Susanne in a corset by The Blonds, circa 2013. Photo by Marco Ovando.
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 contributed to the approximately 80 looks from the underground fashion impresario's
personal collection of clothing and accessories, on view in Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch.
Susanne Bartsch has been the queen of New York City nightlife since the 1980s when
she became renowned for creating spectacular parties where she and 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. Her first party took place in 1986 at a club near the Chelsea Hotel,
where she has lived for many years. "It was about seeing and being seen," says Bartsch.
Bartsch and her friends have long constituted a fashion underground of creative individuals
who take dressing up to the level of performance art. "Style is about expressing yourself,"
says Bartsch. "You can be whatever you want to be: a silver-screen star, a Marie Antoinette
baroque creature, a Victorian punk. I love that about fashion and makeup." A muse
for fashion designers and makeup artists, Bartsch has also been a catalyst for the
cross-fertilization of ideas between creative people in a range of fields. Today,
she is increasingly creating events that explicitly link fashion and art.
Susanne Bartsch with Gage of the Boone, 2013. Photo Wilson models
Born in Switzerland, Susanne Bartsch moved to London as a teenager, living there for
a decade. "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 Valentines 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.
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.
Susanne and Franois Sagat in Switzerland hosting an AIDS benefit. Dress by Mathu and
Patrick MettRaux and Lukas Beyeler.
Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch opens with a small introductory gallery of images and videos about Bartsch and her
In the main exhibition gallery, the first section focused on the 1980s English fashions
that Bartsch introduced to New York displayed in a mise-en-scène evoking her surreally styled boutiques. The second and largest section featured a
variety of the creations that Bartsch and her friends have worn at her famous club
nights at Savage, Copacabana, and Le Bains, with a special section devoted to the
AIDS balls. The final section evoked her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, the center
of her creative world. Videos and projected photographs throughout the exhibition
documented Bartsch's 30 years of sartorial self-expression and its influence on the
global fashion scene.
Susanne at a Swiss dance event at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, January 2015. Photo by
Susanne Bartsch, 1990s. Photograph by Andrea Barbiroli.
The exhibition, organized by Valerie Steele and Susanne Bartsch, and designed by Kim
Ackert after a concept by Thierry Loriot, is accompanied by a book
by Steele and Melissa Marra. A two-day symposium
featured a range of designers, performers, and scholars speaking on fashion, creativity,
nightlife, and performance art.
Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch has been possible thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council and MAC Cosmetics,
with additional support from The Standard, High Line.