An Interview With John Bartlett
Famed designer and animal rights activist, John Bartlett, discusses the importance of sustainability in the design industry as well as how sustainability led him to start the Tiny Tim Rescue Fund, a charitable organization that provides ongoing resources to animal rescue organizations.
Born and raised in Ohio, John Bartlett is a graduate of Harvard University and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). He served as a designer for Willi Smith and Ronaldus Shamask before launching his eponymous “John Bartlett” collection in 1991. The designer officially launched his newest line “The Tiny Tim Collection” in the Fall of 2011. The collection was lovingly created to help raise funds for the designer’s nonprofit 501(c)3 animal rescue organization, “The Tiny Tim Rescue Fund” which helps support independent rescue groups across the country.
He has long championed the issues of animal rights and welfare. John started The Tiny Tim Rescue Fund, a charitable nonprofit organization to honor the memory of his three-legged pit bull rescue named Tiny Tim, to raise and distribute funds for animal rescue groups who pull innocent animals directly from high-kill shelters thereby saving the lives of countless dogs and cats. The money raised by the Tiny Tim Rescue Fund goes to providing these animals with the proper medical attention, training, affection, human interaction and foster parents they desperately need so that they will one day find a loving, forever home.
Grace Cho (GC): Today I’m here with the acclaimed John Bartlett. We are very honored to have him as our guest today. We’re gonna talk about two topics: one, fashion, which John has won tons and tons of awards for. And then, of course, animal rights and our love of dogs. So, the first question in terms of the fashion design field, why is sustainability important?
John Bartlett (JB): I think sustainability is important and more and more so because fashion manufacturing of clothing is such an enormous, enormous industry and there’s so much waste and for so long the customer could have cared less. There was nothing. There was no real awareness around sustainability. But now many companies, not all, but many companies are really trying to get their head around it because they’re realizing that sustainability also helps to save them money and when there’s a relationship between sustainability and profitability, that’s the magic spot. That’s the sweet spot that many designers many fashion companies are really looking for. In general, though I do believe that the newer younger generations are very concerned about this and if a fashion company or a designer doesn’t at least kind of have this in their tool chest, if they don’t have this in their mind as they’re designing, then they’re going to be left behind.
GC: You have been a force in helping to spread the message around going fur-free. Tell us about how that started for you and what you think is happening in the industry today.
JB: I did a collection; I showed a collection in fall 2010, So that was eight years ago, and I did a lot of leather and right around that time somebody gave me a book called The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone and it was a really great book about being vegan about vegan clothing about vegan food, etc., a vegan diet. So, when I went vegan in my diet, I realized that I needed to get very clear about my own politics and about my own approach to fashion. And so right after I showed the leather, I’m like “oh wait a minute I can’t, this doesn’t make sense to me anymore.” That same season was the season that everybody showed fur. It was something like two-thirds of the designers in New York showed fur for whatever reason fur made a huge comeback and it really struck me and I became very, very militant about it. And it really upset me and especially as I was learning more and more about the suffering that animals on farms experience on factory farms especially. I also just started doing my research about animals in the fashion business. Leather, fur, down, so many different aspects of fashion and garment creation uses animals. So, I got very, very vocal about it and I came out as an animal activist to my fellow designers and many, many of them rolled their eyes. And interestingly, eight years later, many designers, many labels have decided to go fur-free. A lot of this has been because of Gucci. Gucci was one of the first big labels to go fur-free. They did it. They did so a year ago and they had been speaking very closely with the Humane Society of America and both the Humane Society of the United States as well as PETA have really been engaging with design companies’, designers to consider going for free and showing them viable options. So, after Gucci went for free and free prior to Gucci, Armani went for free. Hugo Boss had gone for free but after Gucci then all of these other labels, Burberry, Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo all went for free. And it has just been amazing and then most recently Chanel. So, we’re seeing this awakening and I believe that it is such a good thing for the industry. And there’s a lot of really cool faux furs out there that are environmentally manufactured. They are a lot of people in the fur industry say oh but faux fur is bad for the environment. Well a lot of the faux fur is now are becoming and being created that are more environmentally friendly and just because somebody goes first free doesn’t mean that they’re going to wear faux fur. I think people that go fur-free because it’s an ethical decision. So, we’ve seen this incredible turnaround in the fashion industry from two-thirds of the designers plus showing fur to these major labels going fur-free. It has been such an exciting time in the world of fashion and animal rights.
GC: The impact of visual images has been a big force in this trend. All the videos and the pictures on social media have been very powerful. When you see it visually it is gut-wrenching. I think the visual image impact has been tremendous. With this trend, there’s also an opportunity for entrepreneurs to come up with new innovations. Have you seen that at all?
