At 55 years of age, Susan Bartsch has been called a lot of things: Queen of the night, Manhattan matriarch and Swiss Miss — the latter by legendary street style photographer, Bill Cunningham. The Swiss native was indeed a young miss when she first moved to London as a teenager, and then to New York where she shacked up at the iconic Chelsea Hotel (where she's still residing) in Manhattan.
Making her name in the '80s as the first to bring in then fledgling English designers like Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and milliner Steven Jones, Bartsch's knack for spotting talent before they hit the mainstream helped form her menagerie stateside. But it wasn't just the fashion crowd such as Thierry Mugler, Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs who followed this Pied Piper of outlandish nighlife. Bartsch's posse consisted of an eclectic mix of straight, gay, uptown and downtown individuals, including avant-garde advocates such as drag queens. For Bartsch — whose iconic club nights included venues such as Savage, Copacabana and Le Bain — less definitely isn't more. Now the world gets a chance to inhabit her underground realm through this exhibtion, and here's why you need to go.
1. For a history of club culture Whether you're a millennial or you're trying to relive the good old days, Bartsch's wardrobe is a tell-all of the unbridled scene that is nightlife, stretching from the '70s till now. From London's Blitz Kids and New York's Club Kids to scene originals like performance artist Leigh Bowery, each seminal movement over the last three decades has been documented through Bartsch's wardrobe.
2. For a close look at fashion's loudest and proudest Pieces by John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen are among the 100 looks on display, each trumping one another in audacious sequins and tapestry. Yes, there's even that bizarre nude bodysuit and egg-shaped veil Bartsch wore during her wedding to David Barton in 1995. Lady Gaga doesn't have anything on this club kid.
3. For a fabulous night in the club With its basement locale, moving lights, circular platforms and projections of parties past, the exhibition mimics a night out with all the aural stimulation and no chance of a hangover.
4. For more than just a retrospective Not all oldies are goodies. You'll also get to see current creations by Gareth Pugh, Hood By Air, Nicola Formichetti and Rick Owens — designers who share Bartsch's fascination with the underground — make up a section of the exhibit.
5. For a celebration of girl power Bartsch is a rarity — a woman who has risen to the top of nightlife, continues to think and dress progressively? We can only think of a few — Grace Jones and Madonna included — who approach their sixtieth year (seventieth in Jone's case) and still boldly challenge the ageist status quo.
"Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch" is running at the Museum at FIT, New York until 5 December. Details here.
Image: Robin Souma, Andrea Barbiroli, Wilsonmodels, Jason Akira Somma, Marco Ovando, courteousy of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology