Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, Part 1

One of the things I was looking forward to seeing in New York was the exhibit 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 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.

A closeup of one of Bartsch's spectacular makeup looks 

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.


  1. So cool, I wish I could attend this! Thank you for the little glimpse into this world (I was unaware of most of it at the time, although I was a teenager/in my early 20s in the late 80s). I love these features that you do, and all the awesome events you attend.

  2. I was on the periphery New Romantic scene as a teenager, too young to go clubbing but old enough to stalk Boy George, Martin Degville and Kirk Brandon who all shared a squat in Walsall. George looked exactly as he did then! There was a lot more imagination in dress then, the UK was going through a massive recession and if you wanted to look cool you improvised, went to jumble sales and customised your own clothes. Sad that such creativity is rare these days, people think chucking money on designer clothes makes them cool! xxx

  3. Oooh! Cannot wait to see the outfits!

    This looks like it was a very interesting and unique experience.


  4. Oh I wish I could've gone - but your pics are fabulous. who doesn't love Vivienne, and I think Hamish Bowles is brilliant as well. xo


  5. There was so much exciting rawness to expression at the time. Thank you for this piece - you've captured the scene so well to help us understand Ms. Bartsch better. I suppose that was really a kind of social media without the electronic devices, style spreading organically. I love how she hosted the Love Ball!!
    And I love the last photo of you and Patricia.

  6. Hamish Bowles and Stephen Jones are familiar names but I haven't heard of Susanne Bartsch - she looks great! The event sounds really interesting, and you met some cool people too, always a bonus.
    As Vix said, the late 1970s and early 1980s were a strange mix in the UK - economic recession, strikes, grim times for many, yet there was an explosion of music and fashion and pop culture which was hugely flamboyant and outrageous. It wa great to live through those times as a teenager! xxx

  7. ohhhh, thank you for sharing all the fabulousness!, I'm glad to watch some familiar names and to know about some others not so familiar!!, amazing creative people!!. As a huge fan of 80's, I'm delighted too!!
    And not so strange that you met some interesting people! because you're very interesting!

  8. What a great bunch of photographs, and elucidating commentary. Hamish Bowles has undergone quite a transformation. I never would have suspected! And Stephen Jones is such a treasure. And homage must always be paid to Leigh Bowery. I do wish I could have gone - why on earth could they not have held it in the evening, or over the weekend? Happily, we get to see it vicariously!

  9. even to me - behind the iron curtain - came a wispering of the things that happened in london and NYC! and i shocked the province town with makeup and outfits in the style of boy george and cindy lauper - made from attic finds and self sewn stuff. mum was horrified - the teachers and party officials alarmed.....
    thank you for sharing this!!! xxxxx

  10. You have made me feel as though I was with you in NYC. Fabulous photos and your writing captured your experience beautifully. Loved the headwear and how wonderful that you were able to meet Patricia Fox. Spectacular post, Shelley!