Tailored Testosterone

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Originally published on Advocate.com August 05 2009 12:00 AM ET

If the European men's fashion shows over the summer were any indication, legions of gaunt male models have no intention of putting the weight back on anytime soon.

Appearing as malnourished as their female counterparts, they are unsurprisingly sullen and seem to have few immediate needs, save Parliament Lights and belts for the 30-inch-waist jeans that fail to fit them snugly. Rippling muscle is woefully antithetical to prevailing silhouettes, which makes the brief glimpses of brute masculinity on the runway all the more striking. A brick jaw at Bottega Veneta, a cut torso and meaty calves complementing short shorts and fishing waders at DSquared2 -- these are the vestiges, perhaps, of an aesthetic groomed to perfection in the 1990s by John Bartlett.

You may remember Bartlett as the New York menswear scene's agent provocateur, the party boy who once designed macho half-skirts in black twill, dubbed the first season of his women's line "butch/femme," and sent a buff model down the runway wearing only a surfboard and a smirk.

Now 46, Bartlett is a new man, one not suited for Page Six. He prefers a quiet evening at home in Manhattan's West Village with his partner, John Esty, and their three dogs to, say, a paparazzi scrum at the Met Costume Institute Gala with Kate Moss on his arm. (Marc Jacobs, also 46, is on a reverse trajectory and more than happy to fill that role.) On a recent weekend shift at his Seventh Avenue boutique, Bartlett quietly worked the register himself. Tiny Tim, the three-legged Rottweiler mix who serves as his eponymous brand's icon, dutifully napped nearby.

JOHN BARTLETT FASHIONS 02 XLARGE (COURTESY JB ) | ADVOCATE.COM

"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."

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."