A moth with a taste for luxury fashion is bedeviling Susanne Bartsch. Arriving at the Museum at FIT’s exhibit dedicated to her, she has in her hands a nibbled swath of Alexander McQueen cashmere. Why, she wants to know, does this pesky insect only target the designer pieces in her wardrobe?
Luckily, the rest of the so-called Pied Piper of Nightlife’s extensive collection has been considerably better preserved, as “Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch” makes clear. The show opens with a graffitied alley where costumed mannequins are waiting in line. On the walls, wheat-pasted clippings of Bartsch’s appearances in downtown publications like Paper (which she covered three times) are intermingled with tags, like her signature XXX.
As you delve further inside, there are pieces from her early boutiques in Soho — from John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood to lesser-known names like Rachel Auburn and David Holah of BodyMap. When she first moved to New York in 1981, she missed the eccentric fashion world she’d been a part of in London. Thinking, Why not import what you miss? she opened her first store to introduce New Yorkers to young London talents. “I wasn’t planning to live here — I came for a love affair,” with the artist Patrick Hughes, she says. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, I love it.’ I fell in love with New York.”
Soon, Bartsch would evolve from retail to nightlife, throwing fashion-oriented parties at the Copacabana. “Nightlife has always been a place to express yourself. I was making it more of an art form,” she says. The pieces on display — each more sequined and cantilevered than the last — call back to an era when seeing and being seen required physical presence. Now, “it’s all here,” she says wryly, pointing to her iPhone. “You don’t have to go anywhere, you can see what people are wearing, they can just post a picture of themselves. In the old days you had to go out, to see people, to share things. You can just sit with the [Instagram] square and you see it all anyhow.”
Gone, too, is the cultural cross-pollination that used to happen between bold-faced names and anonymous clubgoers. “For [celebrities] to go out to a nightclub, it’s like a business now,” she says resignedly, in her Swiss-Cockney contralto.
It wasn’t always that way. “Every outfit you see here represents an event,” she says, looking over the carousel of mannequins. “Everything was worn to something. It’s not about hemlines, it’s about living life.” As if to prove her point, she begins matching up outfits with their antecedents. “That was the Halloween that I was the ringmaster; we had a circus Halloween,” she says, pointing at a maternity Uncle Sam getup. “I wanted to have a saloon vibe with this one,” she says, fingering a Mr. Pearl corset with a bodice of hot-pink blooms. (It’s so tiny, says Valerie Steele, the museum’s director, who curated the exhibit with Bartsch, that extra-small mannequins had to be special ordered.) Bartsch turns her gaze to a mirror-shard ensemble: “This one ended up in the New York Times,” as shot by Bill Cunningham, “and then in the New Yorker as a cartoon.”
Perhaps the piece with the most sentimental value is her wedding costume, specially designed by Thierry Mugler. It’s an anatomically correct catsuit under a gigantic cocoon of a veil — all designed, believe it or not, over the phone (presumably, he had her measurements on file). “I said I didn’t want a conventional wedding,” she said, and she fulfilled that promise: The ceremony was the culmination to a 1995 runway show she put on, titled Inspiration. Mugler and RuPaul served as best men alongside 43 bridesmaids, all sworn to secrecy and wearing fabric masks. The whole thing was sponsored, naturally, by Playboy. “I remember Bill Cunningham called me the next day, and said, ‘How dare you not tell me?’” (He’d dashed out right when the show ended and missed the whole thing.)
What stands out the most from the exhibit is Bartsch’s finesse for bringing like-minded creatives into the same fold. In Malcolm Gladwell parlance, she’s a “connector,” creating spaces, whether stores or clubs, where people can find one another. Says Steele, “All these guys — Gaultier, Galliano — came to her events and they saw cool people like Mr. Pearl and Zaldy.” Bartsch doesn’t consider herself a designer in any sense, but rather a stylist and influencer. “I didn’t make any of these clothes, but I commissioned, I asked,” she says. “I get high on putting people together.”
While the sheer amount of pieces on display is staggering — they number about 80 — “I have probably the same amount again” in storage, she says. “I pulled things from under the bed, all crumpled, and I was like, ‘My God, how’s that going to look in an exhibition?’”
Counters Steele, “She kept everything in great shape.”
“Other than my blue McQueen,” Bartsch shoots back.
She takes a moment to page through the scrapbook-style tome that accompanies the exhibit. “One thing that strikes me about it all? How much fun I had. I don’t have anything where I think, God, that was a bad night.” She pauses over one photo where she thinks she looks less than stunning, then shrugs. “I guess I can’t always look fabulous.” Just as quickly, her attention returns to a video of one of her ‘80s shows, where Leigh Bowery is striding down the runway in a backless pinafore. “If we’d had social media,” she says, “we would all be superstars.”