slider top

Balancing Act

The designer John Bartlett has made his name by combining the familiar with the unexpected. Andrew Solomon looks at the man behind the label.

Last October, I met with troops from the former Yugoslavia in a small Hungarian town near the Croatian border. It was a damp, muddy day, and I wore a pair of heavy, well-made, comfortable boots, camouflage-printed, which I had bought from John Bartlett’s autumn collection. I was deep in conversation with a soldier when a senior officer interrupted us. “I need such boots for our troops,” he said. “They are U.S. standard issue or from a private supplier?” I gave him the name of the very private SoHo boutique where my footwear was at that time available, and warned him that he might encounter financial obstacles to the bulk orders he had in mind.

After I got home, I was invited to a smart uptown Halloween dinner party. “I don’t think we’re going to do real costumes,” said the host. “On the other hand,” his wife volunteered, “we’ll all kind of dress up, so maybe wear something suggestive of a costume, or kind of conceptual.” I gave some brief consideration to these vagaries, and went to the party in those same John Bartlett boots, along with his well-cut, camouflage-printed leather jacket and trousers — my guerrilla suit, I said. Though I had worn all the parts separately over the preceding months, taken together, they were a costume that allowed me to approximate the American ideal of those Croatian soldiers (who, in fact, unable to afford SoHo, wear frayed, stretchy blue nylon in one-size-fits-nobody).

Costume, uniform and everyday clothing are no longer altogether visually distinct. Men’s dress aspires increasingly to the extensive variety that women’s has incorporated over the last 30 years. Men can wear more shapes, materials and patterns in more places than ever before. The decline and fall of the office dress code has left even those professionals who stick with square-cut flannel suits in the morass of choice rather than in the safe domain of protocol. Thinking about clothing is no longer the province of recondite dandies, but is an issue for mainstream American men, who have been liberated by shifting gender roles, the awakened esthetic of a multicultural nation, the aggressive campaigns of international designers, the increasing proximity of Europe and the breakdown of prosaic formal orthodoxies. Camouflage-print boots are not yet the archetype, but much of what Bartlett showed with them — fitted sweaters, tapered trousers, full-skirted long coats in military drab — is within the ken of normal guys, if they can wear it with just a little bit of bravado.

Bartlett himself is the paradigm of the new designer. He is neither extravagant nor mincing. He dresses modestly, mixing his own designs with old jeans and worn sweaters. He is more refined than Seventh Avenue, and less focused on refinement than Paris couture. Neither he nor his clothing has that mannered touch so long associated with designers and their production. He’s good-looking, has a wonderful sense of the instant impact of appearance, sports an ironic smile and is in many ways a typical, stylish, well-educated guy of the American upper-middle classes. He is also an openly gay man whose sensibility is informed but not defined by his sexuality.

“Gays are so mainstream now,” Bartlett complains. “They don’t want to be seen to dress in a particular way — it’s like this weird reverse homophobia.” As gays have tried to look straight, straight men have been liberated to wear clothes that were once “too gay” for them. Looks that were exclusively identified with homosexuality — jeans that fit, boots on people who aren’t from Texas, white sneakers kept white, sweaters tucked in at the waist, the witty use of color — continue to trickle up. “I’m designing,” Bartlett says, “for men who are attractive and want to be attractive, and those men come with more and more different identities and ways of life, but they all want to be sexy — or they have girlfriends or wives or boyfriends who buy their clothes and want them to be sexy.”

Bartlett is currently in the “fashion darling” position that the American media have accorded to designers such as Isaac Mizrahi and Todd Oldham, a position indicative of both talent and charm, if not always success. He has had bushels of press this year (“Bartlett attracts hype the way linen attracts wrinkles,” Time observed in August), all of which emphasizes his fabulous progress from a childhood in simple American street clothes to an adulthood in high-style duds modeled on simple American street clothes. He was born into the Cincinnati working class; discovered the Salvation Army when he was 16; studied sociology at Harvard (class of ’85); went on to the London School of Economics; dropped out after two weeks to “pursue a more pressing education in London’s street fashion”; returned to the United States; enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology; worked at Willi Wear (hip); then at Ronaldus Shamask (sumptuous); and at last set up, in January 1992, as an independent label in a West Village walk-up (hip and sumptuous).

Recent articles (appearing everywhere from Time to Out to In Style magazines) describe Bartlett’s escalating attainment in such improvident terms that one wonders how all the buyers could have fit into that much-vaunted walk-up in the first three months of 1992, and imagines the lesser ones having to camp outside for days in the snow. In fact, Bartlett started out rarefied, designing mostly for gay men. His early collections featured skintight leather pants and muscle shirts based on the 70’s gay rag After Dark, or outfits based on what Bartlett drolly describes as the “fantastic sexiness of U.P.S. men” — chocolate brown and khaki uniforms, with matched pants and shirts replacing the business suit’s matched pants and jackets. It is only in the last two years that Bartlett’s fame has accelerated dramatically.

In early 1997, he was taken on by Genny Holding, a major international distributor, for his men’s line; in April of that year, he showed his first women’s collection; and in 1998, Genny announced that he would be creative director of Byblos, the men’s and women’s international label. He is to revitalize the broadly marketed, sporty Byblos line while continuing to produce “edgier” collections in his own name. Genny has said that it plans to increase sales of the Bartlett label 20-fold over the next three years, while the sales of Byblos designs should run considerably higher. Though he is already and will be a visible women’s designer, pulling in his biggest profits from the vast women’s wear market, his training, his eye and the quality of his discipline reflect a lifetime of designing for men.

