at The Museum at FIT
in the East Chelsea area
This event has ended - (2015-09-18 - 2015-12-05)
Most exhibition openings don’t end up in Page Six. Valerie Steele’s Museum at FIT did just that when her door staff turned away Bette Midler from an opening night crowd that brought together Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali, Amanda Lepore, and RuPaul. Apparently the event was at capacity, as several Fashion Week events were, although world-famous singers usually don’t have a problem making it in.
Most retrospective exhibitions also conjure eras that vanished long ago and persist now only in memories and vitrines. Many of their leading figures have died or withered. But FIT’s “Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch” extravagantly documents the legacy of a woman and a scene that are very much alive and vibrant today.
The exhibition’s sedate name belies the powerful shock and sparkle of looks in the Swiss-born event producer’s massive collection. In writing my book about New York nightlife, I’ve watched Bartsch up close and seen her wear some of these looks as she presided over parties at Greenhouse, the SoHo Grand, Verboten, Marquee, and the Standard’s Le Bain, where she has been kind enough to let me host on two occasions.
FIT’s exhibition is a must-see and the design is stunning, truly worthy of someone like Bartsch who has made a career out of spectacle. Music pumps and disco balls spin, while the foyer is adorned with faux graffiti and flyers from Bartsch’s old parties. The stand-outs of the whole show include works by FIT alumnus Zaldy, who has made some of her signature looks over the years. Some of my favorites were perhaps the complementary fire and water looks crafted by Zaldy and Mathu, works of sexy super-villain comic couture. Corsets designed by The Blonds are works of art that demand up close inspection, as does the famous cocoon-like wedding dress by Thierry Mugler that Bartsch wore when she married gym impresario David Barton.
Any other big name you can think of is represented, from Vivienne Westwood to Alexander McQueen, HBA to Rick Owens, even Bartsch’s legendary forebear Leigh Bowery. The exhibition also includes works by other artists involved in nightlife like Muffinhead, Ryan Burke, and Bartsch’s nightlife collaborator Gage of the Boon. In its content and form, the Bartsch show represents another clear step forward in a long march of convergence among art world and fashion industry elites, totally in line with blockbuster fashion-as-art shows by the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art.
Full disclosure: I taught at FIT for a year before moving back to teach at Columbia. One of my former sociology students at FIT, a young designer named Taylor Cox, joined me at Bartsch’s exhibition opening after-party at the Gramercy Theatre. There I was at last able to introduce her to Amanda Lepore, whom I discussed regularly in class. Bartsch arrived and Patrick McMullan quickly swooped in to photograph her. Bartsch was radiant, enjoying what would be a bright apogee for any career while beaming her gorgeous smile. The ex Club Kids Zaldy and Desi Santiago roamed the main area, rubbing elbows with ErickaToure Aviance and veteran drag performer Linda Simpson. The energetic scene that FIT sought to document was still very vibrant at that venue.
So after you visit the FIT show, go watch Bartsch’s living, breathing art for yourself. Stand outside one of her parties and see a lavishly made-up Bartsch sweep into the venue with her attractive young assistants in tow. She is working, running around talking to club operators and her hosts, getting people drinks, handing out tickets, generally making sure the party is running smoothly. Then go inside, observe her watching the scene that she has assembled. When the dance floor is full and arms and heads are flailing underneath the pulsating lights, Bartsch smiles intensely, as proud as any mother.