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John Bartlett, Heir Apparel

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 1998

  Style Showcase
    Bartlett John Bartlett: "It is really important to have something thought-provoking, to have elements of theater." (Mark Finkenstaedt/For The Post)
NEW YORK—Designer John Bartlett has accomplished a simple but monumental feat. He has returned both strength and virility to menswear.

Bartlett's image of man has the potential to permanently alter the way a fellow dresses, how a gentleman thinks about his public face and the manner in which masculinity is perceived.

"I think he may be on the cusp of his time," says Valerie Steele, chief curator for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "He's one of the most interesting designers to come out in recent years."

Instead of crafting clothes that keep a gentleman's carnal fantasies and ruminations hidden, or that function as tools in his climb toward the corporate mountaintop, Bartlett creates clothes that evoke what it can mean to be masculine. He reaches into the shadowy corners of the culture, searching for new ways in which men can be defined. He forces his observers to grasp for wildly diverse adjectives, many of them not immediately equated with masculinity. Then he proves how easily those words could be – how rightly they should be – associated with the style of men.

Bartlett's view of man is humorous, alluring, aggressive, awkward and demure. It is gloriously erotic, having evolved from a foundation of uninhibited homoeroticism. It is deftly illustrative of brutishness and machismo, yet tempered by bookishness.

With his first womenswear presentation a little over a year ago, which he brazenly referred to as a "butch/fem" collection, he added a new dimension to women's clothes. They are romantic, sexy and flirtatious – but with a steely core.

Bartlett Collection 1998 Cindy Crawford showing off the Spring 1998 Collection in New York. (Mark Finkenstaedt/For The Post)
By no measure is Bartlett in the same financial league as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani or other labels that bring in huge numbers through sales of clothes, accessories or fragrances. He has not turned up in movies, on game shows, on MTV or in an exhausting list of magazines. Bartlett has not been hailed for his marketing prowess or his ability to seduce customers. But he is creative. And the industry pays attention to his ideas.

Bartlett is poised just below the summit. A fashion moment is unfolding; this is influence in the making.

Anti-Hype and Archetypes

John Bartlett wouldn't ride the horse. Thank goodness. The finale of his fall '98 menswear show in New York featured a blond and bearded man atop a horse named Sergeant. The model, a romantic interpretation of a young Hemingway, wore an olive wool cape around his shoulders. Without even the slightest sign of awareness that this display was a delicate interplay of kitsch and drama, the horseman trotted down the runway to the amusement of the audience.

A few moments later, when Bartlett walked out to take his bows, he was leading Sergeant by the reins. The show's crew had wanted the designer to ride the steed, to come galloping down the man-made runway like a well-dressed caballero. But Bartlett had seen an alternate vision of himself, one in which he is atop an out-of-control bronco stampeding through the audience.

Bartlett is not one to let the hype of a moment romance him. Two days after the horse and the runway show, the designer still was basking in the warm glow of positive reviews from the fashion press. As he sips coffee in his showroom on Fifth Avenue, someone brings over a clipping from an Italian newspaper in which he has been described in gushing terms as the next Gianni Versace.

The expression on Bartlett's face does not even remotely resemble pride. Instead, it is a mix of embarrassment, bemusement, perhaps even a hint of horror. This, he says, is just another example of industry hype spiraling out of control.

"People are so quick to build something up so they can then push it over the cliff," Bartlett says. An industry that quickly anoints a designer as the next important comer can, with the passing of a season, proclaim a designer's work to be "tired – you're copying this person or that person," Bartlett says. "There is support and then suddenly there isn't support. In any case, there's not a lot when you're just starting out."

Since launching his business in 1992, Bartlett quickly has become aware of the industry's land mines. Yet, he would rather walk through them instead of around them, being dangerously frank with customers, critics and retailers. In the fashion industry, no one is so swiftly and soundly punished as a man who tells the truth.

"When designers do shows, they work their [butts] off all for 16 minutes of runway time and people are sitting there looking bored, eating lunch, looking off into space," he says. "I know seeing 100 shows can get boring, but sitting in the front row [watching a show] is a great job. I'd want to do that for a season."

Bartlett was hailed early in his career for his willingness to be openly gay, for his generous use of homoerotic imagery and for his celebration of gay men in an industry where influential gay men often are publicly coy about their sexual identity to get ahead. That openness would later become an impediment.

"When I first started, it was a big part. It was a personal achievement and a liberating time," he says. What he wanted to do "was take the Tom of Finland archetypes and make clothes for them."

The renowned Tom of Finland icons include the hulking lumberjack, the broad-shouldered motorcyclist, the leather-wearing cop, the muscle-bound sailor. Bartlett embraced those characters, showing models in tight-fitting trousers and short-sleeved shirts with sinewy muscles straining against the fabric. He played with other types, too, such as the skinny, effeminate bookworm in high-water trousers and Hush Puppies. In the process, he set the stage for the resurgence of casual, suede loafers and the popularization of geek chic.