JB: It is a very exciting time in the development of materials and yes, I agree that the images that people share on Facebook or on Instagram are sometimes very hard to look at. But I do believe that they’re important to see in the same way that when we see videos about the cruelty to farm animals, I think it brings it brings the message home and it forces people to engage. We all just want to turn our backs and they are hard to look at, but I think that when we see the connection with this sentiment being this animal who is on there on the earth for their own reasons, not for ours, then people will be more apt to make other decisions about what they’re wearing what they’re eating. And now there are many interesting companies that are looking to develop alternatives to leather, alternatives to silk, alternatives to fur. There’s a company that’s growing leather that’s also growing meat. So, there’s a lot of interesting things about growing things from the cell level. There are companies that are developing leather-like materials out of mushrooms, out of pineapple. Those are two really interesting materials that are coming through because they’re incredibly sustainable. And then there are some really great faux leathers faux suedes that are created from post-industrial waste, plastic bottles, etc. and some of them look like the real thing. Some of them look like the leather or the suede or the faux fur or the fur but some just have similar properties but they look different and so there really is something for everyone in some of these things are not necessarily that inexpensive yet, but I do believe that as we as we develop more and more—and interestingly the company that is growing the leather they are focusing their efforts to work with the car industry because good because apparently, the car industry uses so much leather, so they’re working with companies to try to substitute leather with this lab-grown leather and it’s just it’s so interesting. It’s very high tech right now and yet it’s very earthy and there’s just so many different ways to approach how to create new and innovative products.
GC: Personally, John, you have made an impact on my life already. I saw one of your posts about wool and the cruelty in industrial farming, and it’s shocking actually, none of it is really that essential.
JB: It’s just tradition. That’s what—growing up in the world, we thought eating meat was healthier for us. More Protein, etc. And the same thing in fashion. The higher end designers we always went to Wool first or cashmere but wool was really the staple when we were developing fall collections. And interestingly I don’t wear wool now and I really—I’m just as warm I just layer up but also because of climate change, It’s just not as cold out but, yes, so from what I’ve seen and again, a lot of people questioned this about wool but from what I’ve seen, again, because the people that are shearing the sheep it’s like a fad. It’s like a conveyor belt. The animals are treated like a product. Many of them are punched in the face. They are hurt. Many of them are killed on the shearing floor and then if they survive that, many of these sheep especially in Australia are then sent live export to other countries where these countries once they arrive, they’ll be slaughtered and killed for food but they withstand and endure this long journey on a boat without food or water. So, it’s just it’s a very cruel industry and there is no reason for it. There are again so many innovative fabrics coming out and there are really a lot of cool designers, a lot of cool fabrics that are being used that are that are finding their way to the marketplace now and they’re not just coming from vegan designers or coming from a lot of mainstream designers. I really love to look at companies that are doing out clothing for outside, like Patagonia, I think is very innovative, and this is where the where I find the most interest in the fashion industry right now, the companies that are being more innovative and that are developing clothing that is meant to be worn outside. That may not be shown on the runway but it’s just as interesting and as design-driven.
GC: Agreed and there’s a lot of innovation to be had. I’d like to switch gears just to ask you for a soundbite. fashion design, it’s both creative, but it’s also very business oriented. If you were to tell an emerging fashion designer today what business skills are most important to survive and to succeed, what would they be?
JB: I think there are a few things; I do believe it’s very important to go to design school and to really learn the craft and then ideally to find a mentor to work under another designer for as long as you can. Many designers, many kids come out of school and immediately and immediately they want to have their own label because they want to have their own fashion show, but it really is critical I believe to work for other people to learn from their mistakes. I also always recommend to design students to work in retail. Really work on the floor and understand really what the customer is looking for. It helps you to understand fit, it helps you to really see what they’re being drawn to. For me when I had my own retail store that’s when I learned the most about my ultimate customer. I also believe that doing internships is very important and also learning about sustainability, really learning how to create a product that doesn’t have a lot of waste because again that will help one’s profitability. And finally, one of the things that I tell anybody and everybody who will listen to me is having a really great handshake. It drives me crazy when somebody—when I shake somebody’s hand and it’s like a limp fish, to me that says everything.
GC: I agree with you 100 percent. Oh my goodness. There’s nothing like that when you’re on the receiving end. The most horrible thing. Quick question about your new podcast. Tell us about Tiny Tim foundation and how that inspired you to get to this point.
JB: Absolutely. I had a dog, a three-legged pit-bull mix who I rescued and he died eight years ago. His name was Tiny Tim, and he was named Tiny Tim because he lost his leg on Christmas Eve and he inspired me. He was my hairy soulmate. When he died, I started volunteering at the city shelter, the Animal Care Centers of New York, and I met many people doing rescue. I realized that I could help them by raising money. So I created a line of T-shirts, clothing, dog clothes, etc. that you can find on my Website, johnbartlettny.com, all the profit goes to these rescue groups that are on the ground helping save dogs and cats from euthanasia. The money goes to vet bills, training, transportation, whatever a rescue group or an independent shelter needs to help the animals to get to their final forever home. So recently I developed a podcast about our relationships with dogs. It’s about people telling their stories about their emotional spiritual connection with their dog’s rescuer otherwise, it is called “dog save the people” and it will be up on iTunes, Spotify I guess, I’m not exactly sure that’s my producers are taking care of that I just show up and interview amazing people.
GC: Wonderful. We look forward to it so much.
JB: Thank you so much.
GC: Final comment to the audience. I’ve been personally very moved by my meeting with you John. You’ve inspired me already and I hope everyone gets the message very quickly through all of that, so we’d love to have you back.