When John Bartlett started designing clothing in 1992, so many men were still wrapped up in the threadbare clutches of grunge, and metrosexuality had yet to come barreling out of the closet. Bartletts visionary sketches of sharp, stylish, not-too-formal men quickly earned him accolades, most notably the Council of Fashion Designers of Americas best menswear newcomer award in 1993 and 1997s Menswear Designer of the Year. In doing so, he proved that dressing men with an undercurrent of queer iconography -- later employed by Hedi Slimane and Tom Ford, among others -- could be a critical and financial success.
Even so, Bartlett quit the business in 2002 -- taking a sojourn to Cambodia and Thailand to study Ashtanga yoga and Buddhism -- and returning to fashion quietly in 2003 with a small collection of tailored clothing and accessories. In 2007 Bartlett opened his first store, and in 2008 he became Creative Director for the Liz Claiborne brands mens division. His first collection under the John Bartlett for Claiborne label hits stores spring 2009.
Out.com spoke with Bartlett about his love of masculine icons, New Yorks West Village and what hes learned from manning the store himself.
Out.com: What made you decide to re-launch your own line?
John Bartlett: After my time away, I returned to the garment industry with a renewed appreciation for my label and for my career. I realized how much I loved design, but wanted to take full control of my destiny by opening my own retail shops.
Is there a clear through-line of themes from your earlier collections to now?
I am still inspired by all things masculine, from military uniforms to the UPS man. My tastes have grown up as I have matured, and I am not as interested in unrealistic design as I am in suiting my customers real needs.
So many of your past collections reinterpreted gay iconography -- lumberjacks, the military, the sensuality of Fire Island. Are the gays still inspiring you?
I think gay men are embracing their masculinity more than ever and want to look like men. Mens fashion, many times, portrays the fashionable man as someone very thin and feminine. My approach and my muses are the exact opposite. I am inspired by the mans man, like Hemingway and Jean Genet.
What are your most loved -- and most hated -- current trends?
I love the new direction in color and pattern. I hate skinny jeans and shrunken suits. I dont think men want to look like boys.
What were your inspirations for this latest collection?
Fall is all about big lumberjack plaids, but hand-tailored into exquisite blazers. I am inspired by rugged, outdoorsy guys who live on the edge, but also have a refined taste for the best of life.
What kind of man are you dressing now?
I work in my shop on Sundays and get to meet my customer head on. In general, he is in his 30s or older and is not looking to be a fashionista. He is masculine, professional, and confident in his appearance.
How are your designs for John Bartlett different from those for Liz Claiborne?
My designs for Claiborne by John Bartlett are similar to my work in my own label, yet they are a little bit more generous in fit and much, much more affordable.
And yet Liz Claiborne is a brand with many years of history. Do you feel certain pressures when designing for them?
I feel a great sense of pride and responsibility now that the brand has been renamed Claiborne by John Bartlett. They have given me total freedom to redefine the line and have provided me with a great team to execute my ideas.
Do you feel like there's more pressure when working with your own line, or that people are looking for you to make a certain statement?
I have long walked away from the outside pressure to perform and entertain. Many customers remember my wild shows and avant-garde fashions. What I want them to understand now is that fashion is a business, and I am in the business of designing and producing quality menswear.
How do the men in New York influence your designs?
I live and work in the West Village. To me, this neighborhood represents everything I love about New York. There is a great sense of diversity and bohemian living. The guys who live there are a wonderful inspiration to me. They are always mixing their looks and showing me new ways to approach dressing.
And you opened a shop in the West Village.
Opening a store has long been my fantasy. In my own store, I have complete control of the environment in which my clothes are sold. I also work with other artisans to develop product that is interesting and compliments my clothing. When you wholesale to larger stores, it is difficult to control how product is presented and sold. Having my own store affords me the opportunity to meet my customer in person and learn from him directly.
What relationship did you want to have with the surrounding neighborhood?
After years of living on airplanes, I wanted to make my world smaller, not bigger. The West Village has wonderful shopping and is one of the last areas of New York that hasnt been overdeveloped with huge brand shops. I love working in my store and seeing peeps from the hood come by to say howdy.
Say howdy to John Bartlett -- and check out his sturdy jeans, plush sweaters and elegant suits -- at 143 Seventh Avenue, New York City, 212.633.6867. Send a letter to the editor about this article.