Get to Know Suzanne Bartsch, the Snazziest Dresser in New York Club History

An exhibit of the nightlife queen's fantasy wardrobe recalls the days when the city's nightclubs doubled as runways.

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Nov 23 2015, 10:59pm

As soaring real estate prices, hostile neighborhood organizations, and massive rezoning jeopardize the future of New York nightlife, it's useful to remember that in the last two decades of the 20th century, Manhattan was one of the best places to party in the world.

In the 80s, as the specter of AIDS hung over the city, everyone was dancing as if there was no tomorrow. Every Saturday, thousands of men would head toward the East Village, where the Saint—a legendary gay megaclub topped by a planetarium dome—kept them on the dance floor often well into Sunday evening. Down in TriBeca, the distinctly grungier Mudd Club would be full to bursting with New Wavers every night; over in SoHo, Area hosted monthly art installations, frequently featuring real people in the displays.

I see aluminum foil, and I think, 'I can use that.'

It was an age of excess, and at the center of it all was a party promoter named Susanne Bartsch. For each of her parties—from her monthly parties at venerable Midtown club Copa in the late 80s to her annual Halloween extravaganzas at Palladium in the 90s—the tall, thin, angular Swiss-born Bartsch would spend hours assembling a unique look. Her outfits—which invariably included an outsized headdress, makeup, corseted body armor, and matching shoes—would combine threads from her designer friends with bits of so-called "found fashion" she discovered lying around. "I see aluminum foil," she tells THUMP, "and I think, 'I can use that.'"

Nostalgia is only one reason why anyone reading this should make a point of catching "Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch," an exhibit at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology that runs this year from September 18 through December 5. For the first time, nearly 80 of Bartsch's extensive personal collection of one-of-a-kind, outrageously inventive costumes—looks that inspired designers everywhere from New York to Milan, and everyone from Donna Karan to Jean-Paul Gaultier—have been assembled for the public.

From the closing party at Copa in 1993, there's a see-through sequined mesh bodysuit in fire-engine red and flaming-red feather showgirl headdress. From Catwalk—her 2013 party at Marquee in Chelsea—there's a lace corset tutu pierced by long black knitting needles and topped with a muffinhead hat-hairpiece. The entire collection, which spans 30 years, is a repository of fabulous parties at legendary clubs like Palladium, Tunnel, Limelight, and Roxy.

"It was all about seeing and being seen," Bartsch explains. "My parties were a platform for people to express themselves"—and clearly, Bartsch most of all.

Born and raised in Switzerland, Bartsch flew the nest and moved to the UK in 1968, when she was 17. She told her parents she wanted to study English, but that was just an excuse to get to London.The Swiss Centre gave her a job selling cheese. As soon as she obtained her visa, she looked for something more to her liking and found it as a sales clerk for a cutting-edge boutique on Kensington High Street. Customers like larger-than-life Leigh Bowery, the gender-fuck surrealist inspiration for Boy George, gave her an entree into the city's club life.

After 10 years, in 1981, a love affair brought her to New York, a city that immediately felt like home. "I loved it here," she says. "The energy on the street: you can feel it."

She opened a tiny fashion boutique, one of the first in SoHo, then a desolate fringe area of downtown Manhattan. British imports like milliner Stephen Jones' fanciful chapeaus and Emma Hope's elegantly hand-crafted shoes soon attracted the attention of the trade press—as well as American fashion world outliers like Mr. Pearl, who models his own organ-crushing corsets smothered in sequins, faux pearls, or beads; and Abel Villareal, pioneer of womenswear appropriated from gay leather fetish gear. Her shop proved so popular she opened another, then became an importer.

During Fashion Week in 1983, Bartsch produced "New London in New York," a runway show at the Roxy that introduced British designers like Vivienne Westwood to buyers from major department stores like Bloomingdale's and Macy's. It was such a success that she did a similar show the next year at the Limelight.

In 1987, an invitation to throw a weekly partly at Savage, a small club under the Chelsea Hotel—where she'd lived since arriving in New York six years earlier—gave her the opportunity to combine her love of fashion and nightlife. Her parties quickly became notorious for bringing fashionistas, drag queens, club kids and curious onlookers together on the dance floor. "No one had ever done that," she tells THUMP.

Her parties caught the attention of the owners of the Copa, a Brazilian-themed nightclub dating all the way back to the year 1940. Famous for its sexy showgirls in Carmen Miranda turbans (Barry Manilow, for his part, had called it "the hottest spot north of Havana" in his 1978 song, "Copacabana"), the Copa had reopened as a disco in 1976, and was already way past its heyday when Bartsch began her monthly parties there in 1988. Soon enough, though, the dance floor was filled with Uptown high society, Wall Street yuppies, drag queens, club kids, bridge-and-tunnel disco bunnies, and even designers like Calvin Klein and Thierry Mugler.

