August 04 2009 11:00 PM ET
Following design stints for Bill Robinson and Tommy Hilfiger, the Cincinnati-born, Harvard-educated Bartlett launched his own line in 1992 and electrified the industry with unabashed Adonis worship -- Tom of Finland was an early and enduring influence. "Instead of crafting clothes that keep a gentleman's carnal fantasies and ruminations hidden, or that function as tools in his climb toward the corporate mountaintop, Bartlett creates clothes that evoke what it can mean to be masculine," Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan wrote of the designer in a 1998 profile.
But in 2002, Bartlett committed fashion high treason. He was just turning 40, business was tough, and so he decided to take a year off. Bartlett traveled to Southeast Asia, where he studied Buddhism and Ashtanga yoga and contemplated his next move. "A lot of my friends were taking sabbaticals. In this business it's a mortal sin," he says.
In the end he discovered he still had tailored ambitions. Rebuilding a business once you've extricated yourself from the retail show floor isn't easy, but time away from the industry gave Bartlett a perspective on his art and what it means to evolve an aesthetic as one ages. He's resurfaced in recent seasons, paying homage in his shows to bearded mountain men, Depression-era blue-collar workers, Ivy League frat boys on road trips -- basically any scenario with homoerotic potential. Bartlett's latest inspiration stems from the fireside nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in Love , Larry Kramer and director Ken Russell's 1970 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence classic. "The clothes reflect his more mature self," says Jean Scheidnes, men's designer sportswear editor for Women's Wear Daily . "They're very tailored and masculine, and they've become body-conscious again. His last show was all about a shapely posterior."
Shock value, however, is no longer a priority. "In my 30s, I was inspired and interested in a more extreme gay sensibility, and my work and references, I believe, reflected that," Bartlett says. "Now, in my 40s, my priorities are quite different. I am drawn to home life, charity work, and creating a sense of family. In that light I feel that my work now reflects this. It's not a cop-out but more of a reality check."