Exhibit | Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch

Photo: Susanne, Onehalf Nelson, and Erickacouture at Catwalk at Marquee, 2013. Photo by Marco Ovando. 

“It’s too early in the morning to wear lashes,” Susanne Bartsch says as she greets the press for the preview of Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, now on view at The Museum at FIT, New York, through December 5, 2015. The exhibition features approximately 80 looks from Bartsch’s personal collection of clothing, accessories, and hair that have made her the reigning queen of New York nightlife for over three decades.

“I don’t like to have things the same every day. Dressing up is transforming yourself. That’s why we call it ‘Fashion Underground.’ Fashion is art, and it is really about expressing yourself. One day I can be Peggy Moffat. The next Marie Antoinette, and after that, punk gothic,” Bartsch observes with her beautifully lilting German accent that recalls no less than Marlene Dietrich herself.

Evidence of the diversity of Bartsch’s style and taste is found throughout the exhibition selections, which include designs by Rachel Auburn, The Blonds, Leigh Bowery, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Pam Hogg, Stephen Jones, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Rick Owens, Vivienne Westwood, and Zaldy—as well as stunning wigs, hats, shoes, and jewels.

Susanne in a corset by the Blonds, circa 2013. Photo by Marco Ovando.

Susanne in a corset by the Blonds, circa 2013. Photo by Marco Ovando.

Dressing up was always part of the way Bartsch expressed herself. She recalls, “At the age of eight, I was concerned about what I wore. My mother had to deal with me in the morning. [Laughs]. I wanted to buy second hand clothes, and my parents were horrified. It was a sign of poverty in those days. By the age of 12, I was dressing only in thrift shop clothes.” By the time she was a teenager, she was referencing the 1930 and 40s silhouettes.

Bartsch, who was born in Switzerland, moved to London at the age of 17, during the height of the Swinging 60s.  She remembers walking down the street one day with her rainbow eye make up and her extra short hot pants, when a man came up to her and asked if she wanted to work in his store. “I need a job and I was like, ‘Hey, I can get money for this.’” Barstch recalls.

“We called her the Swiss Miss,” say old friends from London, where Bartsch was a key figure among the New Romantics. Arriving in New York on Valentine’s Day 1981, Bartsch opened a boutique in Soho while still on a tourist visa. An enthusiastic proponent of 1980s English fashion, she was one of the first New York retailers to import Vivienne Westwood. She also organized fashion shows, such as New London in New York and London Goes to Tokyo, that showcased designers Leigh Bowery, Body Map, and Stephen Jones.

The catwalk crew at Marquee, 2013. Photo by Jason Akira Somma.

The catwalk crew at Marquee, 2013. Photo by Jason Akira Somma.

But life in 1980s New York was not just a party; AIDS was devastating the community. As her friends began dying, Bartsch notes that she “survived this period by becoming a fundraiser.” In 1989, she organized the Love Ball, one of the first and most important AIDS benefits. Over the next few years, she raised a total of $2.5 million for AIDS research and advocacy.

Bartsch’s parties are a spectacle, featuring a diverse mix of individuals—uptown, downtown, gay, straight, multiracial—dressed up in their own versions of high fashion, street style, drag, and Mardi Gras extravaganza. “Fashion Underground” features highlights from those events, costumes as memorable as the parties themselves.

The exhibition begins with mannequins waiting outside the main space, one with a guest list in hand, welcoming you to what promises to be an unforgettable experience. The area is heavily covered in graffiti, recalling the nightclub hallways. In the main gallery, the first section focuses on the 1980s English fashions that Bartsch introduced to New York displayed in a mise-en-scène evoking her surreally-styled boutiques.

Susanne wearing a dress by Rachel Auburn, Liberty Theatre in Times Square, 2014. Photo by Robin Souma.

Susanne wearing a dress by Rachel Auburn, Liberty Theatre in Times Square, 2014. Photo by Robin Souma.

The second and largest section features a variety of the creations that Bartsch and her friends have worn at her famous club nights at Savage, Copacabana, and Le Bain, with a special section devoted to the AIDS balls. This room is painted black, with a metal grid that lines the walls so that a second tier of beautifully dressed mannequins runs overhead, recalling the experience on the dancefloor of a nightclub. To further heighten this experience, videos from Bartsch’s events are projected on screens high above, while house music plays and a disco ball spins. The cumulative effect is one of sheer emotion; perhaps because it is clear this era is over.

The final section of the exhibition evokes Bartsch’s apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, the center of her creative world. Painted red and evoking a Chinese mystique, this room offers an intimate glimpse into the artist’s private world. It is here that the spirit of creativity and innovation is felt most deeply, from the luscious afro wig to the JAWS corset designed by the Blonds. It is here, in this serene setting, that we may pause and reflect on the grandeur of one woman and her inimitable ability to share that joy and pleasure with the world.

Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch is now on view at The Museum at FIT, New York, through December 5, 2015.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.