Menswear Legend John Bartlett Returns to the Tents With a Vegan Vision

CFDA award-winning menswear designer John Bartlett launched his eponymous label in 1992, and, over the course of the past two decades, he and his iconic brand have enjoyed ups and weathered downs. But, on Tuesday, during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, the newly vegan visionary was all smiles as he revealed his forthcoming cruelty-free collection at Lincoln Center.

“It feels good,” he said of being back on the prestigious premises. “To be able to show at Lincoln Center is an amazing feeling.”

Bartlett has presented at several offsite locations, but it’s been a bit since he’s officially occupied the “tents,” so-to-speak, the last time being a number of years ago at Bryant Park. This season saw him rock the runway at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Guests took their seats, three rows on either side of the elevated stage, then squeezed in where they could, occupying any remaining space. It was a standing-room-only affair, to be sure. Sports-star-studded, too, as Ramses Barden of the Giants and J.R. Smith of the Knicks sat aisle-side, excited to take in Bartlett’s latest. “I wanted to show my support,” Barden, who’s been a longtime admirer, relayed. Tugging at his top, he humbly boasted, “I’ve even got a John Bartlett shirt on!”

Just after noon, handsome men started strutting their stuff in Bartlett’s entirely linen line. The fabric choice, he explained, is rooted not only in comfort, compassion, and aesthetic, but also eco considerations. “Linen is one of the most sustainable fabrics, besides hemp,” he said. “Even over cotton.” (Not to mention, it’s super breathable—perfect for warmer weather.)

Drawing inspiration from his own travelogue, Bartlett described the styles thus: “The flavor is a mixture of Mykonos meets Mumbai. There’s a real beach feeling to it. Also, exoticism, which is inspired by India.” Indeed, one model sported a djellaba. Another, a tunic. Others wore expertly tailored suits, distinct in their clean and crisp lines, while still more donned shirts or tanks and shorts with sunnies. Ensembles are dapper but relaxed, light and airy in look, feel, and color palette. Hues range from watermelon to aloe, kale to coffee, edamame to wild blueberry, and beyond. (Yes, even the shade names are based in nature.)

Most pieces bear stripes of some kind, whether pinstripes or ticking stripes, lending a certain sharpness, and others are solid, gingham, or om patterned. Of his interest in the latter print, Bartlett told me, “It’s one of my favorite symbols, so I did a whole group of om items.” Despite om’s deeper meaning, these separates were sportier (verging on surf), fun for summer soirées or casual-meets-chic Fridays. My favorites from the 21 looks? The navy pinstripe suit, the bronze and jade gingham shirt, and the bronze and jade gingham tie.

Following the finale, I was eager to hear Barden’s and Smith’s reactions to the effort. “It was great,” Smith beamed. “A lot of nice pieces. I really liked the shorts. It’s hard to find long shorts for guys my size. I love the suits, too. It’s funny because I don’t wear a lot of suits, but I love his.” As for Barden, he was similarly smitten. “Oh man,” he started, shaking his head, a sly grin spreading across his face. “I was really impressed with the suits, the loungewear. Saw a lot of things I liked.” He half-frowned. “It kind of reiterates the thing I hate about fashion [week]: they show you all the clothes that aren’t ready yet!”

Something the wide receiver proved moved by, which he wasn’t hitherto aware of, is the fact that this unveiling marks Bartlett’s second public success since declaring his company creature-free. “That’s impressive,” Barden nodded. “It gives me comfort to know I’m not harming the world when I’m getting dressed.” Smith concurred, “I didn’t know that. That’s awesome.”

At Milk Studios in February, fans fawned over Bartlett’s animal-friendly debut for FW12, featuring, among numerous nuanced concepts, recycled microfiber ultrasuede motorcycle jackets. Roughly a year earlier, in winter 2011, he’d paved the way for this breakout moment, openly announcing his allegiance to veganism—in diet, in lifestyle, and in business.

“Spring is quite easy,” he admitted of the rare but laudable endeavor. “Fall gets a little more challenging. But that’s my commitment to myself and to the collection: to avoid using animal products. Wool, silk, whatever it is.” He elaborated, “Everything I’ve learned—about how we use animals for clothing, entertainment, food—I would like not to do.” Bartlett is living his values, being the change he wishes to see in the world, more explicitly the fashion world—a difficult scene within which to reject the status quo, a tough bunch to go up against.

