The last time menswear designer John Bartlett mounted a runway presentation, the collection was inspired by surfers and there was a split second of full frontal nudity when a model in a beach wrap experienced terry-cloth slippage. In the seasons before that, Bartlett had done collections inspired by the avant-garde filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, voodoo and the writings of Jean Genet.
Bartlett's references were sometimes so esoteric they sent one scrambling to the art and sociology sections at Barnes & Noble for guidance. But in 2002, after a decade in business, Bartlett closed his company for all the usual reasons: a tough economic climate, demanding retailers, collections that could not find a broad enough audience. He went off to Thailand for a month, where he traveled and practiced yoga. Then he returned to New York and relaunched his label. He offered a small collection for fall, but spring 2005 marks a full-blown return.
The collection is markedly different. There are no models lying in state. No one is painted red. And there are no grand entrances or exits on horseback. Instead, in the woody splendor of the Harvard Club, where Bartlett was once a resident, the designer presented a collection of slim-fitting dress slacks and trim pastel blazers, candy striped shirts, cheerful ties and socks in Crayola-colored stripes. It is a collection inspired by nothing more complicated than a romanticized vision of Ivy League style.
"I wanted to be a little bit more responsible to the customer," Bartlett says. "I wanted to inspire him but give him stuff he can wear."
It may be that more designers need to go off to Southeast Asia and spend a good, long time in the downward dog position.
Bartlett has not returned to the fashion industry with his creative vision any less sharp. But he has included the sensibilities of consumers in the big picture. In tableau vivant at the Harvard Club, older gentlemen sat reading the day's newspaper. In one corner, young women in colorful Converse sneakers and striped shirts sent purple paper airplanes soaring toward the room's high ceilings. And a group of young men -- one in a pink blazer and pink-striped boxer shorts -- tossed a Hacky Sack from one to the other. The clothes are familiar and charming, wearable but not boring.
Bartlett doesn't give a man much to think about with this collection. There are no musings on the definition of masculinity or what it means to be isolated within an urban environment. "Especially when you're working with shirts and suits and ties, there's no room for that in that world," Bartlett says. His past willingness to dare a man to think about how he presents himself was ambitious and admirable. Perhaps there will be room for that in the future -- if this resurrected company survives. And one hopes that it will.
Ruffian, Duckie Brown
Still, someone needs to look out for the interests of consumers. It doesn't happen that often. There are far too many times when designers sell out the customer for the sake of drama or ego. Brian Wolk and Claude Morais went from creating neck ruffs under the Ruffian label to a full line of women's clothes. Their suggestions for spring include synthetic pageboys, puffy-sleeved blouses and . . . is there a reason to go on? Gluttons for punishment will want to know that there was also a white nurse's dress with a pink bow at the neck and pink trim at the hem. More? A baby blue dress with a pink hip bow. More? How about a sharp poke in the eye and then consider yourself informed of the show's full effect?
What to make of the man in the beaded and ruffled bloomers on the runway Wednesday evening? Steven Cox and Daniel Silver, who design the label Duckie Brown, sent men down the runway in brightly colored sportswear: grass-green trousers, carrot-colored jackets, psychedelic print shorts, spangled trousers. They are not clothes that would empower a man at a business luncheon, but one could argue that tomato-red Bermuda shorts can serve a purpose in a man's wardrobe.
But then out came a fellow in green striped pajama pants carrying a tote bag adorned with shiny turquoise paillettes. By the time he reached the foot of the runway, the bag -- and if one was being honest, it would be called a purse -- had slipped from the model's shoulder. He appeared to be holding it between two fingers as if it were noxious roadkill that needed to be disposed of. But before one could muster a full dose of sympathy for this mortified young man, out came a muscle-bound fellow in a crisp ivory blazer and a pair of ruffled panties that might be found on a toddler dressed up for her first Christmas pageant.
Poor, poor consumer. Don't listen to these Duckie Brown fellows. They'll have you looking like a clown who has lost his float.
H, Perry Ellis, Tracy Reese
Tommy Hilfiger also dressed his men in a bold color palette. There was a young gentleman in a fuchsia blazer -- its buttonholes stitched in royal blue -- and a cheerful green ascot. But in this collection -- Hilfiger's snazzier H line, which he put on the runway Thursday night -- the company's namesake is aiming for dapper rather than dopey. The collection was inspired by a romanticized vision of yachting in which everyone wears white and navy, no one ever gets a sunburn and there is no cellulite on board. The collection expressed the brand's long history of boldly colored preppy attire made more interesting by emphasizing masculinity and femininity over overt sexuality.
Hilfiger's front row was overflowing with hip-hop stars. Jennifer Lopez was there and so was at least one Black Eyed Pea. Janet Jackson was snuggled next to Jermaine Dupri. But despite Hilfiger's continuing love affair with musicians, the collection never veered toward stage costumes. It was the kind of hyperbolic preppiness that first lured consumers to the Hilfiger brand.
Patrick Robinson continues to create the kind of fashion-driven collections for Perry Ellis that won him a nomination this year for best new designer from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The collection was vaguely Victorian, shamelessly romantic and filled with upholstery prints, brocade jackets, tiny boleros and richly textured skirts. It is a splendid collection made even more enticing because it is modestly priced. And although the fashion industry is loath to admit it, the number on the price tag has a significant influence on just how much a consumer loves a garment. A very pretty $800 skirt would be drop-dead gorgeous for $198.
Tracy Reese is another designer who balances aesthetics with economic considerations. She plays to a woman who isn't necessarily counting her pennies but most definitely is keeping her checkbook balanced. Reese has perfected an aesthetic of luxurious colors, feminine prints and luscious adornments. She is at her best for spring with trim jackets, skirts that fit close to the body and swing coats that look as though they have been salvaged from a fashionable grandmother's trousseau.
Proenza Schouler, Yeohlee
Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez took a tremendous leap forward with their Proenza Schouler collection for spring. These are garments aimed at those on a generous budget, but they are beautifully conceived. In their show Thursday evening, the two offered close-fitting jackets in a brown-and-white fern print. There were metallic jackets in a rich brocade. Slim skirts came in nubby linen and cocktail dresses were thickly embellished with gold sequins and gemstones. The two designers have quickly established their own vocabulary. Their form-fitting, patchwork camisoles return each season but with a new twist or in a surprising fabric. They have established themselves as designers who pay close attention to the curves of the body. They do not engage in slouchy nonchalance.
But the clothes for spring -- particularly the jackets -- are more cheerful, more welcoming and ultimately more accessible than what has come before.
It is tempting to say that the Yeohlee collection for spring is also more accessible, a little less intellectual. That seemed to be the underlying message in the presentation Thursday afternoon. Instead of showing the clothes in the starkness of a white-walled showroom, designer Yeohlee Teng decided to present them on amateur models in a subway station. The backdrop was meant to suggest the constant movement and restlessness in everyday urban life.
New York subway stations are not climate-controlled, of course. They are hot in the summer and cold in the winter and they are perfumed by a distressing mix of urine, sweat and discarded foodstuffs. The main goal for any commuter is to get out of the station as quickly as possible.
Yet here were the valiant models and a bunch of folks standing around sweating profusely and desperately waving cardboard fans. The heat continued to build. The air thickened. The eyes began to sting as rivers of salty perspiration flowed into them.
A gray scallop-edged blouse went by. So did a tunic that might have been sea green. A black satin skirt floated past. Followed by a heavily powdered blonde.
Transit officers looked on. It was better than investigating abandoned garbage bags. And in the distance, a stream of wise commuters raced for the exit.