I first met John Bartlett a year ago, a few minutes before the showing of his autumn collection. The models backstage were getting dressed, and one among them — a strong-jawed man with broad shoulders, a well-honed body and a pair of little glasses that gave him a touch of the shy schoolboy — was watching the others intently as they pulled on their first outfits. He was wearing old jeans and a faded thermal undershirt on which the Ralph Lauren logo was just visible. Eventually, he stood up, took his runway outfit off the rack, put it down on a chair and unfastened his jeans. In the innocent, sexy moment when they began to slide down, the insider photographer Patrick McMullan snapped a shot. The man protested; McMullan insisted; and finally the man smiled, and, in slower motion, erotic as heck, took off his jeans again, this time allowing the lens to capture each movement of denim articulating the muscles of his thighs. Then he put on his John Bartlett togs — winter-white flannel multi-seam pants and a white cashmere sleeveless Henley. The eros was gone. The photographer walked away, bored.

The man introduced himself as John Bartlett.

Bartlett’s loss of concupiscent charm was the immediate consequence of his shift from the naïve to the self-presentational. The usual view is that there is nothing attractive about evident self-consciousness in the dress of a man. Our paradigm of desire and of elegance for men revolves around basics — the James Dean white T-shirts, beat-up jackets and old Levi’s, or the well-pressed white shirt smelling starchily of freshness, with a rep tie and Duke of Windsor classic suit. We like the idea of surprise, and prefer clothing caught off guard (as Bartlett’s jeans were) to clothing worn with intent (as his multi-seam pants were). But although the ingenuous is often charming, the disingenuous is monstrous. As Bartlett puts it: “Guys were for so long brought up not to draw attention to themselves physically. But now that ungroomed look is pretty self-conscious.”

What we wear is what we have selected, first from stores and then from our closets. In a world of choices, we cannot pretend that standards choose themselves. “Men don’t want to look like they think about looking sexy,” Bartlett says. Equally, the reverse logic of looking as if you think about not looking sexy has now worn very, very thin, and looking as if you don’t think at all is possible only for cretins. “So then what’s left is the self-confidence with which you wear your clothes,” Bartlett says. And here Bartlett excels: he makes clothing to be worn with a self-confidence it can also impart.

This isn’t to say that John Bartlett invented label fashion for men; Sir Hardy Amies and Pierre Cardin designed clothing under their own names half a century ago, and dozens followed in their footsteps. Off-the-peg suits were “a shapeless, terrible affair, made for clerks or accountants so they would look like clerks or accountants,” recalls Amies, the author of The Englishman’s Suit (Quartet Books). In the socially liberated postwar period, clothing became enough to help one “pass as being from a different class,” he observes. “This clothing opened doors.” Amies fought to open up the closed world of tailoring. “‘A fashion show for men?’ my backers asked in the 50’s,” he says. “‘That’ll just be a convocation of sissies!’ But it wasn’t. It brought in the bosses of big businesses, who didn’t know what was involved in making a decent suit, but knew there was a market for them.”

Bartlett adds: “In the 70’s, the idea got even bigger. Insecure men started wearing labels because the labels were status symbols in themselves. Designers were all reinventing, and I saw what I wanted to reinvent. Some people work with dandy clothes or preppy things, but my great inspirations are the military, sports, ideas of the masculine. That’s always had a broad appeal; different forms of it appeal to different people in every part of the social spectrum — from the guy who is challenged by dress-down Fridays, which demand that casual wear fit in with formal purposes, to the guy who needs something to wear to go out for an evening that is stylish but not dressy.”

This latest revolution in male dress owes a great deal to feminism. As women took over work that was once the province of men, and men began to participate in cooking and child rearing, newly sensitive fellows began to wear facial expressions they had not worn before. By the mid-80’s, “healthy” blokes were supposed to cry and to admit fear. Men could be depressed and could talk about it. They could be peacock-vain, too.

Soon, they began to have bodies in a way that had been uncommon for nearly a century. They tried not to be fat. They went to gyms and encouraged their shoulders to be wider than their waists. They went jogging and had strong legs for the sake of having strong legs. The progress has taken time, but those men who can cry and work out are now beginning to dress with the broader range of expression with which they clothe their faces, and the relative deliberateness of effect with which they control their bodies.

“The male customer’s eye is getting more educated,” Bartlett says. “Designers are getting more information about what guys want to wear. It’s a very gradual meeting in the middle.”

For the spring collection, now heading into stores, Bartlett produced trousers that someone described as “Lilly Pulitzer on acid” (which makes you wonder where you could find work by Lilly Pulitzer, the originator of floral golf course wear, that seems not to be on acid). He introduced logo-wear and great surfer shorts to his line. He also made wonderful cargo pants, field pants, jodhpurs and ranger pants, wearable stuff with just a little more shape and style in it than the standards on which it is based, all of it complimentary to the oft-neglected calf. Pink windbreakers and khaki jackets completed the look.

In February, Bartlett showed his men’s and women’s collections together in one show for the first time, with unisex outfits to indicate the coherence of his vision. It’s a balancing act, sexual though ungendered, and balancing is his greatest strength.

“The rules and conventions are all being thrown into a salad spinner — go out to a restaurant, and a guy in jeans will be sitting at a table together with someone in a tailored traditional suit,” Bartlett says. “The sexiest people are the ones who mix things up, who will wear things that don’t go together, wear vintage with something from Bergdorf’s, or whatever. In America, there will always be guys wearing acetate sweat suits at the airport, and I’m never going to change that, but there are a lot of guys who want something that’s cool — as long as it doesn’t have three sleeves and floor-length lavender pleats.”