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, founder of Vaute Couture, a plant-based coat company, and a Bartlett devotee, recognizes his dilemma; “If someone is in the ‘cool kid’ crowd, like he is, and [they] stand up for those who don’t have a voice, that’s hard,” she empathized. “When someone has a reputation to uphold, and they speak out in a way that the industry can still respect, that [is] very impressive.”

Bartlett views his dedication as a personal pledge, something he’s proud about adhering to, even amid peers who dismiss his position. “It’s important I stand by what I’m about,” he said. “My work is a way for me to express myself and also to inform.” Though surrounded by naysayers, he’s hopeful: “Being in the fashion industry, [avoiding animal-derived materials is] never a big consideration. I think it’s going to change. It’s changing.”

One would expect many a fashionista, particularly one raised in the age of Anna Wintour, to turn her Vogue-focused nose up this sort of sensitivity, which is discouraging, but Bartlett knows better. “Sometimes when you say it’s vegan, people automatically feel it’s ‘crunchy’ or ‘granola.’ I want it to be about the clothes’ style and relevance.” Which, for him, it is. He expects to overhaul the formerly narrow-minded fashionista’s conventional opinion, to win over her rigid and archaic heart. And why not? Just peep the very wearable proof. Or, ask anyone. Take fellow activist, blogger and fashion snob (in the best sense) Joshua Katcher.

“People need to see that you can have an amazing show—a well-attended show—and a line people are excited about without using products that are traditionally considered the exclusively luxury products,” Katcher told me. “You can have suits without wool and shoes without leather. People have come to believe leather, wool, and fur—those three things especially—are the only way [to] have a luxury line. John has proven, and is continuing to prove, that you can operate at this level, show at Lincoln Center, have a major brand, and care about animals and not want to destroy their lives in order to have a nice looking garment.”

Katcher is equally passionate about the actual attire. “I thought the show was brilliant. I especially liked the watermelon and kale striped suit. It was wonderful.” At once celebrating and lamenting the offerings, he continued, “This is totally what I have been looking for in a men’s line. I can never find a men’s line that meets my ethical criteria, so it’s nice—probably dangerous—because now I have [too] many things to spend money on!”

As for Bartlett’s outspoken attitude towards animal welfare, his very vocal convictions won’t be wavering anytime soon. “People respect it,” he reasoned. “I think a lot of people are learning through what I’m doing. They may not have thought about it before.” Pertaining to his active Facebook page, for example, he shared, “I get people all the time [saying], ‘Oh, I just watched a video that you posted. I’ll never wear fur again!’ Or, ‘I’ll never eat pork again.’ Whatever it is, I think through the magic of social media [engagement], there’s a wonderful opportunity to communicate.”

Activism, it would appear, can crop up via myriad mediums, and Bartlett has positioned himself squarely at the forefront, demonstrating it can be done with grace, gumption and, above all, standards—of both the ethical and design variety.

Bartlett & Carlton, Margiela & Stipe

Designer collaborations have been sprouting up left and right at an inconceivably rapid rate. But there are two newbies on board the bandwagon that definitely warrant a moment of pause and consideration. First up is the powerhouse duo of John Bartlett and Alex Carlton. Each is a revered men’s wear designer in his own right — the former is best known for his namesake line and for a time heading up Liz Claiborne, while the latter co-founded Rogues Gallery and is the new creative director of L.L. Bean. The collaboration, which according to Women’s Wear Daily will be “called Rogues Gallery/John Bartlett (RG/JB), which will launch in December at the John Bartlett store in Greenwich Village,” will include “Rogues Gallery’s signature vintage Ts, a distressed pique polo shirt, an overdyed black union suit and New England-inspired accessories.” Also to be expected: handcrafted leather goods from a gym bag to a leather log and “assortment of bankers’ envelopes.”

Meanwhile, REM frontman Michael Stipe is getting into the design game thanks to a collaboration with Maison Martin Margiela. For the latter, Stipe has designed a limited edition mini-cassette tape accessory that can be worn a number of ways (ahem, convertible clothing). “Continuing where Stipes’ first sculptures (his cast bronze Polaroids, exhibited in New York at Rogan) left off, the piece is part accessory, part object d’art, and comes equipped with an unraveled tape that serves as a chain,” says Hint. Whether it’s a “a necklace? Bracelet? Knuckle duster? Eyepatch?” is up to the wearer that’s lucky enough to land one of the 199 pieces available soon at Margiela boutiques and select stores.