By Tom Austin
September 16, 2015
Jason Akira Somma

A native of Switzerland, Susanne Bartsch moved to London in her teens and developed a taste for English fashion. In 1981, she set out to conquer the New York demimonde, taking up rooms at the Chelsea Hotel and opening a boutique in Soho. Bartsch was one of the first New York retailers to carry Vivienne Westwood.

Throughout the 1980s, she staged such fashion shows as “New London in New York,” lending early attention to Leigh Bowery, Body Map, and Stephen Jones. At clubs like Copacabana, Savage, and Miami Beach’s Warsaw, she staged elaborate fashion carnivals and raised more than $2.5 million for AIDS research: the 1989 Love Ball, in particular, was a pivotal AIDS benefit.

Bartsch has had an extraordinary life in fashion, and now her life and collection—featuring more than 80 designs by The Blonds, Alexander McQueen, Pam Hogg, and Zaldy—will be featured in a new exhibition, “Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch,” at the Museum of FIT in New York. The Fashion Institute of Technology, which has a collection of more than 50,000 garments dating back to the 18th Century, is the perfect fit for Bartsch, a pioneer of the New Romantics movement.

On view from September 18 to December 5, the Bartsch exhibition is sponsored by the Couture Council, MAC Cosmetics, and The Standard, High Line. Curated by FIT’s Valerie Steele and Bartsch herself, the exhibition was designed by Kim Ackert after a concept by Thierry Loriot. Different sections evoke her 1980s boutique, the legendary AIDS balls, and her Chelsea Hotel apartment.

“Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch” captures the intersection of fashion, art, and self-realization. As Bartsch notes, “Style is about expressing yourself. You can be whatever you want to be.”

Tom Austin is based in Miami and covers the Florida beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow him on Twitter at @TomAustin__.