Wednesday, April 28, 2010

JB's Interview with Tim Groen

Ever since he based a Spring/Summer presentation on Joseph Beuys’ near-death experience, I had been dying (no pun intended) to talk to John Bartlett. The menswear designer was also way ahead of the curve when he explored the shrunken suit silhouette, and while his contract with Liz Claiborne just ended, he has wasted no time (soft-)launching a women’s line “without the fuss”. To cut a long story short, there was plenty of creative stuff I would have loved to talk about with John, but here’s why I changed my mind:
Lately I was beginning to notice that John is putting a lot of energy behind a variety of causes, not the least of which is animal suffering. And I love talking about animal rights even more than I like talking about the influence of Joseph Beuys on fashion.
John, who told me that he’s always been interested in Native American rituals and Eastern philosophy, states that as much as fashion is important to him on a creative level, “Fashion alone can be very draining and superficial.” And so he turned his focus on charities, in order to keep himself connected to aspects of the world that have nothing to do with fashion, and where he can make a difference.
Recently John ditched all fitness activities in favor of yoga (Jivamukti, to be precise), and as with many serious yoga practicioners, the issue of vegetarianism and veganism came up. When a designer goes vegan, you can rest assured that it influences how they think about their profession.
It seemed only fair that I gave John a platform, however modest, to talk about some of those super important issues:
TG: So, let’s forget about fashion for a moment.
JB: Ha! thank you.
TG: We both have rescue dogs, so we clearly don’t have to convince each other. But would you mind explaining once again to people who may be considering getting a pet, why rescuing from a shelter is the way to go?
JB: The levels of cruelty and abuse at the puppy mills that supply the stores are obvious to everybody now. So please avoid pet stores at all costs. If you want to a specific breed, try the shelter anyway. So many pure-breds are being rescued from puppy mills, that it’s changing the face of shelter dogs. It used to be all unidentifiable mixed breeds, but that isn’t the case anymore.
The other thing you can do to avoid pet stores, is to check breed-specific rescue sites; there’s a site for every breed.
But I have to add that while for me personally rescue is the only way to go — I’ve only had rescue dogs as an adult — there’s nothing wrong with getting puppies from a responsible, recognized breeder who treats animals humanely.
TG: You actually facilitate pet adoption events in the West Village, right?
JB: Yes, We organize adoption events with the North Shore Animal League, where they park a big mobile unit full of dogs — most of whom had never walked on grass before they were rescued — and cats in front of our store for a day, and I promote it weeks in advance. We usually average about ten adoptions a day, which is really great for an off-site adoption van!
TG: That is fantastic. Now let’s talk a little bit about fur…
JB: Ah, fur! This past season was really, really crazy; fur was everywhere in New York for Fall/Winter 2010! Two thirds of the designers showed fur on the runway. Apparently the furriers are courting designers to push fur. They’re making all their samples, supporting shows, and create demand, so a lot of stores are asking for it. And because it’s making money, a lot of designers feel pressured to offer it — even those who aren’t sure they feel good about it.
I have always worked in leather, and when I was working in Italy, I would see all this fur that was treated as another ‘fabric’, and kind of an amazing one, actually — if you don’t consider where it’s coming from. So in 2000 I did one season where I worked with rabbit fur, and afterwards I felt so disgusted. I had felt pressured to use it. It just wasn’t me, so I stopped it right then.
A lot of my colleagues are pro-fur, and I’m trying to figure out a way that I impact the pro-fur phenomenon. I’m talking to a lot of designers, editors, fashion directors, asking them, “This is what’s going on. Are you aware?” And if they are, well, at least I tried to point it out.
TG: To me it’s a total clear cut issue; I dare anyone to come up with images of a “fur farm” – nice euphemism, by the way– with happy, well-treated animals. Or to convince me that trapping in the wild is a “green” thing to do.
Why do you think it is so hard for people to denounce this entire industry? Is it just money, or is it maybe something more primitive than that?

JB: I really wish that I knew. A lot of the powerful fashion editors ardently promote fur.
One of the designers I spoke to said, “But the animals are humanely gassed.” All I could think was: Humanely gassed? Doesn’t that argument sound a little Hitler to you?
And so what if some farmers are gassing? Most of the fur comes from China, which has a horrible track record when it comes to the treatment of animals. Just look at the videos PETA—which is a very controversial place—is showing on their site about the skinning of live animals for exotic skins, it drives me crazy!
TG: How does your pro-active stance on animal cruelty affect your collection?
JB: It’s actually more and more affected by it, to the point where I decided that I’m not going to work in leather anymore at all. I used it for fall, and I’ll sell the pieces I still have, but that’s it.
There are all these things that are coming up for me, such as vegetarianism and animal cruelty, partly because of yoga. And I’m trying to have real clarity about it in my own life, so I can speak about it without being hypocritical.
It means that I have to figure out synthetic or fabric shoe options for the runway, and that I may not be able to work with companies I’ve worked with in the past. I know it’s going to be challenging. I realize that when I make the change, lots of peeps will try to criticize and dissect what i am doing — but i think every bit helps.
TG: So, does that mean you’ll keep heading in that direction? Next stop: sustainability?
JB: The collection will not be sustainable as much as it will be as cruelty free as I can make it. Being sustainable is definitely the next frontier, but given my own journey, not using animals is more immediate. I think that producing collections that are compassionate and cruelty free, also helps reverse the effects of the meat industry’s devastating toll on the environment—which is bigger than i ever realized.
TG: Finally, what what would you say to young designers?
JB: Young designers should indeed look at the videos that PETA and the Humane Society—which is another amazing organization—show about how these animals are treated, and how they are killed. I think the more you can inform young designers about how these skins are brought to them, and about the alternatives, the better.
At Parsons, for example, they have PETA and fur industry representatives come in to talk to students. I would think that that would be enough to sway anybody’s opinion. So at the end of the day it’s irresponsible if you’re still going to use fur. Irresponsible and vain.
Shortly after our interview John had another successful North Shore Animal League adoption event in front of his store.
John Bartlett
This is John’s site. It shows the collections that are in store, and has a link on it to his blog. It also tells you about other (human-focused) charities that John is involved in, which we didn’t discuss, such as SAGE and The Trevor Project.
PETAAs John says, “a controversial place”. It is, however, also an eye opener, and full of current info on international animal rights.
North Shore Animal League. A favorite of John’s: the largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization in the world.
ASPCA. This is the organization that rescued my dog, Whiskey Groen, from a kill shelter in Tennesee, after which I found him on , a directory of more than 13,000 animal shelters and adoption organizations across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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