The Underground World of Susanne Bartsch

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Susanne Bartsch by Santiago Felipe
Susanne BartschPhoto by Santiago Felipe

The counterculture icon talks Leigh Bowery, dressing for pleasure and her outlandish new exhibition

Susanne Bartsch is the avant-garde queen of New York City nightlife. Since the early 80s, the famed boutique owner and extravagant party-thrower has been an innovator in the world of underground club style (and the source of infinite photo opportunities), dominating the dance floors of legendary establishments like New York's The Copacabana, and Le Bains Douche in Paris. Her journey into the wild world of fashion began in 1981, when she relocated from swinging London to the Big Apple and set up a unique boutique that sold fantastical hats by Stephen Jones and corsets by Mr. Pearl. Before long, she had become an admired fixture on the city's club circuit, idenitfiable by her wildly eclectic look – spun from a hybrid of clothes by her favourite designers such as John Galliano, Thierry Mugler, Rick Owens and Zaldy – topped off with sculptural hair, bejewelled eyebrows and theatrical makeup. This month, Bartsch is the subject of a vibrant new exhibition at The Museum at FIT. Curated by Valerie Steele, it offers a dynamic, disco ball-lit retrospective of the outlandish outfits worn by Bartsch over the past 30 years. Here, she sheds light on the exhibition, the importance of individuality and the prevailing influences in her life.

On liasons with artist Leigh Bowery…
“Oh, Leigh Bowery is my baby. I met Leigh in his apartment and I remember being blown away by the way he dressed. It was like he was part of the wall. That was in the very early days, in the 80s. Leigh was very witty, very dry – you know, that dry English humor. He was a very lovely guy, very generous and sweet with a nice acid tongue. We just hung out. We spoke to each other on the phone. We partied and danced together. It wasn’t like we were going to dinner together. Maybe sometimes we had breakfast after the club.”

On finding a fashion adventure in New York... 
“When I came to New York for a love affair, I missed the ever-evolving constant looks that were happening in London at that time – 1979, 1980. In London, everyone was someone with a completely new look, including myself. But New York is an adventure, wherever you go. You can walk two blocks and there’s another completely different world. I was thinking about what I could do here. It was still very conservative, there weren’t really people doing looks to express themselves in terms of dressing up. I found a little boutique with little wooden panels. There was a sign that said, “For Rent,” and I called the landlord. Five minutes later, we had a deal. I opened the store in September of ’81. People were really into it, and this is how I started everything.”

On Grace Jones, the icon…
“I met her on the scene in Paris. We weren’t close friends, but we really liked each other. We were always happy to see each other. My favorite memory of Grace Jones is being in Les Bains Douche, which is a big club, and we both felt really excited – it was a great party night because it was fashion week. We just both got on the bar and we crawled on our hands and knees. Of course, I was in front because I knew she was going to steal the show! But it was so much fun and me and her were crawling across the bar. We weren’t stoned, it was just like I feel now. That’s my favorite memory of her. There was also this place in the Bahamas called Atlantis, and when it opened I saw her – she was climbing near the top of the building, on the side of the wall. She disappeared suddenly, and everyone said, ‘Grace, Grace, where is she?’ All of a sudden she appeared, with a spotlight on top of the building – this incredible presence and beauty. She started to climb down, singing. She’s a pioneer for turning yourself into whatever you feel like. It’s art, really.”


On dressing for pleasure…
“I think it’s been neglected. Fashion is art and making it your own and expressing yourself and transforming yourself is very important. I’m glad I’m a major pioneer for it, because I think I really started a whole movement. It was labelled street fashion in those days. I do this for myself. I dress for myself and I don’t dress for anyone else. I enjoy it. It gives me energy. Transforming myself and expressing myself energizes me.”

Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch is on view until December 5, 2015.