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A Designer Escapes to Amsterdam

With its cute streets and loose morals, Amsterdam has long been considered the San Francisco of Europe. But in recent years, the city has also been recognized as a new home of hipster style. A big fan of both versions, American fashion designer John Bartlett tries to stop by on his way to or from Italy (which he visited 14 times last year, working on his own collections and the ones he designs for Byblos). "Amsterdam is that perfect place in the middle," he says, "where I can decompress from the stress of Italy before returning to the stress of New York. It unfolds in such a natural way. All you have to do is relax into it."

IT'S A LOVE AFFAIR THAT BEGAN, AS SO MANY DO, with money: "I was at the airport, changing some currency," says designer John Bartlett of his first trip to Amsterdam two years ago. "I was amazed that even something as simple as money could be so beautiful and expressive. I realized that this city has such a particular voice, one that's eccentric, singular, and strong."

That's as good a description as any of the career Bartlett has carved out for himself. Born and raised in Cincinnati, he majored in sociology at Harvard, then studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. After designing men's wear at WilliWear and Ronaldus Shamask, he headed out on his own in 1992.

Bartlett quickly proved himself to be one of America's most dynamic designers. He picked up a pair of awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America—the Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent, in 1994, and the Menswear Designer of the Year for 1997—and launched a women's collection in 1997. Last year, he was also named creative director for Byblos. Favored by such actresses as Jennifer Lopez, Julianne Moore, Ashley Judd, and Halle Berry, Bartlett's clothes are unapologetically sexy. His inspirations have ranged from Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz to underground seventies illustrator Tom of Finland. "I find people really attractive when they have a lot of character," he says.

As serious as Bartlett is about his work, he also—and this is a greater rarity in fashion than a degree from Harvard—refuses to take himself too seriously. For today's tour he's wearing a luxurious cashmere sweater by Lucien Pellat-Finet, its back boldly emblazoned with a huge pot leaf.

Bartlett is convinced that Amsterdam's freewheeling vibe—the coffee shops, the working girls—only makes the city more appealing. "Without going into details, I happen to think it's very sexy," he says, smiling. "There's a sense of danger, a sense of not knowing what could happen. People experience things they may not be able to in their own hometown."

Around the time Bartlett discovered the city, Amsterdam was turning itself into "the new Antwerp" (meaning it had become a center of avant-garde excitement). Leading the fashion wave are photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, the magazine Dutch, cutting-edge couturiers Viktor & Rolf, and a good part of the creative team behind sportswear giant Diesel.

In what seems to be confirmation of its new fashion-forward status, Amsterdam now has its first aggressively stylish hotel. Anoushka Hempel, creator of Blakes and the Hempel, just opened Blakes Amsterdam. "I can't wait to stay there," Bartlett exclaims. "I'm a big fan of both of her London places." Occupying a series of early-17th-century town houses, the hotel is marked only by a pair of black-clad doormen. An entrance courtyard—unusual for a canal house—leads to the front doors. Public rooms, including a dramatic elevated gallery with brick floors and black lacquered ceiling beams, sit around an oversize central courtyard.

The hotel is certainly well situated for the designer: it's in Jordaan, his favorite neighborhood. "I tell everyone to stay in Jordaan," he explains. "For me, it's the West Village of Amsterdam."

A working-class neighborhood since the early 1600's, Jordaan has become a magnet for artists and intellectuals in recent decades. Everything's convenient here: Binderij De Zon, a perfect little corner florist for pale Dutch tulips and vivid South American roses; Bartlett's health club, A Bigger Splash; and a quintessential Dutch bakery, across the Prinsengracht canal from the gym, that makes breakfast rolls stuffed with raisins, apples, and cinnamon.

Jordaan is also home to two of the designer's favorite galleries. The innovative Torch sells works by such international artists as Tracey Moffat and Cindy Sherman. Back on the Prinsengracht is Frozen Fountain, a great location for tracking down funky Droog furniture.

On every visit, Bartlett makes one of his first stops at an unassuming vintage clothing shop named Zipper. Earlier this year, he loaded up on yellow shirts in an attempt to convince his team that the difficult color could actually be worn. This trip, he tries on a few pairs of tight seventies polyester coach's shorts. Too shy to check himself out in the mirror, which is outside the dressing room, he buys them anyway. Another important fashion stop is Van Ravenstein, right down the street. "This is the one store in Amsterdam that I really wish would carry our clothes," Bartlett says. But owner Gerda van Ravenstein stocks only Belgian designers.

Not one to live by fashion alone, Bartlett looks for more intellectual pleasures in the local bookstores. Architectura & Natura carries only titles on architecture and nature; Pied-À-Terre sells maps and travel guides. Bartlett's preferred spot for new books is Athenaeum Boekhandel, a sparkling Art Nouveau boutique on a leafy square across from the University of Amsterdam. The area around Athenaeum is also a haven for rare books. Two of the best sources are Egidius, a small shop specializing in art and photography, and Antiquariaat, which concentrates on film, photography, and fashion. Each Friday, the Spui plaza, opposite Athenaeum, is the site of a book market, with more than 50 stands selling all kinds of new and used volumes. "I haven't gone yet, but apparently it's straight out of Dickens," Bartlett says.

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