Although he has long since deserted styles inspired by ferocious and strapping gay men or sweetly gawky ones, he pays a price for his earlier honesty.

    Bartlett Collection 1997 Swimwear for men, Bartlett Collection, Spring 1997. (Corrina Lecca)
"It haunts me a little," Bartlett says. "People will say, 'Oh, your clothes are too gay.' I've never seen two shirts cruising each other.

"You show sexy clothes for men, it's gay," he continues. "For women, you show a thong and it's just an outfit."

Now he is on to more mature, sophisticated silhouettes. He still uses hyper-masculine imagery, but the messages aren't so heavy-handed. His sailor pants have a relaxed fit. His turtlenecks are lush and comfortable; they are not lacquered on. His Norfolk hunting jackets could be worn to the office. His sweeping greatcoats give a man an elegant and romantic bearing.

"It's more like a personal journey," he says. "I have more access to beautiful fabric and tailoring. Now we have cashmere available. I wanted to grow the collection up and have it not just be about tricky disco clothing."

The evolution of Bartlett's clothes has gone hand-in-hand with his attention to quality. Last year, he forged a production and distribution agreement with Genny Holding SpA, a powerhouse Italian manufacturing concern headed by Donatella Girombelli, giving him access to finer fabrics and more precise tailoring. The clothes have become more sophisticated because now he has the means to make them so.

"With the Genny connection, it's given me so much more than I could imagine," Bartlett says. "We had been making the collection in Chinatown – labels would be upside-down, sleeves would be sewn on backwards."

Bartlett also has scrambled through rocky times retailing his clothes. Early on, he had a much publicized clash with Barneys New York, which – along with New York's Charivari – was one of the designer's earliest supporters. Bartlett spoke publicly about payment problems he had encountered with Barneys. Relationships were soon severed with the store, which even as it now struggles to emerge from bankruptcy remains an influential and prestigious retailer among high-end designers.

"We had a big falling-out, but we've patched things up," Bartlett says.

Yet retail challenges remain. The incorporation of expensive fabrics in the collection means that his prices have risen significantly, says Colby McWilliams, vice president and men's fashion director for Neiman Marcus. In effect, Bartlett, in less than a year, has moved from the $400 blazer market to the $800-and-up one, where he will compete with labels such as Calvin Klein, Prada and Gucci.

"That's a concern for us," McWilliams says. "That's kind of a difficult step when basically you're one of the new guys on the block."

This year, however, he has proved that his vision has the potential to resonate beyond the East Coast and into the Midwest; he can speak to an urban iconoclast as well as a suburban mother. His message can find a home within the corporate, designer chic of Neiman Marcus as well as within a small, independent retailer where a bet on a new designer is an enormous risk.

"The little independent has a different point of view. We're very hands-on. We can buy with our heart, go with a gut feeling," says Karen Daskas, co-owner of Tender, a 2,500-square-foot womenswear boutique in Birmingham, Mich.

"But when we decide to pick up a new collection," she says, "we have to make the decision knowing that we'll possibly have to drop somebody else that isn't performing."

The store debuted Bartlett's women's line this spring. The result, she says, is an enthusiastic enough customer response to persuade Daskas and her partner to triple their order for fall. One customer already has ordered one of Bartlett's charcoal gray skirts and jackets to wear to her son's November bar mitzvah.

A Theatrical Bent

Bartlett's influences extend beyond impressions from an exotic vacation. They have included Michael Cimino's film "The Deer Hunter," the writing of Jean Genet, the avant-garde film noir work of Werner Rainer Fassbinder, and "Forrest Gump."

"For me, it's really important to have something thought-provoking, to have elements of theater. There has to be some story being told. I can't see doing a show with no program notes," Bartlett says. "There has to be impact or emotion, something people will be challenged by."

Several seasons ago, he used all black models – muscles bared – – for his spring menswear collection. "We knew we were making a statement," he says. "When we started womenswear I really worried about being a misogynist. With the black models I worried, 'Are we being manipulative?' "

"But the black guys who come in [to audition], they're so much more comfortable with themselves. The white guys are still pretty stiff, like catalogue models," Bartlett says about the casting call. Using the black models "challenges how people look at clothes."

In recalling his spring '98 menswear show, it's impossible to forget the chicken. In a collection in which voodoo, "Forrest Gump" and surrealism all merged, Bartlett's finale included a suited voodoo priest lovingly stroking a live chicken at the foot of the catwalk. The collection sent the imagination ping-ponging from the secrets of Caribbean culture to the superficiality of Hollywood to the spirituality in nature.

