It is often said the only real constant in life is change, and that there is a time and season for everything. As many in the fashion community have reacted to this season of economic turmoil by hunkering down and retracting, John Bartlett has chosen to adapt to changing economic times by revitalizing his brand and drawing from his deep well of spiritual resources. While others are just beginning to re-strategize and re-examine where their brands fit in this new economy, John Bartlett started on that path some years back. His intelligent, thoughtful approach to fashion and life is reflected in collections that celebrate not only the beauty of the male physique, but also the practical needs of the average consumer.
After almost two decades in the industry, John Bartlett’s perspective on what men want to wear is still fresh, vibrant, and grounded in his unique understanding on what looks good on the masculine frame. In seasons of plenty or draught, John Bartlett stays prepped to weather the vicissitudes of changing markets by casting his masterful craftsmanship upon the waters of innovation and staying true to his aesthetic vision. And in that, he is a man for all seasons.
John, after graduating from Harvard University you enrolled in the menswear department at FIT. Could you briefly talk about your journey from Harvard to a career in fashion?
I went to a Catholic boys’ school and had to wear a uniform. Everyday I would try to make my uniform look different. I also always loved clothes but I never considered fashion as a career, I just thought I would use fashion as a way to express myself. In my last year at Harvard, I realized that what was most important was learning and gaining knowledge, not necessarily declaring a major or figuring out what your life’s pursuit would be. Around that time I started meeting kids from the University of Cincinnati who were pursuing a career in the performing arts and moving to NYC. I realized I had more in common with those kids than I did with some of my Harvard colleagues. So after Harvard, I moved to NYC and went to FIT at night and worked whatever job I could find during the day.
At first, I wasn’t sure what my concentration would be at FIT, but I found out about the menswear department there and enrolled. I later interned with Willie Smith at Williwear, and with Tommy Hilfiger and Bill Robinson.
In 1992 you launched your own line and later became the creative director of Byblos with much success. Yet, in 2002 you closed your company and went to Thailand and Cambodia to pursue studies in Buddhism and Ashtangya yoga. What led you to that place?
Fashion is a very difficult industry to take time off from. Right after 9/11, everything changed in the industry. I been traveling non-stop for eight years and I was at this place in my life where knew I needed to make some changes. I wanted to find out what would happen or change in my life if I took extended time off.
I didn’t take the sabbatical for financial reasons, nor was I dissatisfied with the industry. I had just turned 40 and I was at a crossroads in my own personal life and I wanted time to re-evaluate, re-strategize, and listen to myself.
So what did you learn in your time away?
I learned that I do love what I do, but that I had to do it on my own terms, which meant concentrating solely on menswear. And I also needed more balance in my life and more community. That eventually lead me to creating the store in the West Village, near where I live. So, in a nutshell, I wanted to continue my career in design but in a way where I controlled my own destiny.
I have always been interested in Eastern philosophy and thought. I also went to the American West and did some Native American shaman and vision quest spiritual traditions.
Do you feel that at this particular moment everyone is beginning to re-examine their lives and look at things differently?
I do believe there is a big shift in consciousness. We are moving into the Age of Aquarius, and people are becoming less materialistic, and hopefully more compassionate. People are beginning to understand that we are a global community, and if there is a crisis in another part of the world, we are all affected.
For me, most importantly, we finally have a president who can speak intelligently and with integrity. He does not have all the answers, but at least the consciousness is there.
As the creative director of Liz Claiborne Inc. men’s collection “Claiborne by John Bartlett”, what do you think you bring to that brand?
I think I bring a man’s perspective to the brand. Liz Claiborne Inc. had a men’s collection starting in the 1980’s, but that brand didn’t really have a man’s name or perspective on the label. They brought me in to bring a much more updated, contemporary look that dresses a man, whether he is from NYC, Canada, the Midwest, or the West Coast. They wanted the label to be more relatable to the average man and move away from the conservative aesthetic the label had had since its inception.
How is your new label “Claiborne by John Bartlett” that launched in Spring 2009 doing?
It is doing great, and it has given me the opportunity to work in a different marketplace – one that is more accessible price-wise.
You have always liked emphasizing a man’s physique in your clothes— particularly broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist. Where does that aesthetic come from?
