If you think the music and fashion stopped after Studio 54 shut its doors to Liza, Liz, Andy, Calvin, Halston, and Yves, FIT’s club-scene exhibition, Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, presents evidence to the contrary through December 5.
The show features nightlife splendor (with all the trimmings) from Susanne’s clothes-to-be-seen-in archive. Plus, you’ll get the thrill of pretending that you’ve stepped into one of her over-the-top parties, filled with celebrities, outrageous clothes, spectacle, and glitter.
Right downstairs at the gallery entrance, you’ll be taken back to a graffiti-splashed Nineties club entrance with a dolled-up doorkeeper sizing you up and holding “the list”. But there’s no anxiety about whether you’ll be let inside…Just walk in and be transported back to 1981.
As the glittery disco 54 era was coming to an end in New York in 1981, Bartsch arrived from London and opened up a shop in Soho filled with up-and-coming London designers that were creating the “new look” catching on in clubs across the pond.
In the early 1980s, Japanese and British designers experimented with crinkly natural fibers and oversized smocks – which looked fresh and hip after a decade of form-fitting, glitzy disco looks.
Susanne sold the oversized, anti-disco baggy look of nightlife trendsetters Boy George and Leigh Bowery, imported dandy mix-and-match men’s and women’s looks from Vivienne Westwood, and featured flowing frocks by London’s Rachel Auburn.
The first part of the FIT show walks down this part of memory lane, including linen frocks by Mr. Galliano. Smocks are punctuated with dramatic hats (decades before fascinators) or beads from Portobello Road.
By the late Eighties, all that had given way to raggedy and accessorized mash-ups sported by the Material Girl and by the Nineties, bejeweled and bedazzled clubwear reigned again. Susanne was regularly hosting parties clad in an ever-evolving array of embellished corsets, fashioned by the master of form and shape, Mr. Pearl.
In a well-deserved tribute to his creations, FIT has installed a carousel of Mr. Pearl’s work on a turntable in the show’s back room of the show, next to a corner where mannequins form a towering tribute to the magic of Mr. Mugler, another of Ms. Bartsch’s favorites. After she introduced Mr. Pearl to Mr. Mugler, the rest was fashion history.
Fashion designers flocked to her parties and she did justice to them all – working in their hats, jackets, shoes, bags, and separates into her never-ending array of special occasion get-ups. When you peruse the specific looks on display in the show, it’s an all-star line-up of New York, Paris, and London fashion heavyweights.
The show screams of creativity and it’s wonderful that curator Valerie Steele put a spotlight on this Queen of Nightlife and her impact on the underground/high fashion scene for the last three decades. A lot of Susanne’s featured clubwear is credited to Mathu & Zaldy, who turned out plenty of over-the-top looks when designer ready-to-wear just didn’t pack enough punch for a special occasion.
Another charming touch in the show is the ensemble of paper, Lycra and leather contributed by Gareth Pugh. Susanne asked him to send something she could (and would) wear.
As always, FIT provides lots of history and photographs of Susanne and friends in action at multitudes of balls and parties on its exhibition website. Spend time looking at Susanne in action and at snapshots of her historic Love Ball. For close-ups of the clothes and costumes, visit our Flickr feed.
Take 360 spin around each room of the show courtesy of FIT’s virtual tour produced by Synthescape. The arrows appearing on the floor will take you to all three rooms.
Do you wish you could have been at the opening of this exhibit? Not to worry – her friends and fans let you in on the party and remember unforgettable nights in this celebratory video. Even Calvin’s there: