Susanne Bartsch has been New York’s regnant Queen of the Night since moving here in the early 1980s. The mastermind of some of the city’s most legendary club nights, Bartsch is an original whose alterna high fashion meets Halloween and drag looks elevate dressing up into an art form. Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, a new exhibition at the Museum at FIT in New York curated by Bartsch and FIT’s Valerie Steele, sheds light on her enduring influence. Yahoo Style caught up with the scene queen before the exhibition’s opening night.
Yahoo Style: As far as fashion exhibitions go, “Fashion Underground” is a very personal survey.
Susanne Bartsch: It’s definitely a reflection of my life, and it’s broken up in three sections. One is devoted to the early days, when I came to New York in the early ′80s, and the second is about what I wear—my “transformations”—to the nightclubs and events that I create. The last part is about my bedroom at the Chelsea Hotel, which is like my creative sanctuary at home. It’s all red, and it’s where I get dressed…and undressed.
The entrance to the exhibition has been designed as a New York alleyway. I had custom graffiti created for the walls and the mannequins are lined up and dressed as club goers attending the event. It’s very cool. And the mannequin that Adele Rootstein designed a few years ago in my likeness is the door girl who will be greeting you.
Amazing! So how did a small-town Swiss girl wind up in London in the Swinging Sixties?
I was 17 and friends with older people in their 20s who were going to London a lot. I heard all these stories and said, “I have to go there.” My excuse was that I had to go there to learn English. My parents were very supportive of me and even though it was unusual for someone to leave home so early they let me. I was supposed to attend school, but of course the minute I got off the plane I never went anywhere near school. The street was my school.
So how did you support yourself and how did you eventually fall into fashion?
I worked at the Swiss Center, of all places. I had heard that if you worked at the Swiss Center for a bit they’d give you a visa. So I went there and cut Emmental cheese for a month and left as soon as I got the visa. Not long after I was walking down Kensington High Street and I met this gorgeous woman. I stopped her and said, “You’re so beautiful!” She was the first person I saw with streaks in her hair. Sweeny Todd, the trendy London hairdresser, invented them, by the way.
Anyway, we talked and I told her I was looking for a job and she said that she worked in this boutique and needed somebody. So that’s how I got into fashion.
I ended up on the King’s Road selling dungarees and Tommy Roberts cropped rainbow tops and Mickey Mouse T-shirts. I wasn’t really in the fashion business, as such, I was just working in the boutique. But then I met a boyfriend, stopped working in the store and started a knitwear business. I had Indian women knitting sweaters for me in places like Brixton, Hernhill and Cricklewood, which I would then sell to rock stars and select customers.
What was the label called?
No label… it was just me. I was very young, it grew too fast and eventually the whole thing fell apart. But I was doing things that no one else was doing then. I did these sweaters which were just ribbon around the sleeve. The armhole was just a straight line from the shoulder down and I put ribbons around it and that was the sleeve. Kenzo ended up doing those later. I knitted safety pin designs on sweaters in, like, 1969.
Wow, very proto punk! Who were some of the people you met at the time?
My boyfriend, Paul Reeves, owned the store Alcasura and later had a place called Universal Witness. I was friends with Jean Krell who had Granny Takes A Trip where everyone shopped. He’s now editor-at-large at Vogue Japan and used to do the door at my clubs, actually. So I was hanging out with them, with Ossie Clark. And you know, Paul basically invented velvet trousers and floral shirts for men. Nobody was doing floral shirts and tight velvet pants in those days, and Vern Lambert freaked out and bought them all from Paul. I was friends with Vern Lambert…
Who of course went on to marry the Italian Vogue legend Anna Piaggi.
Yes. When Vern started going to Milan with Anna in the early ’70s, he asked me to look after his store in the Chelsea Market. It was a legendary and very happening place. I mean, Vern Lambert was the ultimate genius! He didn’t pay me. I was splitting up with the boyfriend from Alcasura and Vern said, “ Look, you can have my apartment.” It was on Cheney Walk on top of the Manolo Blahnik store and I used to hang out with Manolo. It was at the Chelsea Market that I met Patrick Hughes who brought me to New York for Valentine’s Day. I came for love and fell in love with New York and I am still here!
Once you settled in New York what made you decide to import underground British fashion?
After being in New York for a few months I missed the constant change of looks that was going on in London. You know, London fashion was really down—the buyers weren’t going there—but there was great stuff going on, like the New Romantic movement. New York was very straight in a way. There were really nice clothes here but nobody was really dressing up. I missed that and thought, Why not import what I miss?
How did you go about that? Can’t have been easy pre-Internet.
