Changing Room

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008


The menswear designer John Bartlett schedules business meetings in his home studio in Greenwich Village, where a three-legged rescue mutt -- his company's mascot -- is likely to nuzzle a guest's leg. Liz Claiborne executive Dave McTague takes meetings in a stark boardroom in midtown, where the only display of affection is the attention this overly scheduled manager shows his smartphone.

The fashion world is filled with pairings of creative souls and bean counters, the yin and yang of the industry, but this is one of the most pronounced cases of opposites attracting with the mission of reviving a withered American brand.

They are seeking a more lucrative way to dress that most elusive customer: the Dockers man. He is the gentleman who is neither traditional -- which in fashion parlance means someone drawn to the rigors of a well-tailored suit with its high, tight armholes -- nor especially fashionable. He may yet to have even committed to flat-front trousers, which replaced pleated ones as a wardrobe basic almost a decade ago. He treasures the ordinary. He is neither clownish nor a fashion plate.

Bartlett was hired by Liz Claiborne earlier this year to reinvent its menswear brand -- renamed Claiborne by John Bartlett. The designer, with his close-cut sandy hair and professorial spectacles, spices his speech with smart-kid tangents, plain-spoken realism and self-conscious hyperbole. The support he has received from Liz Claiborne, Bartlett says, "is like nectar from the gods."

McTague, the executive vice president charged with making a success of this match, uses phrases like "supply chain structure." And he is not shy about crooning a love song to Wall Street: "A bad economy is an opportunity," he says.

Throughout his career, Bartlett has always been an independent player on Seventh Avenue. While he has dabbled in womenswear and been a designer-for-hire at Ghurka -- the American leather goods house -- and Italy's Byblos to help pay his bills, he has always focused the lion's share of his passion on the menswear collection that bears his name.

Bartlett, 45, grew up in Cincinnati, graduated from Harvard and then enrolled in the menswear program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In 1992, he started his own label, and over the years he has allowed his interests in everything from the plays of Jean Genet to the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder to inspire his work. He has won awards from his colleagues and the loyalty of men's magazine editors who admire him for his creativity, his intellect and his good nature. Like a lot of independent designers, he has experienced the highs and lows that are cyclical to the business, including temporarily shuttering his brand in 2002 and taking off on a decompression journey to Southeast Asia, where he studied yoga and Buddhism.

He returned possibly even more preternaturally calm than when he departed and with a more centrist perspective on style, choosing to draw inspiration from the classic Ivy League sensibility of his alma mater rather than the homoerotic illustrations of Tom of Finland. Still, Bartlett remains a man who is willing not only to wear a djellaba but to put one in his collection.

In his home studio on the second floor of a Greenwich Village townhouse, he works at an expansive faded-wood plank table. Bartlett's inspiration bulletin boards are pinned with words and images that have caught his fancy. The one for his signature line includes a newspaper clip about Albanian women who have taken a vow of celibacy and live as men. He suspects that the lives of these elderly women will influence this collection, which is sold from his own boutique a short walk from his home -- a place where he plays eccentric shopkeeper in a butcher's apron.

The John Bartlett line is aggressively personal. Its staff totals two, including the designer. He can indulge his politics and his social consciousness by producing samples "off the grid," as he puts it, meaning consuming the least amount of energy. The freelance seamstresses use pedal-powered sewing machines. In his signature collection, where a suit can cost upwards of $1,500, Bartlett engages in high concepts, which automatically limits the appeal of his work. How many men see their wardrobe inspired by Albanian cross-dressers? He might produce 100 pieces of a popular design. At Claiborne, it's not unusual to manufacture 48,000 sweaters in one style.

On the other side of the wall in his studio, which might as well be a universe away, is the inspiration board for the spring '09 Claiborne collection. The color palette is dominated by quiet shades of blue, familiar patterns and images of sturdy-looking guys with Marlboro man machismo and surfer boy wholesomeness. The silhouettes, he says, "are super classic. They're not for waif boys.

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