Cincinnati Kid

updated 12/08/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

HE SPEAKS WITH THE QUIET CONVICTION of a preacher, but John Bartlett is definitely not your standard man of the cloth. "My mission," says the 34-year-old designer, "is to make women look sexy." Mission accomplished. Bartlett's 1998 spring line, unveiled in November in New York City, is a steamy mix that pairs sling-tops with leather pencil skirts and taffeta police pants with crystal-studded muscle T-shirts, all inspired by the glamor of '50s film noir. His clothes, says Polly Allen Mellen, Allure magazine's creative director, are "about skin and a little hard-edged sexiness." He's an original, says Mellen, "and he's the future."

Still, Bartlett designs—sold in major stores across the country and less than astronomically priced, from $100 for a knit top to $1,600 for a beaded evening dress—are surprisingly wearable. "His clothes make a statement, but they translate to real women's lives," says Cindy Crawford, who, along with Claudia Schiffer and Mariah Carey, is a fan (she took home 28 outfits from his debut women's collection last spring and modeled in his latest show). "You want shoppers talking about you and pulling out their credit cards."

Expect no lack of plastic in Bartlett's career. In January he inked a deal with Genny, the Italian clothing manufacturer, that anticipates global sales of $20 million in three years. Model-handsome, he still can't believe the hype. "I feel like an imposter," he says. "Who is this person from Cincinnati, and why is he being lumped with these amazing designers?"

The middle of three children, he's the older son of Walter Bartlett, 69, a communications consultant (and former CEO for the media conglomerate Multimedia, which syndicated The Phil Donahue. Show), and Marilyn, 63, a homemaker. At the private Summit Country Day school, the A student and champion diver was in a sartorial class by himself, endlessly tinkering with the dull uniform of charcoal blazer and gray flannel trousers. "I put insets into my pants, making them bell-bottoms," says Bartlett, who loved to mix Brooks Brothers with Salvation Army clothes. "I hated being so confined."

There were other constraints. As a youth, Bartlett realized he was gay, "but Cincinnati is conservative, so I kept my mouth shut." Finally, at 17, he told his parents. The only response was acceptance. Says his father: "He's a great member of our family, and we're very proud." If anything, says his brother, Bob, 32, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, John's declaration "caused us all to grow closer."

Enrolling at Harvard in 1981, Bartlett majored in sociology, then, after graduating, moved to London to study economics. But the only stock he cared about was on shelves of the funky boutiques along King's Road. He dropped out after two weeks. "I cashed in my tuition," says Bartlett, "and spent it all on clothes. That's when I realized fashion was a passion." He moved to New York City and, while studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology, interned with Willi Smith. A job as menswear director with the sophisticated Dutch designer Ronal-dus Shamask ("my mentor") followed before he went solo in 1992. His motivation? "There wasn't anything in the stores that I wanted to wear."

Operating out of a Greenwich Village walk-up, the fledgling designer sent models down the runway dressed in Technicolor, prep-inspired outfits with antlers strapped to their heads. He was soon selling to top stores, and in 1994 the Council of Fashion Designers of America presented him with their Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent. But last year, feeling he'd "hit a plateau," says Bartlett, he decided to try his hand at womenswear. His successful first show last spring earned him a VH1 nomination for Best New Designer—and a killing schedule. Jetting to and from Italy every two weeks, he's constantly sketching, picking fabrics and soaking up ideas from sources as diverse as urban club kids and the paintings of Francis Bacon.

Business also means frequent separation from his lover of nine years, screenwriter Mark Welsh, 39. "That," says Bartlett, "has been really hard." The couple, who own a three-bedroom farmhouse in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and are fixing up a midtown Manhattan penthouse, share "an amazing friendship, tons of laughter and a real respect for each other," says Bartlett, as well as a stray dog named Sweetie. "She's our hairy daughter," he says.

For his part, Welsh believes it's their differences that keep the relationship strong. Moved by an inspirational story in the news, Bartlett recently told him, "It makes me so thankful. One day, when I've made enough money as a designer, I'm going to work with people who need help." Welsh replied, "Fine. Fax me. I'll be in Palm Beach."

SUE MILLER in New York City

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