Her Copa regulars proved a winning formula that has served her well ever since: "Straight, gay, uptown, downtown, pier queens to trust funds—my mission is to get people to mix and dress up," Bartsch tells THUMP. "You can do whatever you want, be whatever you want. Or not. Just come and dance—enjoy each other's energy."

FIT chief curator Valerie Steele, who organized "Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch," says she had been hearing about Bartsch's one-of-a-kind outfits for a long time before she decided to pay the fashionista party promoter a visit at the Chelsea Hotel.

Straight, gay, uptown, downtown, pier queens to trust funds—my mission is to get people to mix and dress up.

"I've known her slightly since the '80s," Steele said. "We met at a dinner party, and she suggested this exhibit. I said, 'Let's see what you've got.'" Steele related how nervous Bartsch was because the garments, which now filled three apartments in the hotel, had been stored so haphazardly. Steele, for her part, couldn't have cared less."I was so enthusiastic," she told THUMP. "Each time she pulled one out, I was like, 'This is fabulous!'"

Steele, once dubbed the "Freud of Fashion" by journalist Suzy Menkes, has headed up the FIT museum since 2003; in the past 30 years, she has written more than 15 books, including A Queer History of Fashion; Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power; and The Corset: A Cultural History. Of particular interest to Steele is the "geography of fashion—public spaces where it is presented, like nightclubs"—an idea she explores in her essay for Fashion Underworld, a companion book for exhibit published by Yale University Press.

Steele's sensibility fit Bartsch's wardrobe like a pair of six-inch stiletto fuck-me heels on a drag queen. The exhibit begins with video from 1989's Love Ball, an AIDS fundraiser Bartsch curated featuring performances from New York's underground ballroom scene—and which is rumored to have inspired Madonna, present in the audience that night, to write her legendary 1990 single "Vogue." Inside the cavernous exhibit hall, disco balls and ambient lighting recreate the feel of a 1990s club so vividly you may go into a contact K-hole.

A handful of photos show Bartsch with her second husband, gym owner and bodybuilder David Barton, whom she met in 1992 and is the father of their son, Bailey. At their nightclub wedding in 1995, Bartsch wore a flesh-colored bodysuit and satin corset. Her "hat" is actually a giant egg-shaped headdress that encases her entire body. Barton's entire outfit is a white loincloth.

It's hard to find fault with such a fun and fulfilling exhibit. But the emphasis on fashion underplays the fact that these parties took place in nightclubs. Aside from soft, piped-in ambient music, there's no mention of DJs, musical genres, or songs.

Bartsch herself is certainly aware of the importance of music to set the tone of her events. "The music is one of the more important elements," she told THUMP. "It's an ingredient, but the special ingredient, like the wine in a dish."

As for Barsch's own musical tastes, she's quick to praise Will Automagic, one half of the cutting-edge house duo The Carry Nation, as well as house pioneer Little Louie Vega. "I still like house," she said. "I like neo-disco. It's more about the mix. I like to have three DJs for a different flavor, different energy."

For Bartsch, though, a night on the town isn't just about what happens on the dancefloor—it's an all-day affair. Making and putting on an outfit, then slathering on layers of makeup, may take a lot of effort, but the thrill of making a drop-dead entrance is worth it. The advent of social media, she believes, changed that—and not for the better.

"It's a very different world," she said. "Going out isn't a 'must' anymore. You don't have to go to the party to see what people are wearing. You can go on the internet, go on Instagram. People are so inundated, when they do go out, that it has to be something special."

In the latter part of the 90s, Bartsch took a brief hiatus from nightlife—she needed to take some time away to care for Bailey, and besides, the New York she'd fallen in love with rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Mayor Rudoph Giuliani was overseeing a crackdown on club life, and venue owners reacted by increasingly catering to the bottle-service crowd. Crobar, one of few megaclubs left in once-thriving West Chelsea, covered its dance floor with banquettes; in 2014, the building fell victim to the wrecking ball in 2014 to make way for luxury housing. "New York changed a lot," Bartsch tells THUMP. "Everything became very controlled. Real estate runs the show now."

By the early 2000s, she'd resumed throwing occasional special events, mostly in other cities. She stayed away from weekly parties until 2006; by 2013, though, she was throwing four parties a week, ranging from Catwalk at the Marquee to a cabaret evening at the SoHo Grand Hotel.

A Halloween party at contemporary art museum MoMA PS1 drew thousands of people to Long Island City, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens—proof that her draw remains undiminished among a new generation of club kids. "I'm very encouraged the way young people respond to what I do," she tells THUMP.

These days, ever the woman with her finger on the pulse, Bartsch says she's increasingly drawn to the still-thriving underground club scene in Brooklyn—not just the energy, but also the dress. "The Brooklyn look is messier," she said. "Hipster grunge, but with a drag angle; dressing not in a chic but messy way. It's more relaxed. Even me, I don't plan the look anymore. It's Brooklyn drag."