noted in her introduction, the performing arts venue was a perfect match for the “three rockstars,” who spoke in this “magical place celebrating creativity.” Indeed, rockstar tendencies were on display, from the leather jackets of Varvatos and Gottlieb to Flores-Roux’s leather trousers.

To kick off the conversation, Varvatos noted he likes to shake things up (using a more colorful term for “things”). “When we think about fragrance, we think about memories,” he says. “But we also want to have an edge.” He found his perfect partner in Flores-Roux, with whom he has created 15 scents, including John Varvatos Artisan Pure, which won a Fragrance Foundation award for Packaging of the Year in 2018. The two originally met when Varvatos was thinking about creating his first fragrance. He spoke about how he’d interviewed a variety of perfumers during the process, all of whom came and showed him sterile pie charts. Then he was introduced to Flores-Roux. “He didn’t have a pie chart,” Varvatos says. “He was passionate about fragrance.” According to Varvatos, that was all it took to seal the deal. “We don’t like rules; we try to push the wall out on rules,” he says. “That’s been our success.”

Gottlieb called the duo “disrupters” and pointed out that neither member is known as an introvert. That may be, but they insist there have been no disagreements. Still, their partnership has had its moments. “When we started, John said, Incense and patchouli give me bad vibes,” Flores-Roux says. “I thought, We’ll get there.” Varvatos admitted he wasn’t much of a fragrance wearer before making his own, but that once he committed to the project, he dove in headfirst. “I wasn’t looking to stick my name on something,” he says. “I wanted to become knowledgeable.” According to Flores-Roux, it’s mission accomplished: “John has a very good nose.” In addition to his own instincts about whether he’s got a hit on his hands, Varvatos also relies on customer feedback, not market projections. “When you think you know because you look at the numbers, that’s only part of it,” he says. The other element is being a good listener and finding out what clients think by talking to them, he pointed out.

And it’s not just about the juice. Both agreed that seeing the bottle and packaging as he’s working on the fragrance to go inside is an important part of Flores-Roux’s process and results in a cohesive end product. “You can’t have one story here and another over there,” Varvatos says, referring to the development of the various parts. When it comes to the external elements, Varvatos is just as hands-on as he is with the scent creation. He recounted the story behind the iconic rattan wrap of the Artisan flask. That came about after Varvatos cut up a woven placemat he had at home and fashioned a mock-up of how he thought the bottle could look. His fragrance partner at the time said it couldn’t be produced. “And I said, Let’s figure out a way that it can be done,” which they eventually did.

Out of 15 scents they created together, each man has his favorite. For Flores-Roux, it’s the woody, smoky John Varvatos Dark Rebel, which he says was “the most difficult one to make. It required a leap of faith.” Varvatos gravitates to the very first fragrance they made. “I love the juice and what it represents,” he says. “And I continue to discover things about it as I wear it over time, the same way people learn about the hidden treasures in our clothing.”

It’s been 15 years since that debut scent launched and throughout it all, Varvatos has kept his sense of optimism and can-do attitude. Even when faced with those who say his vision can’t be executed, Varvatos remains true to a guiding philosophy that has served him well: “Let’s find the path to make it happen.”

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