Under Armour Names John Varvatos Chief Design Officer – celebritiestalks
In what could be among the industry’s most unorthodox pairings, Under Armour is bringing John Varvatos on board as its chief design officer, effective Sept. 11.
The award-winning designer has been consulting for the sports brand since the spring and will now officially come on board to oversee the design direction across the company’s entire portfolio of apparel, footwear and accessories — both on field and off — and oversee its design studios in Baltimore, New York and Portland, Oregon.
Although known more for his rock ‘n’ roll-inspired menswear than activewear, Varvatos pointed out in an exclusive interview with celebritiestalks that his background includes 15 years working with Converse as well as experience at both Polo Sport and the RLX collection during his years at Ralph Lauren. He is also credited with creating the boxer brief while at Calvin Klein.
He said that this new role came about after a meeting with Under Armour founder and executive chairman Kevin Plank, where they quickly developed a connection.
“I had a long lunch with Kevin in December and we realized we were both fans of each other,” he said. “We talked about possibly collaborating.”
That led to him joining the company as a consultant, where he quickly immersed himself in the product and the culture. “I really got into the weeds and fell in love with the company,” he said, adding that he has “been a fan of Under Armour since 1999,” when he saw kids on basketball courts sporting the brand and he started wearing the product himself.
Varvatos said his first task as a consultant was to design a premium golf collection to supplement what Under Armour already offers for the sport. Although the brand already has a large golf business — it sponsors the popular PGA pro Jordan Spieth, among others — this will be more “a more pinnacle, elevated group,” Varvatos said.
This led to him taking on the design direction for the rest of the product categories. “It’s been a fun learning experience for me,” Varvatos said. “I love the team but it’s time to pivot a bit and move in a little different direction from a style and detail standpoint.”
He stressed that he won’t be as involved with the technical properties of the collection because Under Armour has “an amazing tech development team” already in place.
He also pointed to the complementary nature of sportswear and activewear, especially in this post-pandemic period when comfort and performance are paramount for customers. “When you look at street style today, a lot of sportswear is inspired by activewear,” he said. “Sports style is the way you put things together rather than a uniform. And sneakers are the biggest part of the footwear business today.”
He acknowledged that while the bulk of his career has been in men’s, he also worked in womenswear at both Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren as well as at his recently shuttered brand, On This Day. “When you think of sports style, younger women are leaning more to men’s sizing,” he said, adding that his 15-year-old daughter is partial to oversize sweatshirts and pants.
He said the first product that will have his touch will arrive next summer, with the bulk making its arrival in fall 2024, and he’s already working on spring 2025. Although he will be overseeing the design, his name will not appear on the product anywhere, he said. “I’ll be behind the scenes,” he said.
Varvatos had a long history of ups and downs over the course of his career. He grew up in Detroit and joined Polo Ralph Lauren in 1984. He was recruited by Calvin Klein in 1990 to be head of menswear design. In 1995, he returned to Polo as head of menswear design for Polo Ralph Lauren, Double RL, Black Label and the Polo Jeans Co. He launched his own eponymous collection in 2000, the same year he received the Perry Ellis Award for New Menswear Designer from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He received his second CFDA award for Menswear Designer of the Year in 2001.
The John Varvatos brand enjoyed years of success and is still in operation, but the designer is no longer involved. For the past three years, the brand has been owned by London-based Lion/Hendrix Cayman Ltd., an affiliate of the brand’s majority partner Lion Capital, following the bankruptcy filing of John Varvatos Enterprises in May 2020. At the time of the filing, the company, which had been in business for 20 years, cited as the reason for the filing falling sales and online revenues that started in 2015 and came to a head during the pandemic.
Just one year after exiting his namesake label, in October 2021, Varvatos introduced a new brand, On This Day, or OTD. The business had an ambitious launch that included a first collection featuring more than 200 stock keeping units for men and women as well as two sizable brick-and-mortar locations on both coasts. However, the company was shuttered in March of this year.
Last week, Varvatos attributed the failure to the fact that the brand launched during the pandemic and while it enjoyed some “nice early success,” supply chain issues caused production and delivery delays that ultimately led to its demise.
“But I’m excited about the future and the opportunity to do something fresh with an amazing brand like Under Amour, which is an American success story,” he said. “I’m glad to be part of the next chapter in its journey.”
The appointment of Varvatos is the latest move instituted at the Baltimore-based company since Stephanie Linnartz joined as chief executive officer in February. Linnartz, who spent 25 years at Marriott before joining Under Armour, has already shaken up the C-suite, naming Jim Dausch, another veteran of Marriott, executive vice president and chief consumer officer, and parting ways with chief product officer Lisa Collier last month.
Linnartz has also instituted a new strategy called Protect This House 3 that is centered around raising awareness of the Under Armour brand, delivering elevated designs and products to boost U.S. sales and maintaining the company’s positive momentum overseas. Varvatos appears to be key to that plan.
“We are thrilled to welcome John into the Under Armour family,” Linnartz said. “His track record and 30-year career speaks for itself. John will work in partnership with our product team to bring apparel, footwear and accessories from concept to commercialization, blending performance and style.”
Linnartz’s predecessor, Patrik Frisk, had a different game plan, focusing nearly exclusively on sports-related product to capitalize on the company’s longstanding strength. However, its competitors, notably New Balance, Adidas and Puma, have all managed to juggle both lifestyle product as well as technical performance merchandise. Case in point is the return of Rhianna as an ambassador for Puma as well as New Balance’s Made in USA collection designed by buzzy designer Teddy Santis of Aime Leon Dore. And Adidas has partnered with everyone from Wales Bonner to Stella McCartney.
Under Armour’s biggest move into the lifestyle space came in 2015 when it brought designer Tim Coppens on board to launch UAS, a line it billed as modern American sportswear that blended performance features with Fashion-forward silhouettes. But the line was expensive and did not resonate with Under Armour’s core customer.
Since then the sports brand has faced other struggles, including Plank giving up the CEO post, investigations about executives expensing visits to strip clubs, and declining sales, particularly in North America. In July, Under Armour reported net losses for the second quarter hit $95.5 million, or 21 cents a share, from $12.3 million, or 3 cents, a year earlier. Excluding the financial impact of the company’s restructuring efforts, losses tallied $34 million. Sales were up 8 percent to $1.2 billion with a boost from apparel, which saw sales increase 10 percent to $747 million. But its home market of North America continues to struggle with the company now looking for revenues to increase this year by 3 percent to 4 percent, reflecting a low- to mid-single-digit decline in North American and growth of more than 25 percent abroad.
In February, Under Armour laid out a plan to retool the company that would lead to pretax charges of $110 million to $130 million, but the company extended those efforts this summer by another $80 million.
On top of that, buzz was high last week as a result of the unsealing of documents in a shareholder suit regarding the relationship between Plank and Stephanie Ruhle of MSNBC, who had previously worked at Bloomberg. The suit, which was filed in 2017, alleges the company inflated its stock price by misleading investors when sales were poor and highlights the relationship between the two. According to published reports, Plank provided Ruhle with a private phone and a special email address, she flew on his private plane and advised him to provide other media with information to counteract negative reporting about the company.
The lawsuit is ongoing.
Under Armour Names John Varvatos Chief Design Officer – celebritiestalks