Fashion: The Ivy Leaguer who found fashion via London punk

Designer John Bartlett made every mistake in the book. He insulted every reporter in New York. He was even dropped by Barneys. But he still has the fashion world at his feet
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The Independent Culture
JOHN BARTLETT is a busy man. Last month, the designer presented two menswear collections, one under his own name in New York, the other in Milan for the Italian label Byblos where he works as creative director. Next month, he'll do it all over again for the womenswear shows.

He is surprisingly calm and attentive for one whose life is spent zipping between Europe and the United States. In fact, you'd never guess he was in fashion, let alone a top-rank in-demand designer. He looks fashionable all right - a white T-shirt and relaxed cotton-drill suit with military details is, after all, very a la mode. It's his face and physique that do not fit the stereotype. His jaw is strong and square like Desperate Dan's or Clark Kent's. His hair, clipped at the back and sides, is very GI while, more out of place still, are conspicuous muscles which bulge through his clothes.

Interesting. Male designers don't usually "do" six packs.

Not surprisingly, super-fit looking Bartlett's forte is in re-working classic American sportswear. He does this by playing up the sexiness of relatively simple, ultimately wearable pieces and giving them a resolutely modern spin. A fine white cotton shirt - a staple of most people's wardrobes - becomes an object of desire in the hands of John Bartlett. In fact, give him any bolt of fabric and, chances are, he will turn it in to something irresistible. Trousers don't cling, they slink down the leg. Knitwear never hangs, it hugs. Dresses don't strain, they skim. And the same easy fluidity goes for the menswear.

Bartlett's aesthetic is thoroughly New York. There's nothing intimidating or abstract or thought-provoking about these clothes. Likewise, there's no conceit or pretentiousness about the man, which is probably why Italian giant Byblos chose him to be creative director of its men's and womenswear lines and all its licensed products: eyewear, shoes, ties, fragrances, beachwear and leather goods.

The other reason for his appointment was that he had already proved his bankability to the Genny Holding Spa, which owns Byblos, since Genny has produced and distributed Bartlett's men's and women's collections around the world for the past three years.

"We've made Byblos sleek, sexy and very commercial," he says, with the confidence of a designer whose style chimes perfectly with the Milanese sensibility. When he talks about Italian fashion, it is with admiration. "The craftsmanship and quality is second to none and the availability of fabrics, anything from traditional to high tech, it's all there," he says.

When he's in Italy, Bartlett divides his time between the factories in Ancona, where "everyone works in a weird, surreal world, like Groundhog Day", and the design studios in Milan, "where life revolves around fittings, fabrics and, luckily, great food". Manhattan is where he soaks up inspiration, at the library in the Metropolitan Costume Institute, or near his offices on the southern tip of the meat-packing district by the East Village where he goes people watching, "girls in kimonos, hot pants and Seventies platforms".

Bartlett looks like an all-American college-boy pin-up - he probably was one. He graduated from Harvard in 1985 with a degree in Sociology then caught the fashion bug in London when he came over to study economics. After just two weeks, he cashed in his fees. "I was overcome by London, by the music and the clothes," he says. "It was totally inspirational. Of course, I went home looking like a freak."

Home was Cincinnati, Ohio, and presumably it wasn't the place to be sporting a bleached punk barnet. "Cincinnati's like a caricature of suburbia, home was like The Brady Bunch," says Bartlett. He's not joking when he compares his own family to that of the perfect middle-class TV sitcom. Ironically, his father, king of the TV talk show, is the chairman of Multi Media, the brains behind, among others, Phil Donahue. His brother is a psychotherapist in New York ("Thank God! It's nice to have one in the family") and his sister is a "mom with two boys".

Bartlett found his true vocation once he enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York's answer to London's Central Saint Martins (which he applied to without success, presumably because he lacked the mandatory avant-garde portfolio). "I worked my ass off learning to construct traditional tailoring," he says. After graduating from FIT, he landed his first job, designing menswear for the popular Eighties label, Willi Wear. He went on to be design director for German menswear firm, Ronaldus Shamask.

Having cut his teeth in the trade, Bartlett tentatively set up his own label in the late Eighties, peddling his wares from his house in New York. "I made every mistake in the book. Once I bought 200 metres of unusable, stained fabric. I went to factories in Chinatown, so there were always production problems. And the worst thing," he pauses for emphasis, "I insulted every fashion journalist and buyer." How? "Oh, saying the wrong things. I was so naive. I spoke to journalists on the record about how Barneys [New York's answer to Harvey Nichols] didn't pay me. So the store dropped me like a bomb."

Menswear has always been Bartlett's passion. In 1994, he was awarded the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America's Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent, the first year the honour had ever been bestowed on a menswear designer. This accolade was followed by another in 1997, the CFDA's Menswear Designer of the Year. "If I could make a living out of doing just menswear, I would," he says. But surely, given that Manhattan's new kid on the block is the toast of the Big Apple, it's only a matter of time before he scoops the much coveted womenswear awards there too.

Photographer: Moore/Thomas

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