Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology. I have been lucky to have seen some fabulous fashion-related exhibits at this venue over the past 5 years, and this year I also attended the first day of a free two-day symposium hosted by the museum featuring speakers who discussed Bartsch's influence on the fashion, and nightlife, of the 1980's to the present.
I knew very little about Susanne Bartsch prior to attending the symposium, other than she was known for the parties she hosted at various clubs in New York, and the extremely wild outfits she wore to those parties. The theme of the symposium - the influence of the underground dance clubs and music videos of the 1980's on the fashion of the time period - interested me because the 1980's is one of my favourite fashion eras. I was old enough to appreciate the creativity of British designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Jasper Conran, Bodymap, etc. that I saw in the pages of the ultra-cool magazine The Face. The list of speakers, including Hamish Bowles, Joey Arias, Stephen Jones, and Bartsch herself, drew an audience consisting largely of people old enough to remember what the fashion and nightlife was like in London and New York in the 1980's.
These three women in the audience wore appropriately stylish headwear
I always meet the most interesting people when I am in New York, and this visit was no exception. I recognized the fabulously-attired interior designer Patricia Fox (left) as I follow her Instagram feed, so I introduced myself and sat with her and a few of her friends, including designer Ben Copperwheat (right) who makes very cool screen printed clothing and fabrics. The suit he is wearing is one of his own designs.
Another of Patricia's friends, Mari O'Connor, sat with us and invited me to have lunch with her during the break. She does freelance creative work in makeup, hair, wardrobe and design for the commercial film industry and I very much enjoyed the opportunity to get to know her a little. She made the headpiece and tunic she was wearing that day.
Hamish Bowles, the International Editor at Large for Vogue Magazine, treated the audience to stories of his youth amidst the fashion and club scene in London during the 1980's. Bowles shared photos of some of his outfits from the days when there was no money to buy cool clothes, only imagination and the inspiration of the movies. Bowles stated that he had been "horrified and appalled" by the punk movement, but he did like David Bowie, and loved the designs of Zandra Rhodes.
Clockwise from Left: Bowles in one of his "New Romantic" looks from the 1980's; Bowles wearing a hat designed by fellow Brit Stephen Jones during his time as a fashion editor for Harpers and Queens (now known as Harper's Bazaar); a young George O'Dowd (later to be known as Boy George) whom Bowles met when O'Dowd was working as a hat check girl at a club.
All of the speakers mentioned the influence that Australian performance artist, actor, club promoter, and pop star Leigh Bowery (in costume above) had on designers and artists in London in the 80's and 90's. Bowery wanted to be a fashion designer, and ended up using his own body as a vehicle for his creative self-expression. Bowery founded the iconic night club, Taboo, in 1985, and was quoted as describing the dress code for the club as, "Dress as though your life depends on it, or don't bother".
Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano were two British designers who found international fame with their notoriously eccentric aesthetic, often inspired by London's outrageous club culture. Above is a photo of the staff at Vivienne Westwood's boutique "SEX" camping it up. Westwood is the blonde in the blue.
British Milliner Stephen Jones, known for being one of the most radical, and prolific milliners of the 20th and 21st centuries, was interviewed by Colleen Hill, the associate curator of accessories at FIT.
Jones is an extremely entertaining and engaging speaker, and the audience was delighted by his stories of his early days when he was driving a truck by day, and designing hats at night. He was a regular at London's Blitz nightclub, which made the news because of the extreme styles in clothing and makeup worn by both sexes, at one point sharing a house with fellow "Blitz Kid" Boy George. Jones appears in the music video for the Culture Club song, "Do you Really Want to Hurt Me", wearing a red fez and vintage zoot suit. He has been quoted as saying, "in a way, my life was more influenced by club life than fashion design".
The hat on the table next to Jones is a replica of one he designed for Susanne Bartsch. During the showing of photos of celebrities wearing hats of his design, Jones commented that he used the same beret pattern for hats that he had made for pop singer and nightclub host Steve Strange, as he did for Lady Diana Spencer, with the only difference being in the trimming.
Clockwise from top left: a young Stephen Jones poses in his first millinery salon in 1980; the first hat Jones ever made (1976), a fabric covered cardboard pillbox trimmed with plastic flowers that his mother had received as a gift from a petrol station; Kinky Gerlinky visor, made by Jones in 1998, on display in the FIT exhibit; the first time one of Jones' hats made it on a magazine cover.
After the lunch break, Susanne Bartsch was interviewed by Dr. Valerie Steele, the Director and chief Curator of the Museum at FIT. Bartsch, who came to New York from London, England in 1981, has been a fashion muse to countless designers, the owner of a Soho Boutique that introduced New York to avant-garde British designers, and the ultimate party planner. The extravagant events she has organized in the years since 1987 have been a cross-pollination of dance, art, and fashion and earned her the title of Queen of New York City Nightlife.
I shot this brief video of Bartsch explaining why she loves wearing corsets, and it captures her vivacious personality and sense of humour.
Bartsch at the first Love Ball, wearing a corset designed by Mr. Pearl. Bartsch organized the Love Ball in 1989, one of the first, and most important AIDS fundraisers, in response to the disease that was responsible for the deaths of "half of the people in my address book".
A photo of Corsetier Mr. Pearl, the alter ego of Mark Pullin, known for his 18" waist. Many of the stunning beaded corsets in the exhibit were created by him for Ms. Bartsch.
Bartsch in a photo shoot on the New York subway with the mannequin she had made in her image
The poster for Bartsch's final Copacabana party in 1992
The poster for Bartsch's final Copacabana party in 1992
The giant ball of hair balanced on her head, and flamboyant eye makeup, worn by Bartsch to the interview attested to her love of elaborate wigs and makeup. I quite liked the dots defining her eyebrows.
After the symposium I took the opportunity to get a photo with Patricia before heading over to view the exhibit, which was chock-full of the most fantastic eye-candy. Stay tuned for Part 2, featuring photos of Bartsch's eye-popping outfits.