Queen of the Night: Scoping out the ‘Fashion Underground’ of Susanne Bartsch

Posted on: September 22nd, 2015 at 10:23 am by

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Photo: Marco Ovando. Corset by The Blonds.

Fed up with the homogenization and Disneyfication of New York City? Check out “Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch,” the new exhibit at the Museum at FIT.

If anyone ever inspired people to march to their own drummer, it is Susanne Bartsch. As a boutique owner and then an event producer, the Swiss expat arrived in New York City in the early ’80s, and New York nightlife was never the same again. Feeling bored by the fashion scene here, Bartsch opened a SoHo boutique where she imported young European designers she admired, including Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, Stephen Jones, and Leigh Bowery.

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Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Best known as the “Queen of the Night,” her parties (some of which this reporter has fond memories of attending), continue to be diverse and spectacular, with attendees treating dress-up as a form of performance art. “Style is about expressing yourself,” according to Bartsch. “You can be whatever you want to be – a silver screen star, a Marie Antoinette baroque creature, a Victorian punk.” Bartsch also created “The Love Ball” in 1989, which raised $2.5 million to fight AIDS.

The exhibit, curated by Valerie Steele of FIT, features approximately 100 of Bartsch’s outfits, along with her larger than life wigs and her signature false eyelashes (many adorned with feathers, beads or chains). When asked why she enjoyed embellishing her eyelashes, Bartsch said, “Why not? They’re there, why not do something with them?”

(If you want to channel a bit of Bartsch, she is currently creating a line of over-the-top false eyelashes for MAC cosmetics, which will be out later this year. So, you can access your own club-girl couture any time of the day.)

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Of course you’re on the list, darlings. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Guests visiting the FIT exhibit are initially greeted by a Bartsch mannequin holding an enormous guest list in front of a graffiti’d wall. Behind her, a row of mannequins (all outfitted in Bartch’s outfits), waits to get in to the fictitious, and obviously fabulous, nightclub beyond the wall.

Beyond there, the exhibit is divided into three sections: “Store,” which represents Bartsch’s ’80s stores; “Home,” a red-lacquered area inspired by Bartsch’s home at the Chelsea Hotel; and “Party,” a large room evoking a nightclub filled with Bartsch’s theatrical glittering catsuits, corsets and headdresses.

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Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Bartsch makes a great interview subject, filled with warmth and wit. Recalling when she found her corset maker, the now-legendary Mr. Pearl (fun fact: he has trained his own waist to measure a tiny 18”), she said, “I called him the ‘Stitch Bitch.’ He had this little apartment in the East Village, where he sewed all day.” Bartsch was the first person to discover Mr. Pearl, and in typical Bartsch fashion, put him in touch with the colorful French designer Thierry Mugler. This helped launch Mr. Pearl’s career.

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Photo: Jo Baslow.

When we asked where she stores her outfits, Bartsch enthusiastically replied, “Everywhere! Even under the bed!” She went on to describe that two of her bathrooms have been turned into de facto storage spaces, filled with racks of clothing.

Bartsch explained that the show is called “Fashion Underground” because she feels that fashion has become very mundane. “Fashion is so neglected now,” she said. “People should not be afraid to dress up for themselves, and to have fun with it.” We tend to agree, and hope that the exhibit inspires more people to let their freak flag fly.

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Photo: Jo Baslow.

“Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch” runs through December 5th at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Admission is free.

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