I just went to London and approached people that I knew like Leigh Bowery, Rachel Auburn, Richard Torry, Stephen Jones, John Galliano. They were all young kids at the time, and some of them were still in school! I asked them if they would give me clothes on consignment and I would introduce them to New York. They all said yes, so I came back to New York and knew that I had to go to SoHo because it was an area that was still very undeveloped. Robert Lee Morris was one of the first to open a store there. And I found this little shop on Thompson Street, which was like a gorgeous shoebox and felt very London. The landlord gave me a great rent, so I brought all the stuff over and opened in September of 1981.
Tell me about the store.
It was more unisex and not so much about sizes, more things like the chemise dress by David Hola, Stephen Jones hats. John Duka wrote this piece about my store in the New York Times before it even opened and all of a sudden every one started to look to London. I freaked out and started to think that I was going to get lost in the shuffle because I didn’t have a big budget. I decided I needed to go to London and sign them up and then I could be the one to sell these names to Barney’s and Saks and Bloomingdales. I’d be the middleman. So I put on a show in April of 1983 called “New London in New York.” The show was at the Roxy and it was a massive success. Then, in May 1985, I moved to a bigger store on West Broadway, where I sold Galliano and Westwood. I already had Westwood in the little shop, but I went full-on Westwood at the West Broadway store.
How did you move into nightlife?
Basically wanting to promote my store. Someone was building a disco a few doors down from the Chelsea Hotel, and I remember thinking, Wow, this is amazing! It was called Savage and it looked so tacky. I asked the guy building it if I could have a night there so that the people who shopped at my store could wear the clothes to the party. It would be a place to show off your finery because there wasn’t really anywhere to do that at the time. But the guy couldn’t get a liquor license. Fast-forward a year, I lost my store—I basically walked out and broke my contract— and I was broke. All I had was a bottle of Shalimar. Out of nowhere, the guy (Leo was his name) called me and said, “I have a liquor license. Are you interested?” I went downstairs, made the deal and opened three weeks later with a thousand people—literally a thousand people—who came dressed head to toe. It was insane.
For people who don’t know much about you, what are some of the other legendary club nights you did in the 80s and 90s?
I went from Savage to Bentleys, which was like was like a secretary’s after hours club. The reason I went there is because it had two floors. I like to move, to grow, to evolve. I wanted two sounds—house and disco—so I was able to do the disco downstairs and the house upstairs. That’s when I added entertainment. I had drag queens dancing on the disco floor. I had strippers upstairs. I had these insane strippers like Lady Hennessy Brown who became an icon. She was pulling 69 pairs of stockings out of her vagina.
She was like an Amazon woman she was 6’ 7.” And she could lactate. She would squeeze her boobs and milk would come flying out. So people would come with teacups, coffee cups, umbrellas. It was wild! Then I found out that the Bentleys people owned the Copacabana. I loved the Copacabana. I thought it was so glamorous, being right across the street from the Pierre Hotel, but nobody was going uptown at that point. So I was soon doing Savage on a Tuesday, Bentleys on a Wednesday, and the Copa was the last Thursday of every month.
Obviously one of the things that came along at that time was AIDS and you were very instrumental in raising money so tell me a little bit about that.
Well, my first encounter with this disease was in ’81 with Klaus Nomi. We went to visit him in the hospital and you had to wear masks—it was very scary. By the time I was doing the Copa in ’88 half of my address book was crossed out. I became more and more devastated as did everyone else. And I knew I had to do something. Somebody said, “Why don’t you give the proceeds from the Copa door,” but I knew that wasn’t enough, that I had to do more. I wanted to celebrate life because it was such a depressing time. At that time I was going to Harlem House balls and I had just been to a House of Extravaganza ball, I think. I came home and I was really depressed but then suddenly a light went off in my head and I thought, That’s what I’m going to do I’m going to do—a house ball! And I’m going to involve the house community, which was hit very hard by the disease, and make it a celebration. The question was how to raise money. None of those kids had any money. But I knew if I presented this the right way to people like Barneys, Donna Karan, Swatch, Absolut Vodka, they could be a House for a night. They each paid $2,500 dollars to be onstage for three minutes. And then I sold tickets, $10,000 tables and I knew that was how the money would come in.
How much money did you raise over the years.
That one raised $450,000. The second raised $750,000. The one in L.A. raised $300,000 or $400,000 and the one I did in Paris also raised around $750,000, which apparently is amazing for France because they don’t spend anything. In total we raised two and a half million but it was all given to hands-on organizations like Gods Love We Deliver. I didn’t want to give money to research because that would take two billion not two million. I, and everybody who was involved with the Love Ball, worked so hard that I would be damned If I didn’t know where the money was going to go. So I made a committee of five people and I went to all the places we wanted to give money to, to make sure the money would go directly to the people affected by AIDS. We bought two vans for God’s Love We Deliver so they could deliver more food, that kind of thing.
You’re a legend. Now just to change tack for a minute. Obviously over the years you’ve seen some really amazing expressions of creativity. Who are some of the most amazing people that come to your mind in terms of fashion and style and what their personalities conveyed?
