John Bartlett On Animal Cruelty

Ever since designer John Bartlett based a collection on Joseph Beuys’ near-death experience, I have been dying (pun intended) to talk to him. But recently I noticed a new urgency in John, who had begun putting a lot of energy into a variety of causes, primarily ending animal suffering. John, who’s always been interested in Native American rituals and Eastern philosophies, has also embraced a form of yoga called Jivamukti. And as with any serious yoga practitioner, the issue of veganism came up, which has profoundly changed his outlook on life and fashion…

Let’s forget about fashion for a moment.
Ha! Thank you.

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?
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 a specific breed, try the shelter anyway. So many purebreds 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 rescue is the only way to go for me, 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.

You actually facilitate pet adoption events in the West Village, right?
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!

That is fantastic. Now let’s talk a little bit about fur…
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 fur samples for them, supporting their shows and thus creating 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 can impact the pro-fur phenomenon. I’m talking to a lot of designers, editors, fashion directors and asking them, “This is what’s going on. Are you aware?” And if they are, well, at least I tried to point it out.

To me it’s a 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 practice?
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 is showing on their site about the skinning of live animals for exotic skins. It drives me crazy!

How does your proactive stance on animal cruelty affect your collection?
It’s actually more and more affected by it, to the point where I decided that I’m not going to work in leather at all anymore. 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 people will try to criticize and dissect what I am doing, but I think every bit helps.

So, next stop, sustainability?
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.

Finally, what what would you say to young designers?
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.

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