As a subculture enthusiast and scholar, it was a pleasure to spend some time email-interviewing NYC style leader Susanne Bartsch, who is the subject of the latest Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition. Worn Through covers numerous exhibitions in the form of reviews and from the curators’ and conservationists’ perspective. This interview is a refreshing change, since it discusses an exhibition from the point-of-view of the subject. So much of our work is historical and we need to try to get into the mind of the potential wearer of garments long stored away in closets and archives. For this exhibition coverage it’s a treat to talk to the wearer herself!
Monica. Can you briefly discuss how involved were you in the process of developing the exhibition?
Susanne Bartsch. I was involved in every process of the development of the show. From the planning stages of the exhibition, architecturally speaking by which I mean how the actual room was laid out, to the placement of the outfits at the end, and everything in between.
M. Can you briefly discuss the approach that was taken by the museum to accurately represent your life and ideas, and whether this was easy or a challenge?
SB. My life is my art my art is my life, by which I mean the lifestyle art of fashion and dressing up. Of course when I’m at home I’m in jeans and a T shirt like everyone else, but expressing myself through Looks & Fashion has always been my primary means of expression, and so we divided the exhibit up into the different aspects of my life. The past: The stores in Soho, my fashion history. The present/home life: My bedroom my creative center, my Sanctum, ( where I get dressed and undressed where ) I have on display a number of “current” and glamourous body conscious looks. The bulk of the exhibition is devoted to the place which has been my primary platform of expression and that is “The Nightclub” and Events….It’s there that the real show stoppers from the 80’s to the present are on display and I think it will be fun for viewers to see the evolution of my looks. Of course as with any artist, my “work” by which I mean what I curate in my own collection has gone through a process of becoming more focused and refined. In the early days I was wearing lots of underwear as outerwear, shredded denim by JoDean, more “grunge”.
M. Can you tell the story of an outfit shown that has a particularly special meaning to you?
SB. I would say the “Crown Jewels” of the exhibition are pieces designed by Mr Pearl, which serve as kind of “centerpieces” of the exhibition. There’s the stunning couture mermaid by Mr Pearl made for Mugler involved.
Also my wedding ensemble. A special mannequin had to be made for it, and the egg shaped boned veil had to be tracked down (it was in a museum) and repaired.
M. You have an intimate working relationship with designers. Can you briefly discuss how those relationships are initiated and how they evolve over time. Are there pieces in the show that highlight ongoing relationships?
SB. Like any relationship, my relationship with designers evolves organically. I would say the closest relationship I’ve had with any designer throughout my life and career is with the brilliant Zaldy who is well represented in the show, and whom I will be wearing for the opening. With Zaldy, it was an initimate symbiosis through the years, I used to hire him to do looks and host my events and the fact that we both lived in the Chelsea hotel definitely greased the wheels of our longtime collaboration together. It’s much easier to work with and become close to someone who you can pop down the hall to work on and talk about an outfit with than it is if you have to schedule appointments with.
M. Lately there have been articles floating around the web regarding a renewed interest in dressing up, thematic dress, and a disdain for casual and athletic wear. Why do you think now is the time for this?
SB. Fashion is a pendulum. Always swinging this way and that. Just when the pendulum swings in the direction of complete austerity and minimalism, the nature of the instrument says it then must swing in the other direction. A year ago the word “normcore” was being bandied about as what the “kids” were wearing…..as in going as normal as it gets. That sort of “too cool to care” look. Which I completely respect and get as an aesthetic. So when “normcore” is the look, anyone who knows the history of fashion cycles can tell you that the next wave will of course be a return to the outré, flamboyant and experimental. And once the market and collective conscious is flooded with too many beads, feathers and psychedelic prints, presto chango! Back we go to minimal silhouettes in palettes of greige and black. It’s a reflection of life and the universe… This very principle is reflected in my show. The clothes from my shop are very innovative, but a sea of earth tones, and since that was the eighties, I suppose it was the pendulum swinging from the gaudy excess of the disco seventies. We went from sparkle sparkle glam to earthtone ragamuffin. Then you go into the club which is late 80s and 90s and it’s more is more! Then comes the section of “New Designers” in which all the outfits ( and I did not plan it that way) are black and white. Westwood pretty much summed it up…..first with a store called “Let It Rock” which then became “Nostalgia of Mud”.
M. The exhibition highlights pieces from events and nightlife, however does it also feature clothing from your daily wear? If so, can you talk similarities and differences?
