​go out with the queen of new york clubland, susanne bartsch

Walk amongst the freaks and the fabulous in The World of Susanne Bartsch, as she opens her first major exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

by James Anderson
30 September 2015, 2:46am

Susanne Bartsch and crew, 1991 © Michael James O'Brien.

New York nightlife icon and all-round fashion-frenzy Susanne Bartsch has staged some of the most memorable club nights and parties the city has ever seen, throughout the past few decades. Savage, at the Chelsea Hotel, and her nights at the Copacabana during the late 80s attracted the most fantastically-freaky of club kids and drag queens, while her regular Love Ball events have collectively raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for those living with HIV; proof if it was needed that Susanne not only looks amazing - she's still a constant source of inspiration to style lovers around the world -- but has a heart of gold, too.

Many of London's most influential designers owe a professional debt to Swiss-born Susanne, who promoted their work at the outset of their careers 30-odd years ago, via her two boutiques in the Big Apple's SoHo and West Broadway. At a time when few of them even had any retail buyers in the UK, let alone in the USA, she was stocking avant garde finery from the likes of John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Jones, Leigh Bowery, Rachel Auburn, Joe Casely-Hayford, Richard Torry and John Richmond.

Recently Susanne has been running On Top, at Le Bain, attracting a wild mix of the city's older and newer dressed-to-kills and has also spent much of the past year helping to prepare for Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, a major exhibition at New York's prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology. This colourful show charts her own unique looks through the years, explores her retail history and acknowledges her wider impact upon global fashion.

i-D caught up with the ageless queen of the night, to find out more...

Susanne in Abel Villarreal's leather horse look, April 1992. Photography Albert Sanchez.

How did this exhibition come about?
Unplanned and very organically. I was at a dinner for MAC and James Gager complimented me on the custom eyelashes I was wearing and asked me to come in to discuss a lash line with MAC. It got me thinking about my looks. I sat down for dinner and my table mate just happened to be Valerie Steele [the esteemed curator, writer and academic], we started talking and one thing led to another... Something was definitely magical that night. The exhibition's now up and the lashes are coming out in January!

Now that it's open to the public how does it make you feel?
It comes to life in a new and wonderful way! Anytime you have an audience it's like playing with another actor on stage. It makes me feel incredibly honoured and blessed to have this opportunity and show people my body of work. It's amazing to have a four-month run, as opposed to the one-night stands that I'm used to!

Which is your favourite aspect of the show?
There isn't one particular part of the show that's my favourite. For me it's the total unique experience and all the help and support I am getting that I love.

Susanne in the Chelsea Hotel Lobby, wearing corset by The Blonds, 2012. Photography Marco Ovando.

You've always encouraged people to dress to express themselves, particularly at your club nights. But who inspires you in terms of style and fashion?
I like a person who isn't afraid to express themselves and be different. That's who inspires me. Usually it's the kids who come to my parties in wild and inventive looks that I've never seen before! They make couture looks with ten bucks and boat-loads of talent and tenacity.

Your boutiques in the 80s introduced many exciting young London designers to New York. How did people react to their work? And which of those designers was your personal favourite?
The store was a huge success. Every department store in the city was running to London in droves to start buying, but I didn't have a personal favourite. I loved them and wore all of the designers' creations 24/7.

Would you ever consider opening a retail store again?
I love the idea of having a store, but I doubt I'll do another one. But never say never...

Susanne wearing a corset by Mr Pearl, Early 1990s. © Michael James O'Brien

Which London designers of today do you find the most exciting?
Gareth Pugh. And I have always loved Pam Hogg.

What specifically motivated you to start raising money for people living with HIV, through events such as The Love Ball?
Grief and pain, losing friends. Half my address book was crossed out by 1988 and I wanted to help and make a difference.

You're a long-term resident of New York and the iconic Chelsea Hotel. How has the city - and its nightlife - changed since the 80s?
Social media has changed the landscape of nightlife immensely. It's taken out a bit of the surprise of nightlife. I remember that I used to be really excited to see what people were wearing when they went out. Now you see it on Twitter and Instagram before you even get to the club!

Bedroom installation view in the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

What do you think about the new generation of club kids in New York?
I think they're great and doing really wonderful looks. I love their positive energy and constantly changing styles.

Can you imagine ever slowing down and maybe moving out of New York to somewhere quieter?
Absolutely not! Being active and creative keeps my chi humming, and I love the hustle and bustle of the city.

When did you last dance?
I danced at the after party for the opening of my show! What a night! We did it! I love dancing. It's like meditation for me.

Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch is open at the Fashion Institue of Technology until December 5, 2015.



Text James Anderson

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Fashion Institute of Technology
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