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A Muscle Man in Exile

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The Impresario
Marc Jacobs and Barton at a DBG toy drive in 2007.  

The official declaration from both ­Barton and the gym is that he chose to leave the company. “I don’t have an M.B.A., and at this point it’s about personnel and inventory and spreadsheets,” Barton says. “It was no longer the right place for me.” But some feel he may have been edged out.

“If he was unsatisfied with being in that environment, with one foot out the door, it didn’t seem that way. He looked involved,” says one person who worked in the gym. “I find it hard to believe that he didn’t want to be a part of this anymore.” In leaving, Barton gave up the rights to the name David Barton Gym, as well as his famous slogan “Look better naked.” But he seems at peace. “Companies do fine without their founders all the time,” he says, adding, “I did hear they just had a Diane’s Day ­benefit. That feels a little weird.”

Free from the empire he built, Barton plans to reinvent the gym experience all over again. Working with his friend Ian Schrager, as well as Studio Sofield and “a large technology company and a couple of doctors,” he’s opening a facility next year that he claims will be the next step in fitness. Barely touching the arepas he ordered, Barton explains with workout-nerd excitement how “aging and weight gain are less about calories and gravity and more about chemical and hormonal dis-generation.” Now, he says, diagnostic information about our personal health can be paired with supplements, medication, nutrition, and training so that anyone can look as shredded as Daniel Craig. “It’s a service that’s only available to celebrities. No one’s put it together commercially yet. We will look back on this era as nostalgic, because it will be much more efficient to transform yourself.”

The plan seems like an admission of how fitness culture has changed. This is a city of $34 spinning classes taught by Lululemonites treated like cult leaders, not a drag queen in a thirties one-piece. The gym has splintered into a thousand workouts—all at a price. Barton’s vision of a gym on every corner came true, but not quite in the way he might have expected.

As we leave the restaurant, several sharply dressed professional types walk by, checking their phones. “I’m an upstart. I need to innovate,” Barton says. “Status quo is not my comfort zone. I mean, look at me!” He hails a cab. I watch as the new downtowners stare at him, muscle-bound in his loud outfit, as if they have never seen such a person. Then they return to staring at their phones.

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