SB. I only have a couple of day looks in the show, Jeans with Kenny Scharf Graffiti on them, a Westwood Anglomania denim corset blouse and an exquisite McQueen bleached denim and embroidered trench. During the day the looks I wear to events would be a bit silly to run around town doing errands and meetings, I call these looks “Full drag”. For my professional life meetings etc. I call my looks “Day Drag” and for dinner, theater, opera type events “Semi Drag”
M. Working with curators and museum professionals, and displaying your items for public consumption, are you protective over the objects? Do you consider them fragile museum pieces, walking works of art, or more so do you feel they are to be touched, handled, and interacted with?
SB. A lot of the pieces in the show are very fragile and very special, and the reason the show even exists is because the fact that I respect the pieces as very special, whether I purchased them or they were gifts to me. Dressing is part my art and I consider the clothing works of art. You wouldn’t just toss a Picasso around and throw it on the floor and step on it would you? And so I am always very careful with the fragile pieces I’ve been blessed to be given and acquire throughout my life. That being said, fashion is meant to be worn, and I am very happy and feel blessed to be given the opportunity to share my collection with the world and have the utmost faith in the museum going public to respect the clothes on display and must commend FIT with the level of care they took with each and every item. Every piece in the show goes through a very lengthy and painstaking process of “conditioning” by the museum. Also fitting in with museum regulations, things are definitely not to be touched handled and interacted with, but feasted upon with eyes!! Bon Appetit!
M. Did you have a part in the display development for the show? How they would be shown? What stories would be told and how the ensembles are put together?
SB. Yes I was involved in every aspect from A to Z. This is not normal for the museum and I give major kudos to everyone at the museum for stepping back and allowing me that special freedom and amount of involvement.
M. Do you keep everything and how do you store it at home? Do items go back to the designers?
SB. I wear all the clothes I have, restyle them, giving them a different twist, but I do keep a lot of the clothes, especially those from the shop days, in storage. The Mr. Pearl pieces I keep wrapped in tissue in trunks. Everything current is either hung in garment bags or on a rack in one of my many makeshift closets at the Chelsea hotel.
M. These are dynamic objects primarily meant to be worn and in the context of events and nightlife. Do you feel the stationary showing of a mannequin is able to demonstrate how the object functions and what it means? What was done in the exhibition to enhance this? Show videos?
SB. I was a little worried before the show that the mannequins would not do justice for some of the outfits, but since they’ve been treated with that museum magic: placed carefully on mannequins, lit, and arranged in a clean clutter free exhibition space, I’m happily surprised with result. It really is a testament to the power of exhibition display. Put a Cy Twombly on a refrigerator with a couple magnets and it’s your 3 year old nieces doodles, but float them under museum glass and light them properly and voila! Stunning! Guess its what we call the smoke and mirrors magic of showbiz and I love it! And as we know, EVERYTHING is context and CONTEXT is everything.
M. On the other hand, do you feel when the ensembles are in use for events are people getting to see the intricacies and details? Perhaps the exhibition is able to highlight those things?
SB. Yes yes yes!!! Mr. Pearl’s work, for instance is absolutely masterful! Soft sculpture to rival Claes Oldenburg and definitely “sound suits” in their own right Pre- Nick Cave. So I’m very happy it’s getting a chance to be seen in that light.
M. Fashion researchers are often trying to understand the motivations and practices of individuals who dress to follow social norms and also those who dress uniquely and individually. Can you briefly discuss your perspectives on artistic expression through dress? Or social commentary through dress? Are you trying to achieve those goals?
SB. It’s just who I am! Always has been always will be! I was wearing vintage thrift shop duds and painting my eyes with rainbow colors much to the chagrin of my parents. Since a very early age, like 8 I was wanting a say, and now I’m happy to have helped spawned a generation of Lady Gaga’s and Leo Gugus who carry on the torch and continue to develop the art of dressing as artistic medium. Once upon a time “video art” was unheard of in museums. I’m happy to be a pioneer of “fashion art’ and will continue the practice one boundary pushing look at a time!
M. A place like NY embraces and facilitates using many artistic practices in dressing with its concentration of people and resources (designers, clubs, etc). Is the story of this exhibition an “only in NYC” one? Do you think in the Internet era that is changing?
SB. No no no! It’s global! Fashion artists come to New York to be with each other….to live and work and play together. But we come from all over the world. I’m from Switzerland. And the people around me are from all over the world! Japan! Haiti! Idaho! And people in the “hinterlands” are STARVING for culture and color. I would love for the exhibition travel. Let’s bring it to the world!
For more info:
Follow Susanne on Instgram @bartschland
Check out the MFIT Exhibition here
Corresponding book written by Valerie Steele and Susanne Bartsch
Symposium features scholars, night life figures, designers, and more!
*images courtesy of MFIT