NEW YORK — Forget that he has been in business for five years. John Bartlett has the jitters.
“I’m very nervous,” said Bartlett a few days before his Wednesday women’s wear debut. “I feel like I’m throwing myself to the sharks. Men’s wear is such a gentleman’s business.”
The Harvard-educated designer, 34, already has a hip and loyal following for his tight, sexy men’s wear and his theatrical runway shows. But the move into women’s won’t dilute his focus, he said. Rather, “It’s giving me a tremendous injection of creativity.
“With women’s wear, the references come from so many different places. It will inspire me, and I think it will help my men’s wear. And so many of the women I hang around with dress like guys, in a great suit.”
He’s also got an injection of capital, now that he’s backed by Italian sportswear manufacturer Genny Holding SpA. The $300 million company, based in Ancona, also signed Richard Tyler to design its Byblos lines last year and has Rebecca Moses for its signature label.
Bartlett signed with Genny earlier this year and the new deal is expected to hit $20 million in annual wholesale sales in three years. It’s hitting the market at slightly-less-than-designer prices. Jackets will wholesale for about $300 to $350.
“Starting out, I was very price-conscious,” Bartlett said. “We’re using good fabrics, but I want people to be able to wear it.”
He now has access to a manufacturing quality that he said, “with all due respect to the U.S., is a different thing. We give [Genny] these funny little sketches, and they give us back incredible clothes.”
Bartlett had included a few women’s pieces at his men’s show earlier this year, but the Wednesday show was a fully realized collection of knits, dresses, pants, skirts and outerwear.
The designer wanted to play off what he calls “the butch-femme dichotomy,” and styled his show to reflect that. It started out with a group of very masculine, black leather and pinstriped combinations, followed by one of bright, clingy knits that Bartlett calls “very Jessica Rabbit.” The rest of the show mixed up the pieces, pairing a knit dress with a tailored men’s jacket, or a duffel coat with fluid pants.
“I like the opposites, the polarity,” he said. Bartlett’s strength proved to be in his ability to create intriguing variations on haberdashery — as in his sheer gauze shirt worn with narrow pinstriped trousers, the chocolate gabardine chesterfield pantsuit under a leather sheath or the black leather maxishirt. But Bartlett has said he wants to make clothes women can wear to work — and next time, there should be more of those.

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