The Museum at FIT presents Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch (Special Exhibitions Gallery, September 18 – December 5, 2015), featuring approximately 80 looks from the underground fashion impresario’s personal collection of clothing and accessories, including designs by Rachel Auburn, The Blonds, Leigh Bowery, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Pam Hogg, Stephen Jones, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Rick Owens, Vivienne Westwood, and Zaldy, thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council and MAC Cosmetics.
Born in Switzerland, Susanne Bartsch moved to London as a teenager, living there for a decade. “We called her the Swiss Miss,” say old friends from London, where Bartsch was a key figure among the New Romantics. Arriving in New York on Valentine’s Day 1981, Bartsch opened a boutique in Soho while still on a tourist visa. An enthusiastic proponent of 1980s English fashion, she was one of the first New York retailers to import Vivienne Westwood. She also organized fashion shows, such as New London in New York and London Goes to Tokyo, that showcased designers Leigh Bowery, Body Map, and Stephen Jones. But life in 1980s New York was not just a party; AIDS was devastating the community. As her friends began dying, Bartsch notes that she “survived this period by becoming a fundraiser.” In 1989, she organized the Love Ball, one of the first and most important AIDS benefits. Over the next few years, she raised a total of $2.5 million for AIDS research and advocacy.
Susanne Bartsch has also been the longtime reigning queen of New York City nightlife since the 1980s when she became renowned for creating spectacular parties where she and a diverse mix of individuals—uptown, downtown, gay, straight, multiracial—dressed up in their own versions of high fashion, street style, drag, and Mardi Gras extravaganza. Her first party took place in 1986 at a club near The Chelsea Hotel, where she has lived for many years. “It was about seeing and being seen,” says Bartsch.
Bartsch and her friends have long constituted a fashion underground of creative individuals who take dressing up to the level of performance art. “Style is about expressing yourself,” adds Bartsch. “You can be whatever you want to be—a silver-screen star, a Marie Antoinette baroque creature, a Victorian punk. I love that about fashion and makeup.” A muse for fashion designers and makeup artists, Bartsch has also been a catalyst for the cross-fertilization of ideas between creative people in a range of fields. Today, she is increasingly creating events that explicitly link fashion and art.
Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch opens with a small introductory gallery of images and videos about Bartsch and her world. In the main exhibition gallery, the first section focuses on the 1980s English fashions that Bartsch introduced to New York displayed in a tableau evoking her surreally styled boutiques. The second and largest section features a variety of the creations that Bartsch and her friends have worn at her famous club nights at Savage, Copacabana, and Le Bains, with a special section devoted to the AIDS balls. The final section evokes her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, the center of her creative world. Videos and projected photographs throughout the exhibition document Bartsch’s 30 years of sartorial self-expression and its influence on the global fashion scene.
The exhibition, curated by Valerie Steele and Susanne Bartsch and designed by Kim Ackert after a concept by Thierry Loriot, will be accompanied by a book by Steele and Melissa Marra. A two-day symposium will feature a range of designers, performers, and scholars speaking on fashion, creativity, nightlife, and performance art.
The Museum at FIT, which is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, is the only museum in New York City dedicated solely to the art of fashion. Best known for its innovative and award-winning exhibitions, the museum has a collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories dating from the 18th century to the present. Like other fashion museums, such as the Musée de la Mode, the Mode Museum, and the Museo de la Moda, The Museum at FIT collects, conserves, documents, exhibits, and interprets fashion, with a mission is to advance knowledge of fashion through exhibitions, publications, and public programs.
The museum is part of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a State University of New York (SUNY) college of art, design, business, and technology that has been at the crossroads of commerce and creativity for 70 years. With programs that blend hands-on practice, a strong grounding in theory, and a broad-based liberal arts foundation, FIT offers career education in nearly 50 areas, and grants associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. FIT provides students with a complete college experience at an affordable cost, a vibrant campus life in New York City, and industry-relevant preparation for rewarding careers. Visit fitnyc.edu.
The Couture Council is a philanthropic membership group that helps support the exhibitions and programs of The Museum at FIT. The Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion is given to a selected designer at a benefit luncheon held every September.