NEW YORK — John Bartlett is downshifting.
The designer, once famous for having sent naked men down the runways, has canceled plans for a spring runway show, and the better collection he was planning with Haggar Clothing Co. has been halted.
There will be a spring John Bartlett collection, including all the requisite licensed product, but it will consist of just 20 looks.
Amid these changes, Bartlett is forging ahead with his first store, in the West Village.
The designer has mellowed considerably since those salad days of racy runway spectacles. His maturity seemed sealed by the deal with Haggar, which markets to middle-aged suburbanites. The better-priced Haggar brand would have debuted for holiday ’08 and entailed a retail concept, but that plan is “on hold” as the company refocuses on its core brand.
As for the John Bartlett collection, there is yet another surprising aspect to the scaled-down spring line. Sportswear samples are being made in Delhi, India, “off the grid,” using no electricity. Sample makers are sewing on foot-pedaled machines and knitting by hand, as Bartlett is exploring the larger possibility of making clothes in a more eco-friendly way, he said.
“I’m very drawn to the idea of alternative manufacturing,” he said. (Licensed products are still made in Canada and the U.S.)
The smaller scale of the collection freed him to concentrate on launching his store, something he’d thought about seriously since brainstorming with Haggar about their now-dormant collaboration.
The first John Bartlett store is now under construction at 143 Seventh Avenue South, at Charles Street. It will carry the entire John Bartlett collection, including licensed product, plus custom shirts and suits.
“I hate the word ‘flagship’ because it’s a tiny space [500 square feet], but I want it to be a template for building more stores. A couple more in New York, and then I’ll start looking for partners to do it internationally,” he said.
Like many designers with a purely wholesale business and little to no advertising, Bartlett is challenged to forge a strong brand identity. In the ’90s he cultivated a sexually charged image, was a darling of the CFDA and landed for a time at the creative helm of the Italian house Byblos. Then he stunned everyone by closing his 10-year-old business in 2002 and decamping to Thailand and Cambodia to practice Buddhism and yoga. He returned to the fashion scene in 2003 with a less provocative stance and a renewed interest in the basis of his FIT training—tailored clothing—and immediately pursued licensing deals to that end. The bridge-priced JB John Bartlett collection is licensed to George Weintraub; the better-priced John Bartlett line is sublicensed to Jack Victor. Neckwear for both labels is licensed to MMG.
In 2005 Bartlett was named creative director of Ghurka, the luggage and leather goods company, for which he now consults.
All these twists add up to a lot of confusion in the marketplace about what exactly Bartlett does and what the John Bartlett label stands for. He has arrived at a “rugged preppie” aesthetic, which suits both his Ohio breeding and his Harvard education. But the picture remains cloudy in part because his sportswear is not really showcased anywhere in New York.
A fully branded store could help clarify everything, at least here.
“So the idea is to plant myself in the West Village, which is my inspiration for so much of what I’m about, and establish my voice and say, ‘This is who I am, and where I am, and where you can find me,” Bartlett said, and he means that literally. “A big part of my agenda is to spend a lot of time in the store and really meet the customer.”
His friend and fellow designer Cynthia Rowley tipped him off to the real estate, in the former location of a decades-old vintage store called O Mistress Mine. It is not in the middle of the fashion action on Bleecker Street, but close enough. And it was in need of a total overhaul, but priced right, he said.
Bartlett, who lives in the neighborhood, hopes to rein in his daily routine to within walking distance, as part of a personal effort to make his sphere smaller and more manageable, he said.
Now 44 years old, he is in a committed relationship, and the couple dote on their three dogs. Bartlett’s favorite, a three-legged, large-breed mongrel, has become the brand mascot and his dark fur was the inspiration for the palette of the store, which is a hybrid of rural style and Old New York. The shop will have exposed wooden rafters, fieldstone walls, Dutch doors, a library ladder and a lighting fixture from an old farm. Salesmen will wear canvas aprons. The old-time look is partly modeled on the general store Bartlett’s grandfather ran in Marion, Ohio.
“My fantasy is to find a sales guy with a handlebar mustache,” he said.
The store will carry one-offs like jewelry, books and art curated by Bartlett, who is also collaborating on a line of candles with manly scents like “fireplace.”
Renovation is on track for a soft opening in the first week of September. Bartlett then intends to present the spring collection and host an editors’ breakfast during Fashion Week, he said.
Meanwhile, an informational Web site, JohnBartlettNY.com, will launch in August.