My look is a celebration of masculinity, and giving great looks that accentuate maleness and the work some of them have done on their bodies. My clothing, though not tight fitting, is cut in all the right places. My clothing also fits men who are larger than the average 22-year old European male. A lot of high-end designers are promoting a leaner aesthetic, which looks great on a certain type of guy, but a lot of men—particularly as they get older—don’t fit that image.
For your Fall /Winter 2009 collection you seem to be using longer jackets and coats. I particularly like the plaid coat with the rosette embellishment on the label – could you talk about your inspiration for this collection?
For Fall/Winter 2009 I did a lot of tweed, a lot of tailored looks. My inspiration was the 1930’s Depression Era. There was a movement in the 1930’s of a lot of young adults who were dropping out the mainstream of society and riding the rails. I watched a documentary about that, and saw some films that spoke to that time. I loved the way these young people were dressing at that time. My aesthetic for Fall/Winter 2009 is about mixing pattern, the whole Chesterfield look, accentuation of the back with belting of vests and jackets.
What lead you to the maritime preppy aesthetic in S/S 2010 “Claiborne by John Bartlett” collection?
There is a film from the 90’s called White Squall that is about an ill-fated summer school sailing trip. White Squall inspired my maritime theme of blues and whites with horizontal stripes, mixed with how kids are currently dressing. I was also influenced by how the kids were dressing on the Bravo reality show NY Prep, and fascinated by how they mixed traditional preppy clothes. So I came up with the theme ‘Maritime prep’ that is a combination of nautical looks mixed with a preppy aesthetic.
There are also lots of shades of orange and green in this collection. Why that color palette?
My color palette is always a response to what I did in the previous season. If one season is very dark, then the next season will be more colorful. For this particular collection I wanted everything to be very joyous, very optimistic. Greens and oranges are my favorite secondary colors, and these are great colors that you can wear and still feel like a guy.
You are using knee-length shorts, but they are a bit more fitted as opposed to loose or baggy. Could you talk about that?
I like a short that is more tailored, almost like a dress pant, but shorter. Every guy is always looking for the perfect pair of flat front shorts.
And you also have these really affordable price points, under $100.
For “Claiborne by John Bartlett” it is very important to have very competitive prices but still have style, color, and detail. And with a company the size of Liz Claiborne you can do that. This Claiborne collection nicely offsets my own collection, where the prices are somewhat higher.
Could you talk about Rogues Gallery?
Rogues Gallery is a brand from Portland, Maine. The brand reflects that nautical feel that you get in Maine juxtaposed against these imprinting of old tombstones and gravesites made into graphics set on clothing. I met Alex of Rogues Gallery at a party and we decided to do something together. We came up with the concept of gay iconography from the 70’s – lumberjacks, leather bars and gay logos – which denotes an era when people felt more liberated, if not reckless. I think that same sensibility exists, but in a different way. I am always looking at different gay subcultures and icons like James Baldwin, Jean Genet, Tom of Finland, Robert Mapplethorpe, to name a few, to draw inspiration from. All those reference points influence the visual culture. A lot of young people love the visual images even if they don’t know where they come from. My background in sociology draws me to make connections to what I am doing now from what has influenced me culturally. So at Rogue Gallery, we have combined a nautical aesthetic with political and cultural references expressed in t-shirts and leather goods.
Could you talk about your affiliation with the North Shore Animal League (NSAL) and Tiny Tim?
While I was on my sabbatical I adopted Tiny Tim from NSAL, and I became involved with them with different events. It’s very important if people are interested in getting a pet that they adopt one from the animal shelters. Many of my industry friends have come to adoption events at my store and adopted a pet. This is all a part of me giving back to the community. I also work with the Trevor Project, which is a 24-hour hotline for gay teens and with SAGE, which is a support organization for gay seniors.
How did you come to use the Tiny Tim logo for your brand?
I wanted something that was an icon that wasn’t about status, and that was relatable. A friend of mine who did graphics came up with the logo that captures Tiny Tim perfectly.
What’s next for you?
There are lots of things in the works. I am talking to different people in television programming because the fashion world is moving toward combining fashion aesthetics with the film and television industry. This will be a part of the next generation of innovation in fashion. I am also looking to develop a lifestyle book. I will continue to develop my collection and collaborate with other artists. As long as the creative energies are stimulated, I am going to keep going.
John Bartlett’s store is located at 143 Seventh Avenue, NY, NY.
For more information about John Bartlett’s collections, go to johnbartlettny.com.
Photos are courtesy of John Bartlett.