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Fashion designer John Bartlett honored by the HSUS for his fur-free advocacy.Fashion designer John Bartlett honored by the HSUS for his fur-free advocacy.

Exclusive Interview with Fur-Free Fashion Designer John Bartlett

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Award-winning menswear designer John Bartlett is no stranger to the fashion scene…or animal advocacy. If any CFDA-lauded clothing pro has proven that our furry, fuzzy, feathered friends and attractive, tailored attire can co-exist, it is he.

Revered among his peers and respected by myriad nonprofits, Bartlett has recently been bestowed with yet another recognition, this time from the Humane Society of the United States. For his commitment to fur-free fashion and his tireless efforts on behalf of cats and dogs, Bartlett can add earning the Henry Spira Humane Corporate Progress Award — which “recognizes businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs committed to advancing progress on animal issues” — to his long list of accomplishments.

The first fashion figure to receive the esteemed award since its inception in 2013, Bartlett leads by example, practicing what he preaches. Walking the walk and talking the talk, this apparel pioneer is outspoken not only about the atrocities inherent in the fur trade, but also those surrounding pet stores and puppy mills, as well as the meat, dairy and egg industries. Yes, you read that right; for those who don’t know, Bartlett is a bonafide vegan. Swoon.

Beyond his soft spot for other species, Bartlett marches (both literally and figuratively) for women and men of the LGBT community, of which he, too, is a proud member.

Given HSUS’s announcement late last month of this year’s national animal welfare awardees, we figured there was no better time than now to sit down for a quick catch-up with this New York City-based sweetheart.

How long have you been advocating against fur and, as I understand it, leather, wool, down, silk and so on? What got you started?
Four years ago I showed a collection during fashion week and used leather and wool as part of the collection. That same season, almost two-thirds of the New York designers used fur, which shocked me into awareness. I decided to get clear about my own life and went vegan. I then stopped using wool and leather — and any animals — in my collection.

When do you think the fashion community and the global community at large will be more amenable to acknowledging that the atrocities accompanying fur are common in other animal-derived textiles as well?
Sadly, my industry is in denial about the atrocity of fur, let alone down, wool, leather, you name it. Luxury and beauty trump everything and, if you are designing a higher end collection, it is assumed you will use fur. I believe the awareness is growing slowly but, to me, the fashion industry is light-years behind many other industries — such as the film industry, where more and more we see animals being replaced by CGI — with regard to their use of animals.

Have you met success in your openly anti-fur position?
I know a couple designers who decided to stop using fur after I came out against it, which was wonderful. I do believe that many of the designers who use fur are conflicted about it, but afraid to take a stand that might hurt their retail or editorial relationships.

You and I discussed fur’s stronghold in September 2012. Where does fur stand now? Have things improved or gotten worse? How do you assess it?
I watch the fall collections across the globe very carefully to assess where fur is being used. Happily, some designers are moving away from it and realizing it is not part of their design DNA. However, others are using it even more heavily and piling on the fur, which makes me sad. Again, I believe that people are starting to make the connection — to the inherent suffering that is embedded in the fur trade — but we have a long, long way to go. Many designers who used to be “fur-free” are using fur again because of editorial and retail demand.

Such a bummer, to put it mildly. In February 2012, you unveiled a completely animal-free collection. What were some of the primary materials you used to convey your vision as a designer? How was this show received by the fashion community?
For that collection, I used recycled polyester, organic cottons and recycled wool. It was very well received. My belief is that if you are going to be a “vegan” designer, you need to offer more than the fact that it is animal free. It has to stand on its own design authenticity and vision.

Absolutely! Are there other compassionate brands you admire?
I applaud the gorgeous accessories of Stella McCartney, which are made by the Gucci factories. I also love the handbags of Freedom of Animals and the shoes of Nicora Johns.

We share similar tastes! So, where does the Garment Center stand? Are more fashion jobs returning to the US or, better yet, taking root here?
There are great strides being made to bring fashion production back to the states and many designers have moved their production stateside. The quality is here, as well as the ease of running up the street to check on a sample versus getting on a plane to fly across the globe. There is a lot of support for “made in America,” even on the higher designer levels.

Speaking of, what’s going on with John Bartlett Collection? When can we expect to see your beautiful designs at NYFW again?
I stopped doing fashion shows for the time being, but you never know!

You recently purchased a house outside the city; in what ways does this home away from home uphold your beliefs?
My husband John Esty and I bought and refurbished an old barn in Connecticut. We are careful to only use plant-based fabrics and/or high-grade synthetic fabrics to decorate. Our herb garden is overflowing and we are hoping someday to create a sanctuary on the property for homeless senior dogs.

Aww. You do adore dogs! You also mention your husband; do you draw any parallels between the animal rights movement and the gay rights movement?
I [participated] this year in the LGBT Pride March in New York City with animal advocacy group Mercy For Animals. Their message is “no one is free when others are oppressed.” This is a strong statement and I believe it resonates with many people [who are] gay, straight, bi or trans.

Makes absolute sense to me. To repeat a question you’ve been asked many times before, but to let readers know exactly what’s up, who was Tiny Tim and what does The Tiny Tim Rescue Fund do?
Tiny Tim was my beloved three-legged Rottweiler/lab/pit rescue. When he died, three years ago, I started a foundation called The Tiny Tim Rescue Fund, which raises money for independent rescue groups who are pulling dogs and cats from high-kill shelters. It also helps to support shelters that are no-kill and helps pay for vet bills, which can be daunting. Ten percent of everything sold from my online store goes to the fund. It is exciting to meet people who are doing the selfless work of rescue. I am thrilled to be able to contribute to their efforts in any way possible.

What’s your top tip for someone considering acquiring a companion animal?
When you are considering a pet, the number one rule is: Do not buy from a pet store. The second rule is: Remember this is a lifetime commitment. I have witnessed countless people surrendering their pets to shelters because they are ill, old or simply difficult. [Companion animals are] a big commitment and not a fashion accessory.

Amen to that. What are some of the most common misconceptions surrounding your chosen lifestyle and how do you dispel them?
The big one of course is “Where do you get your protein?” I explain how I get my protein from beans, kale, tofu and nuts, and how my cholesterol has dropped to almost nothing and I haven’t had a cold since becoming vegan. People think being vegan is difficult. It can certainly be challenging at times, especially on the road, but more challenging to me is envisioning the countless sentient beings enslaved and killed for my appetite. 

What’s your top tip for someone considering a plant-based diet?
As Kathy Freston says, lean into it. And read up on the issues so you can speak intelligently when people question your decision.

Any books or films you can recommend?
Gosh there are so many! I loved “The Kind Diet” by Alicia Silverstone. I was aware of what was happening on factory farms for some time, but lived in denial about it. Once I read [her book], I could no longer ignore what my heart told me to do. I also loved my yoga guru Sharon Gannon’s book, “Yoga & Vegetarianism,” which approaches the issue from a more spiritual perspective. Right now I am reading “Animal Rights: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Paul Waldau, which is fascinating. Films? “Blackfish,” “The Cove” and “Earthlings,” among others. I am excited to see “Cowspiracy” [Ecorazzi’s interview with protagonist coming soon!] and “The Ghosts In Our Machine.”

Which orgs — besides HSUS, of course — do you support?
I support Mercy For Animals, Farm Sanctuary, PETA, Born Free and Compassion Over Killing. I also support many dog and cat rescues and advocacy groups.

Lastly, what’s next?
I am starting to work on a book project, but more on that later. In the meantime, I will continue to speak up for those who have no voice.

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