A Matter of Style

Harvard has infiltrated such unlikely enclaves as Hollywood and the National Football League; now it is making inroads on Seventh Avenue, Manhattan's fashion district, thanks to designer John Bartlett '85.

Bartlett on the runway
John Bartlett takes center stage during last fall's showing of his spring-summer 2001 women's-wear line.

Photograph by Dan Leca

Bartlett enrolled at Harvard to study economics, but shifted to sociology. His studies provided the basis for much of his fashion philosopy. "I'm obsessed with gender and what it means, what the roles are and how they're changing," he says. "And clothing reflects these changes in society. So for women's wear I try to juxtapose masculine and feminine, hard and soft. I like it, for example, when women wear a pair of hard leather pants and a soft chiffon top."

In a final attempt at convention, Bartlett went to England to pursue post-graduate studies. After two weeks, he decided to "drop out, cash in my tuition, and stay another six months, not telling my parents that I was spending all of my money at King's Road [London's fashion area]. That was when I decided I wanted to go into fashion."

He came home and started night classes at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology, meanwhile apprenticing himself to various designers and stylists. In 1992, Bartlett founded his own line; soon after he was honored with the Perry Ellis Award, which recognizes new talent, from the Council of Fashion Designers. Three years ago, he began to design women's wear. He draws his vision from a wide range of sources. "I find early on I sort of have a rough idea of what I'm into," he says. "For [fall 2001] I was very much into military, olive green, camouflage. The first thing I do is create a collage, gathering a lot of images. I find a lot of inspiration in art history. My last show was very much inspired by Joseph Beuys, whose own work was concerned with the experience of [World War II.] For spring 2002, I'm doing something prison-inspired with Jean Genet, focusing on prison 'chic,' mixing thug-dressing with dandy."

Bartlett's aesthetic sensibility carries beyond his clothes to the whole production of the fashion show itself. At Harvard, his roommate was an assistant at the American Repertory Theater; that "was my introduction to staging," Bartlett says. "In my shows, we try to create some theater. I want people to leave with some kind of emotion that goes beyond the length of the skirt or how high the heel was. I like for it to be more of a journey." The Beuys-themed collection was displayed in a dark, make-shift army barracks in Bartlett's showroom; models lay on gurneys, their clothes illuminated by intermittent flashes of light.

Taking such creative risks has brought Bartlett his share of severe reviews. "This particular business is so built on hype and smoke and mirrors," he says. "A lot of time it's not about what the product is, but how much press you can get." His dog, Sweetie, a roadside find, helps him keep his sense of humor: she has had her own column in Elle magazine and has a book coming out soon--Sweetie, From the Gutter to the Runway: Style Tips from a Hairy Fashionista.

Further creative expansion is part of Bartlett's ultimate design. "I'm getting ready to launch a lower-priced line of men's wear called Uniform," he says. "I'm doing costumes for a play that's opening up. I want to keep working with theater, maybe do something for film. From there, the idea is to open a flagship store, accessories, home design, underwear, fragrance. Really the whole gamut. I'm just waiting for the right partners to crop up. I think after working on my own thing for so long, I have a point of view."

~Kirstin Butler

Read more articles by: Kirstin Butler

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