John Varvatos Champions Stuart House
By Carita Rizzo
Fashion designer John Varvatos’s presence in LA already spans a decade, but 11 years ago, when he was about to open his store in West Hollywood, the fashion mogul didn’t just want to throw a big to-do to announce his arrival. Varvatos, 57, who launched his career at Polo Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein before starting his eponymous line in 2000, wanted to find a way to connect with the community. The father of three started looking for a children’s organization to support and made a visit to Stuart House, a facility established by the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica’s UCLA Medical Center for children who are victims of sexual abuse. “It was a bad morning at Stuart House,” recalls Varvatos. “There were a number of kids who had been brought in that day—very, very young children—and it just ripped my heart out. I said to Gail Abarbanel, the director, ‘I know you don’t know me, but I really want to do something long-term.’ A lot of it was driven by my emotion right at that moment, but here we are, [more than] 10 years down the road.”
To raise funds for the cause, Varvatos hosts an annual benefit on Melrose Avenue, where, on a Sunday afternoon, power couples like Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck (this year’s honorary cochairs), Patrick and Jillian Dempsey, and Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann (all previous cochairs) introduce the cause to patrons taking to the closed streets of West Hollywood. There is luxury shopping; food by In–N-Out Burger, Cuties, The Munchie Machine, and Nitro Dreams Ice Cream (frozen on the spot); and kids activities such as oversized games like Giant Jenga and Operation in a tent designated just for them.
With past musical performances by Dave Matthews and live auctions hosted by comedians like Drew Carey and Bill Bellamy, of signed rock memorabilia from bands like Green Day and Aerosmith, as well as golf lessons with Alice Cooper, Varvatos aims to keep the event light, despite the gravity of the movement. “You can’t just rip people’s hearts out completely. You need to make the day enjoyable. But people want to be part of the cause. It’s the kind of cause you wish you didn’t need to get behind because there wasn’t that kind of thing going on in the world,” he says. “But there is, so we do the best that we can.”
How did you come across Stuart House?
JOHN VARVATOS: No matter where we’ve been with our stores, we’re always very dialed into the community. It’s a neighborhood, and you want to be a part of that group. I came out to LA and looked at a number of different organizations that were supporting children. It’s all about the kids in the end, right? So one of those groups that I met with was Stuart House. It’s an emotional thing when you listen to these kids because you feel like they’re stronger than you are. When they come out at the other end, they know they did nothing wrong and that they’re dealing with somebody out there who they want to stop. That’s the thing that drives me with Stuart House, continually.
Can you recall any stories of triumph?
JV: Every year we do a lunch at Ron Burkle’s estate and that’s when they bring out the kids who have come out the other side. These emotionally disturbing experiences can break anyone, certainly young people, but with the support and counseling that Stuart House provides, these kids begin to heal from very traumatic experiences. Those are magical stories because these are young, healthy, productive adults who want to be able to tell everybody how important Stuart House has been to their lives. Those young people want to be part of the solution, which is the most endearing thing.
What is your annual benefit like?
JV: It’s an afternoon event where at least half of the attendees are children. When you talk to the families that day, you know they’re thinking about their children. Most of the people who attend know why they’re there and are there to support. And their children want to get involved, which is really an amazing thing to me. Last year a child came up to me, 7 or 8 years old, and he gave me $5. He had been there the year before and he said, “I’ve been saving my money. I was here last year, and I want to give you this money for Stuart House.” The day [leaves a lasting impression]. We have a concert, and there are things for the kids to do. But we don’t lose sight of the reason we’re there.
What’s your fundraising goal this year?
JV: Last year we raised several hundred thousand [dollars] on a Sunday afternoon, and this year I want to significantly raise the awareness and kick the number over $1 million. I truly believe we can do it!
John Varvatos’ Stuart House benefit will take place March 10. To find out more or to donate to Stuart House, please visit johnvarvatos.com/stuart_house
photography by danny clinch (varvatos), Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images (matthews, mann, apatow)