Susanne Bartsch casually lounging. Photo by Robin Souma.



The Wild World Of Susanne Bartsch: A NYC Nightlife Legend Looks Back

Fashion and nightlife legend Susanne Bartsch has been honored with an exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, entitled Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. It’s an incredible curation of over 80 of her most dramatic looks, featuring designs by major names like John Galliano, The Blonds, and Thierry Mugler, as well as underground geniuses like BodyMap, Pam Hogg, and Zaldy. As The Cut called it, the exhibition is truly a celebration of a “fantastical wardrobe of a nightlife queen.”

Born in Switzerland, Bartsch moved to New York in 1981 after a stint in London. Missing the outlandish style of early ’80s England, Bartsch opened up her own eponymous boutique on West Broadway. She quickly became a nightlife star, hosting fashion parties at The Copacabana attended by everyone from Marc Jacobs to Malcolm Forbes. She’s been a fixture ever since.

(L) Susanne with Zaldy, June 1991. Headpiece and corset by Mr. Pearl. Photo by Joseph Astor. (R) Susanne in a corset by the Blonds, circa 2013. Photo by Marco Ovando.

Yesterday, Bartsch took part in FIT’s 15th annual symposium, which focused on her wide-ranging influence. Speakers included Simon Doonan, Stephen Jones, and Hamish Bowles, who focused on the fabulous ’80s club scene in London. We went to speak to Bartsch after her conversation with Dr. Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT. Steele has also put together a book covering Bartsch’s life and clothing, on sale October 27th.

It was a fascinating hour. The two touched on everything from Bartsch’s famous Love Ball benefits for AIDS, to her relationship with the genius performance artist and designer Leigh Bowery, to her wild wedding to gym mogul David Barton, where Bartsch wore a Thierry Mugler catsuit covered by a transparent “egg,” years before Lady Gaga ever hatched. Bartsch also hit on her beloved corsets — “They suck everything in, they improve your posture, they’re fantastic!”

(L) Susanne wearing a dress by Rachel Auburn at the Liberty Theatre, 2014. Photo by Robin Souma. (R) Installation view of the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch.

We met with Bartsch after the symposium. She looks amazing — it’s almost impossible to believe that this woman without a line on her face has been going out regularly for nearly four decades. We waited as she signed countless books for fans, all giving her their cards and asking for advice or stories. Bartsch’s patience never seemed to wane. She was generous with her time and friendly to everyone, from random fashion students to old friends from her parties. When we got the chance to speak, she seemed a bit tired, but still eager to chat. We talked about her seemingly boundless energy, nightlife, and what the fashion plate wears to sleep.

You mentioned that this has been a very nostalgic experience, seeing all your things. It must have brought up so many memories. Was this an emotional experience?

Yes. It’s surreal to see everything in one place. I also really love quantity anyhow. If I have one balloon, I want a thousand balloons, not just one, so it’s sort of a lot, a large quantity. It’s amazing to see it all together. Yes, it’s very moving.

I can’t imagine.

Yes, it’s amazing. I had this skirt stolen — you know that green dress has a hoop skirt and it’s Vivienne Westwood, where did it go?! So it was definitely emotional.

Oh, no! That’s a tragedy!

That’s okay. Hopefully they found a good home. This collector came, by chance he designed for Louis Vuitton. He has a coat of mine which I guess someone sold him that they swiped from my closet.

New York style has obviously changed so much since you began. Are there any designers that you see these days that you feel still have that creative spirit, or that you connect with at all?

I need to meet the kids that are designers, the kids that dress up, the people who do a lot out of nothing. That to me is a lot, and that to me is inspiring. I think Chromat is really good, that’s just one that popped into my head. Zaldy, of course. I’m German so I like him a lot. I think he’s very original. The Blonds and Hood by Air as well.

(L) Susanne at a Swiss dance event at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, January 2015. Photo by Robin Souma. (R) Installation view of the exhibition; featuring mirror ensemble by Mathu Zaldy.

Do you think that New York is still a fashion capital, or do you find other cities more inspiring these days?

I never thought of New York as a fashion capital, really. I always saw New York as a place where you can get shit done. The city is supposed to fulfill your ideas. For me in the beginning, London was always the most inspiring place. Now I can’t say, because I haven’t spent enough time there. It’s the kids out there who come my way, they inspire me. But they’re everywhere, you know? So what’s the fashion capital? To me, I don’t really have one in this day and age. There is no capital, you just switch on a little screen and you see it all. This [an iPhone] is the fashion capital, right here.

Do you like Instagram?

I like it. Out of all the things out there, this is the one. You can do it in the taxi, you can do it waiting around, it’s easy. And I like that you can go straight to Facebook or Twitter. One button, and it’s all done.

You’re on hiatus right now, but you still throw parties. What do you think of nightlife these days? Do you enjoy it?

Yeah, I do. I think that it’s a place where people can express themselves, an art form where you can let your hair down for a moment, one hour, two hours, and forget all your things. It’s a place where you can celebrate life. I think it’s important more so now than ever.

There’s a new culture that’s taken over our lives, and that culture is technology. The culture of technology is ruining our lives. We are being inundated with information. We are losing our souls or something. I just feel like it’s all fake and it’s all PR. I think it’s more important now than ever to have places where people get together and share and flirt and feel the love and feel the heat of their bodies and feel energy together, by each other. What you see is what you get. I need eyes.

(L) Susanne Bartsch with Gage of the Boone, 2013. Photo by Wilsonmodels. (R) The catwalk crew at Marquee, 2013. Photo by Jason Akira Somma.

You’re so generous with your time, and you feed off of people so well. Do you ever get tired?  

Yes, yes I do. I get very tired, but then I see people, and I’m alive. It’s really something. I realized that that’s my inspiration — people. I love giving. It energizes me to see all these smiling faces. What more is there in this world than seeing a group of people enjoying themselves? Yes, you can buy something, but it’s just material. People sharing, and being together — there’s no bigger force than that.

I’ve always wondered this: what do you wear to sleep?

I actually wear very little to sleep, often nothing. And if I do wear something, it’s like a little slip. I don’t think that I’ve got to turn someone on or something. I like to feel a second skin or nothing. That’s a great question! No one’s asked me that before.

Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch is on view at the Museum at FIT through December 5th. Learn more here. The book version will be released on October 27th.

Images courtesy of the Fashion Institute of Technology

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