His spring '98 womenswear show revolved around a film noir tale of a mad housewife and her bad seed child. It toyed with eroticism and the glossy, intelligent sex appeal of an "L.A. Confidential" world.

Bartlett Collection 1998 John Barlett Collection 1998. (Mark Finkenstaedt/For The Post)
"He is someone who has a view outside himself, who has an objective view of the world," says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Martin and others say he is the American designer most stimulated by the diversity of our time and most capable of crystallizing it in a single collection.

The 35-year-old designer was born in Cincinnati – between an older sister and a younger brother – where he was obsessed with clothes, nightclubs and nightlife. He was accepted by both Harvard and Columbia universities and chose the former because his parents thought he was too young to go to New York alone.

"I thought I'd go to Ohio State, then I got in Harvard and there was really no choice. . . . It was one of those American Dream things," he says. "When I went to Harvard, I had this vision of all these kids being impeccably dressed." They weren't.

There, he studied economics and sociology and took a large format photography course where he learned more about photographers than about the art of taking pictures. After graduation, he went to London and spent two weeks studying economics before he decided he wanted to be a designer. "London inspired me," he says. "I realized there were more ways to look other than just a pinstriped suit."

He enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "Mom and Dad and I, we actually had a really good fight about it. They weren't having it," he says. "They wanted me to go to law school. It was still all that American Dream thing and the American Dream didn't include fashion design."

Since graduating from FIT, Bartlett has been honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America for both his menswear and his womenswear. Martin at the Met has written glowingly about him: "Bartlett, more than any other major American designer in menswear, is examining the basic tenets of men's bodies and their identity in dress. Bartlett's 'become yourself' philosophy is inexhaustibly optimistic. His clothing is so idiosyncratically shrewd and seductive that one could wish that many more would choose either to become themselves or, perhaps even better, to realize the ideal, thinking men that Bartlett creates."

Steele is "desperate" to acquire pieces from his womenswear collections for the FIT museum. Among fashion editors, Bartlett's shows are among the most anticipated of all those on the New York calendar.

In addition to the relationship Bartlett's own company has with Genny, in April, Girombelli appointed him creative director of her Byblos men's and women's lines. Bartlett succeeds the more seasoned designer Richard Tyler, who had been unsuccessful in turning around the beleaguered line.

And his parents have bought a few of his frocks . . . retail.

Influential Innovator

Free-standing Bartlett boutiques and in-store shops are not springing up around the country. He is not designer-as-entertainer in the mold of Isaac Mizrahi or Todd Oldham. He is not designer-as-matinee-idol and marketing whiz in the manner of Gucci's Tom Ford.

But he is Seventh Avenue's innovator. "He's the Jean Paul Gaultier of American menswear," Martin says, referring to the French designer known for using a wide range of cultural touchstones in his work. "He's someone you just have to watch."

Not necessarily in the next few years. Not several years ago. But now. Right now.

"What makes those of us who love fashion intrigued – and enrages others – is that there is no absolute good and bad. [Designer Cristobal] Balenciaga was important only when he really meshed with the Zeitgeist" in the '50s, Steele says. "Then suddenly you're not pushing society's buttons."

Who has a lasting historical impact is who gets "in touch with people. Not the most people, but the most influential people," Steele says. "They may have terrible sales. But if other fashion people, designers and influence makers are impressed by them, that says they're important."

Designer John Galliano, for example, was considered influential even when he lacked the money to buy fabric, let alone produce a full line of womenswear. Yet, any woman with a bias cut evening gown in her closet owes him gratitude for revitalizing that silhouette. The average person would have trouble identifying a Helmut Lang blazer, but Lang's enthusiasm for high-tech fabrics, workman-like styles and minimalism have trickled down to the least expensive levels of fashion. Designer Geoffrey Beene operates outside of the fashion system and yet is widely regarded, particularly among his colleagues, as one of America's most creative and important fashion voices.

Even though his company would not release wholesale numbers – they're most likely in the low seven figures – Bartlett's influence already has been felt with his skinny silhouettes, Hush Puppies and eclectic camouflage; now he's carving a wider niche.

"He brings to fashion what I tend to admire – a vast reading of the culture," Martin says. "He references what he has seen and he does work that stands outside of just being fashion."

Menswear is not a place for rash experimentation. Most gentlemen do not want to be entertained by their clothes, nor do they want to be challenged or aroused by them. But Bartlett has been able to subvert those restrictions. He pushes toward the edge of menswear, all the while remembering these two immutable points: There will always be boundaries. Fashion is business.

His excitement, he says, comes from seeing buyers writing orders. And after the spotlights, the chickens, the horsemen and the voodoo priests are gone and the intricately woven surreal tale is told, "at the end of the day it's a jacket, a shirt and pants." And in this instant, his are the most provocative ones on the rack.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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