August 05 2009 12:00 AM ET
"There are certainly designers who continue to provoke -- that's especially the role of young designers who are more concerned with expression and haven't had to think about building a business," Bartlett says. "What I find inspiring now is the process of developing product that I'm inspired by, versus 'I've got to do hot pants this season because it's going to thrill somebody on the runway.'È‚f;"
Bartlett is no complacent nester, however -- and not just because he's still clearly hitting the gym. Last year Project Runway headmaster and Liz Claiborne chief creative officer Tim Gunn tapped him to inject some testosterone into the apparel company with Claiborne by John Bartlett, an everyman-meets-Sartorialist line that debuted this spring and retails for a fraction of his designer duds' cost. A growing number of designers, including Matthew Williamson and Jil Sander, have discovered that relevance -- and ultimate survival -- may depend on alliances with apparel juggernauts and fast fashion players like H&M and Uniqlo. "When I first joined Liz Claiborne, I was struck by the stodginess of the Claiborne menswear line and declared that John could be our savior," Gunn says.
Bartlett's designer label retains its exclusivity: The fabrics are Italian, stateside production in Brooklyn doesn't come cheap, and you can buy his tweed jackets and waistcoats in only a handful of shops. The Claiborne line, however, speaks to guys who may live west of the Hudson River and hundreds of miles from the nearest Neiman Marcus.
"This is something I've always wanted to do," Bartlett says of the collection, which will show its third season at New York Fashion Week this month. "There's a rarefied air to designer menswear. It's such a small market, and after a while, producing only three or four [items] of a piece becomes dissatisfying. You can design amazing product these days that doesn't have to cost $500 to feel relevant."