I mean, hands down Leigh Bowery. Even if he was not in the fashion business, he was a genius at expressing himself. And he was so charismatic on top of everything else. He really was like walking art. But if you want a designer, I love Westwood. Westwood is a genius. And Thierry Mugler was important to me, too.
Leigh’s a little obvious. Who is someone more under the radar?
Zaldy is one of those people who’s totally undervalued. A lot of the looks in the exhibition are his. He’s brilliant. He’s actually doing the look that I’ll be wearing to the opening. It’s a totally new kind of look and different than anything I have in the exhibition. I also love Shayne Oliver from Hood By Air and think he is doing amazingly original things.
I love kids who can’t afford to buy what’s in Vogue ads. I mean, I love Riccardo Tisci, but I was talking to Suzy Menkes the other day and I was saying how he was so lucky with the Givenchy show. They held it outdoors and it was pouring down rain the day before the show and the day after but the weather was beautiful for the show. Suzy said, “ Susanne, they have so much money they probably paid to change the weather!” It was so funny but she’s not far from the truth. I love the kids that come to the club with these amazing looks made out of nothing. You don’t even know what it is that they are wearing. Is it a blouse or a gown or a caftan?
How has your look evolved over the years?
I guess I used to dress more in head to toe looks. I have terms for my looks: Full Drag, Semi drag, and Day Drag. So the full drag is very head to toe. I would have Mathu and Zaldy make me something with the headpiece matching and the shoes I would style it so it was very one thing, a total look. Then I started mixing more elements together. And these days, I really work my looks around the hair and makeup more than anything else. I’ll be like, What do I feel like? Do I want to go ’60s super model like Peggy Moffitt? Do I want to go Marie-Antoinette? Baroquey Punky Creature? Or do I want to be a silver screen siren? I love hair and make up, and styling of course, because it allows me to repeat looks but never look the same.
You have names for your wigs right? What are some of those?
I have the Babe, which is the classic that Danilo invented. I have the Hawk, which was created by Charlie Brown and which is basically a Rod Stewart wig that we pin a certain way and it becomes the Hawk. I have the Coiff, which is like a pouf on the top of my head. And I have the Couture, which is different wigs put together to make one very big wig.
The hair by Oribe, Danilo, and Charlie is a big part of the exhibition. So is your wedding. Talk to me a little bit about that.
The wedding was in 1995. I had a son with David [Barton, of gym fame], but he asked me to get married before I was pregnant. Just so you know, I wasn’t a knocked up bride! I had this idea to do a show called Inspiration, which was a free runway show using people from behind the scenes.
Wasn’t it paid for by Playboy?
Playboy sponsored it, yes. I did it at the Manhattan Center and all these designers, photographers, stylists, seamstresses and everyone from behind the scenes had two minutes on the runway for no reason at all. We had Todd Oldham, and Debi Mazar was the emcee. As I was creating the show I suddenly thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to come out at the end and do an unplanned wedding? (Remember in those days a lot of the shows still had a bride come out at the end.) I told David, who thought it was a great idea, so I put together a secret wedding. I called 43 bridesmaids—including Polly Mellen, Holly Brubach, Debbie Harry, Kate Pierson from the B52’s, Beth de Woody and a bunch of queens—and had them all swear to secrecy. Thierry Mugler designed the outfit and Abel Villareal executed it for him because it was really short notice and he designed it over the telephone.
It was a nude body suit wasn’t it?
Yes, I was supposed to look nude and the veil was an egg and the bouquet was on top of my head.
Wasn’t RuPaul the best man?
Yes, RuPaul and Thierry were the best men! And the ring bearers were Richie Rich and Ken Moody, the Mapplethorpe model—on roller skates. It was as camp as it gets. The priest was from the Church of All Religions and I think he wanted to be in the wedding dress, actually. So at the end of the show nobody knew what was going on until David, the priest, the bridesmaids and then I came out. People freaked out; it was fantastic. So that was my wedding.
Incredible. I think it’s kind of sad, by which I mean tragic, when people go on and on about how New York isn’t what it used to be, blah blah. Times change! But when you look back on those days what do you miss most?
I’m glad things change. It forces us to evolve, to create. But I guess with the whole social media thing people aren’t really surprised by anything any more. And they go out and they’re constantly on that square. That little square is running everybody’s life. I like surprises—it was more of an adventure in those days. These days all you have to do is post something on social media with somebody famous and all of the sudden you’re the shit. People aren’t interested in your talent, just who you’re posing with. Listen it’s always good to be with the right people, obviously, in any era. In the 17th century, if you knew the king you were in. It’s normal. But I feel like we’re losing the soul of things. I miss that, and people who are not afraid to be creative and express themselves the way they truly feel. I’m not saying that I don’t like people who fit the norm, because I like people like that too, but the people who inspire me are the ones who take risks.
“Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch” runs from September 18 to December 5 at the Museum at FIT.