Men’s wear designer John Bartlett took a look at my suede shoes and told me to change them. It wasn’t the style he objected to -- they weren’t cruelty free.
Bartlett, 49, a Harvard grad and 1990s fashion wunderkind, is a man on a mission.
Having experienced a string of disappointments -- most recently, he closed his West Village retail store in 2011 -- Bartlett emerged as an impassioned advocate for animal welfare.
His Tiny Tim Rescue Fund helps welfare groups save dogs and cats from kill shelters, while his Ambassador Collection raises funds for the Farm Sanctuary, a national animal protection agency.
We met in his West Village office as Bartlett was gearing up to show his Spring/Summer 2013 collection as part of New York Fashion Week.
Sporting a white linen shirt and bandana, green shorts and sneakers, Bartlett sat behind a computer surrounded by Tiny Tim paraphernalia.
Tarmy: Can you tell me about your top clothing line?
Bartlett: I work on three different product levels. John Bartlett Collection is the top tier of what I do: Shirts are $175 to $250, pants $200 to $400.
Tarmy: You design less expensive clothes as well?
Bartlett: I have three different labels through the Bon-Ton Stores out of Milwaukee. For those, the price point is shirts for $24, sweaters for $29 dollars. It’s an incredible mass-market opportunity.
Tarmy: There’s also active wear?
Bartlett: It’s called the Tiny Tim collection, which sells online. And 10% of what I make from the line goes to my foundation, The Tiny Tim Rescue Fund.
Tarmy: How much money have you raised for the fund?
Bartlett: A small percentage of the sales from my John Bartlett Pet line at Bon-Ton also goes to the fund.
The first check I received from Bon-Ton was $22,000. And through my own brand I’ve raised another $10,000, so I’ve been able to give away some fabulous money.
Tarmy: Why do you think there’s such a disconnect in the fashion world between animal welfare and clothing?
Bartlett: The fashion industry does a lot of incredible things as a group, such as breast cancer and AIDS awareness.
To me, fur is the foie gras of fashion: a delicacy many chefs are fighting to maintain, even though it’s a very cruel process. Same with fur.
Tarmy: Should it be banned?
Bartlett: I don’t think that it would ever happen. Interestingly, the city of West Hollywood has banned fur from being sold in stores. And Israel, I think, is on the verge.
At the same time you have Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga dripping in fur. There are a lot of mixed messages.
I go crazy when I see people talking about how much they love their dog but they still wear fur -- much of the fur that’s coming from China is from cats and dogs.
Tarmy: Who would wear a coat made from dog fur?
Bartlett: Canada imports a lot of it. Some wear it knowingly, some unknowingly.
Tarmy: The clothes in your high fashion collection are cruelty free. What does that entail?
Bartlett: Cruelty free means that no animals are used in the product. Everything I work with is either plant based or synthetic.
For example, for the Fall collection, I created some really cool jackets from ultrasuede, which is a recycled micro fiber.
Tarmy: Can you make money selling cruelty-free clothing?
Bartlett: My online store was profitable in a year, which is unheard of. And this summer we launched the Ambassador Collection, a collaboration with Farm Sanctuary.
We did shirts with pigs, cows, and chickens on them, and on the sleeve was written how many of those animals are slaughtered each year. And it has blown up. In the past two months I’ve sold more tee shirts than I’ve ever sold in my life.
Tarmy: Maybe the ad campaign with hot models holding barnyard animals has something to do with it?
Bartlett: Part of my visual marketing is that I still want to show sexiness. When you think of “cruelty free” or “vegan” it all gets kind of earnest and crunchy.
But to me, it can be very, very sexy. Some of the shots we did for our website went viral in a crazy way.
Tarmy: Who can resist a gorgeous model holding a piglet?
Bartlett: I agree! It’s very romantic.
For more information: Tiny Tim Rescue Fund: http://www.johnbartlettny.com/tiny-tim-rescue-fund. Farm Sanctuary: http://www.farmsanctuary.org.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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