Worlds of wonder | Susanne Bartsch


Susanne Bartsch is a brilliant dynamo of club culture and underground fashion in New York City. Since her arrival at the Chelsea Hotel in 1981 – where she stills live – she has created a universe of nightlife and avant-garde style. A new book Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch captures decades of innovation and anarchy

Worlds of wonder | Susanne Bartsch

Civilian: Since you made the journey from London to New York in the 1980s, do you think the two cities have become closer and less distinct?

Susanne Bartsch: I think because of the Internet, everything’s become closer in style. The world seems like one big city, but of course there are things about a city that remain unique regardless of the influence of the World Wide Web. That said, when I moved here, people didn’t dress up so much.  The looks were more conservative. Now people do looks in both New York and London. The difference between the two cities for me is that London is a place of inspiration, and New York is actually somewhere you can get things done. Because of its zig-zag street layout, London is more draining. New York, with its left to right, up and down streets and skyscrapers is more energizing.

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C: What were the biggest differences between the two places when you first moved?

SB: People in New York weren’t doing looks, now I have major competition in that department! LOL.

C: When you first moved into the Chelsea, what were your first impressions? Did you know all about its history? Who was there then?

SB: I didn’t know much about the Chelsea.  I moved there because my boyfriend was there and it felt like home away from home the minute I stepped in the lobby. Viva, The Ramones, Julian Schnabel, a crazy mix of people, Victor Hugo; artists, hookers and pimps…

Bartsch at the Chelsea Hotel

Bartsch at the Chelsea Hotel

C: You’ve really fought it out at the Chelsea, with the change of ownership and management and the new hotel happening – was there ever a time you thought about leaving? Will you stay forever?

SB: I’ve never thought about leaving. I will stay forever.

C: New York City has changed beyond all recognition since the early 1980s, when counter culture was the dominant force. What elements of New York still inspire you?

SB: New York is an adventure to me.  Walking around is a constant revelation.  Everyday I find something here to inspire me.

C: What very new elements of the city do you love?

I always love the new people moving into town. They’re excited, exciting, and bring something fresh

SB: I always love the new people moving into town. They’re excited, exciting, and bring something fresh from wherever it is they’re from, as they haven’t homogenised into the New York groove yet. I love what’s happening in the boroughs. Brooklyn is fantastic. New York is expanding by the day.

C: If you were mayor of New York, what would you do?

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Bartsch at the Tribeca Grand Hotel

SB: Less Disney, more art.

C: Is the city still a beacon for international creativity? What makes people make the journey?

SB: New York is a place where dreams come true.  Also, New York has a very big and deep built in PR machine via the films and television shows made here.  People all around the world grow up with an idea of what New York is going to be like from the movies they see and I think that’s a big part of why people come here. That phrase “the land of opportunities” is still true for New York.

C: We lost so many geniuses to AIDS in the 1980s, and you were such a fighting force in fund raising, as well as bringing the crisis to people’s attention. But we can’t bring those amazing people back. Who do you still miss most, and can you imagine what kind of work they may be producing now?

SB: There really is too many to name, and the work they made then and would be making now is of such staggering kaleidoscopic variety I think I could probably fill three volumes up on each person. Suffice to say the emotional impact of the loss was huge for me and the cultural impact of the loss for the world was gargantuan. And that’s just my friends alone.

C: It was interesting to see Rick Owens take inspiration from Leigh and Nicola Bowery this season – what did you like most about Bowery’s work and what are your memories of him?

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SB: I loved his fearlessness and the fact that he elevated performance art and its fusion with fashion and nightlife to a whole new level: endurance, dedication, obsession and passion. He would be in some of those looks for hours and they were clearly extremely uncomfortable.

C: Rachel Auburn is such an interesting visual force in the early parts of the new book. We remember her fashion well, but a lot of people will only know her from music. What made her so special?

SB: I loved all of her clothes.  And I think its great that she was able to parlay her name from fashion to music. She was, and is, a very inventive artist whether she’s applying herself to clothes or to music.

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C: How do you feel about fashion now? It seems like it would be impossible to do anything like Bartsch Boutique – it’s interesting that the guy from Vetements got the job at Balenciaga. Is there a fashion underground anymore?

SB: The underground is difficult to achieve these days. It needs time and space to ferment and develop privately and organically within a community, and now everything is on Instagram.  I always love fashion. At the moment, it’s a little beige for my taste, but I also feel a tide turning and think people are starting to push the envelope a little more and taking a few more risks.

C: Who do you think is really channeling the inspiration from those 80s London designers that you championed with Bartsch Boutique back in the day –  BodyMap et al?

SB: Hood by Air.

Bartsch at the Chelsea Hotel

Bartsch at the Chelsea Hotel

C: And which contemporary designers do you like most and why? 

SB: Zaldy, Rick Owens, Gareth Pugh, Chromat, Pam Hogg… They were all in my show at FIT.

C: Which cities do you like to travel to most?  

SB: I don’t have a favourite city, but I still love London.

C: It’s easy to say “things were better before social media”, but it’s here to stay. What positive things are coming out the world of new media for the culture do you think?

SB: It provides more of an opportunity for exposure and it exposes me to things I wouldn’t necessarily know about without its instant results. Interaction is much more possible now – a 14 year old girl from the middle of nowhere can now interact with Grace Jones.

C: Which outfits from the FIT exhibition had a particular emotional resonance for you?

SB: I think most definitely my wedding dress, for reasons that I think I don’t need to explain. Also, all the Mr Pearl and Love Ball looks – it was very moving for me, so many people came together to help make the Love Ball happen and raise millions of dollars. It was pure love. C

All photographs from Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch by Valerie Steele and Melissa Marra, published by Yale