Sitting in Susanne Bartsch’s apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, long a Manhattan home for artists, but now fraying at the seams, it is hard to believe that New York's “Queen of Night Life” is not acting a role.
The swirling paintings, the pink stars behind the hat stand, the gilded candles and the carved four poster bed on which a sparkly corset is laid out, could easily be a set from the exhibition that opens at the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) this week: “Fashion Underground: the World of Susanne Bartsch”.
“I’m really a Chelsea girl!” announces Bartsch in the native Swiss accent she has kept all these New York years – just as she has hung on to packed closets and rails of designer clothes. These include an outfit from John Galliano’s “Les Incroyables” – his 1984 graduation collection inspired by the French Revolution; hats from the 1980s by her friend Stephen Jones; and Vivienne Westwood shoes, stored in a bathroom-turned-closet.
The FIT show, curated by Valerie Steele with Bartsch, opens as a vision of wild nights in pre-AIDS New York in the 1980s – and how Susanne took up the cause, raising funds to help fight the ravaging illness.
It is as difficult to guess Bartsch’s age (she has a 21-year-old son studying Classics at Brown University) as it is to identify her personal style. The general spirit she exudes is upbeat, curious and lively.
She greeted me in a blue jersey onesie by Alexander McQueen that slid over a body toned at the gym. “I don't like working out, to be honest, but I know that I have to do it,” she says.
Her signature black pools of eyeliner and mascara were relatively mild, but she showed me a box of peacock-feather lashes, saying, “I’ve worn them a million times.” She plans to circle her eyelids for the museum show, and is also ready to show them to MAC cosmetics – one aspect of her day job. The beauty house is one of the backers for the FIT exhibition. “I am toning down the chic, I am going to go punky: I’m going to do a safety-pin make-up,” Bartsch tells me.
Susanne’s memory of her fashion years is encyclopaedic, recalling British designers I myself had half-forgotten. She referenced the Richmond-Cornejo clothes she put on sale in her downtown store when she arrived in New York on a tourist visa on Valentine’s Day, 1981 to follow up a love affair.
“I definitely had good timing,” says Barscht, recalling her earlier days in so-called Swinging London, hanging out with performance artist Leigh Bowery and with Westwood’s clan. “I went through all the hippies, the punks and the New Romantics,” she says, explaining her early years when she left Switzerland at 17, telling her parents that she needed to learn English.
Barscht had a knitwear business in London, “but I was really young and it was too much responsibility for me”, she explained. The move to New York, dressed in London’s crazy, creative clothes that she used to fill her store, earned her a title from Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer who had already been recording street style for decades. As she stepped out to see the opera sets created by David Hockney, wearing a chemise, “bangles all the way up”, and a Stephen Jones hat, Cunningham gave her the moniker “Swiss Miss”.
Did she miss those “velvet underground” days when the hippy, trippy 70s slid into the extravagant 80s? She has rather exulted from living through change. “With social media, the underground has a harder time – it needs time to fester and grow, but now it’s just instant,” says Barscht. “It’s great to have all that social media, but at the same time I think we are losing our soul.”
It is all so different today from Barscht’s big adventure in London, hanging out with The Who and the Sex Pistols. As she puts it, “I’m grateful that I was there; even the pill was invented then and I was like, ‘Time for action!’”
“I was always able to be in it,” she says. “I don’t mind being alone, but I like to grow, I like to evolve. Of course I have fear. Hell! What if nobody likes my exhibition?”
In the 1980s, Susanne Barscht moved beyond the shop business (“I used to bring all this shit through customs - bags and bags and nobody cared”) into party mania. It began with a “New London in New York” fashion show, when young designers Donna Karan and Norma Kamali were customers. Compared to the streamlined, minimalist clothes of Calvin Klein that dominated American fashion at the time, Susanne’s shows were a blast.
The fashion period lasted only five years, although as we move into her bedroom, where everything from the bed to the walls is blood red, there are heaps of vintage clothes, including corsets from the famous Mr Pearl. It is hard to believe that this magpie collector switched relatively quickly to a party world.
In 1986, a show in Japan was the summit of a fashion business that ended when she gave up the store and was lured into opening a club called Savage in New York’s SoHo. Barscht had entered her career heartland. “Three weeks later I had a thousand people show up, and I go, ‘Who needs a shop? Who needs a staff?’ I like to be in charge,” she says.
And then, over the bright lights and sparkling outfits, fell the shadow of AIDS. By 1988, the epidemic had taken hold and Barscht was in a deep depression when what she describes as “a lightbulb” illuminated her mind and gave her the idea of working with those stricken by the disease. She would hold a Love Ball, not only to raise money, but also to celebrate life.
How did the organiser of these wild events remain unscarred herself, in a period when drink and drugs were also ravaging New York’s night-time crowd?
“I’m lucky; I’m a lousy drinker and I’m not an addict, thank God,” she says. “If I had done what I had around me, I probably would be dead. But I think I’m very inspired creatively, and that’s my medicine. It keeps me going, it keeps me young, it keeps me excited.”
The new millennium, after the birth of her son, was a period of special events, rather than the club world. “I was stopping the nightclub things,” she remembers. “I was making money and was a success, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I’d rather kill it before it killed me.”
Barscht’s recent special events have been for Halloween, an opportunity to dress up that she never misses, and also for private parties. She has even started 21st-century salons at the SoHo Grand, where a group of people “hang out and sing if they feel like it”.
The FIT show is what she calls “a labour of love”. “It’s a fantastic honour and I’m grateful to have the opportunity. It’s something I never believed I would do,” she says.
And how does Susanne Bartsch imagine the reaction to the show? How will people see her and how does she define herself?
“I go with my gut, my feeling,” she says. “I want people to be happy. Sadness and sorrow are part of life. But I just want to make of life the best that I can.”
“Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch” is at the Museum at FIT, New York from 18th September to 5th December 2015.