Interview w/ Susanne Bartsch: Pioneer of Fashion, Club Culture & Philanthropy

Susanne Bartsch, a pioneer of fashion, club culture and philanthropy is an icon celebrated for her non-stop hard work and driven outlook on the creative industry. Showing that she will let nothing stand in her path, she is an inspiration for people attempting to achieve their goals, and her work hard play hard mantra proves that everyone should incorporate a bit of Bartsch in their lives.

We caught up with Susanne following the launch of her book, Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, to garner her opinions on club culture, social media and her plans for the future.

As you moved to London and broke in to the fashion and work world so young, would you say the ability to do that now compared to when you did has changed?

Yes. When I started, it was really about being out in the REAL world and who you know. Things happened organically. I got my first fashion job the same day I quit the job I had when I first moved to London at the Swiss embassy cutting emmental cheese. I took the job because if you worked there for a month, they granted you a working permit. The same day I got the permit, I gave my notice, hung up my cheese slicing smock (very frumpy minus the brass buttons where the nipples are), and took a walk to the cool part of town where I spotted a girl with a great look (the first person to have streaked hair), we struck up a conversation and she happened to manage a Boutique. I told her I was looking for work, and she hired me. That happens today of course, but I do think that the more time you spend staring at a device, the less likely you are to encounter those great moments of serendipity that happen when you’re really physically interacting with the energy of the world.

Susanne Bartsch

Susanne with Gage of the Boone in Vintage Mr. Pearl at Marquee, 2013 | Photo © Wilson Models

You seemed to be influenced greatly by your work at Blitz and Universal Witness, what advice would you give to other young people starting out in the fashion industry?

Follow your dreams
Break boundaries.
Just do it.

I opened my shop in New York with very little money and on a tourist visa. When there’s a will there’s a way and I think the universe helps you out when you do things that really come from the heart, and from a place of wanting to express the creative impulse and put more beauty into the world. I’m very much about being in charge of my life and not letting fear run it for me.

What is your opinion about the change that has happened since when you first started hosting huge social events in light of the takeover of social media?

I think it presents a challenge to everybody that is out there producing events in equal parts that it presents an opportunity. It’s a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity and makes it a lot easier to get the word out. On the flip side of that, I think that the ease of using the Internet to promote events creates an oversaturation effect. People are so bombarded by not just invites, but by Instagram images, Twitter feeds, etc that I think they get a little desensitized and just basically stop paying attention to everything they might see or be invited to online. I think the best way to use social media is in conjunction with old school methods of promotion, i.e. invites, press releases, phone calls and pre-social media social media, which is always the best: Word of Mouth.

Would you say the party scene has changed for the good? Why?

No. I am a fan of the “old school” simply because I think now things have become too businessy.  Business is good, but when the focus becomes just the bottom line and not actually providing an entertaining space for people to socialize and celebrate, that’s when a party becomes uninteresting.

How do you think the niche that you have carved of an amalgamation of fashion, events and philanthropy first came together?

Well, Necessity being the mother of invention, I would say that the AIDS crisis really brought it all together. When half of your friends are dying, it makes you want to do something. So that’s what brought the philanthropy element into my work with Fashion and events. And the event element came because I wanted to have a place where people could go to celebrate life wearing the clothes I sold. It was really originally a kind of cross promotional thing with my store.

Susanne Bartsch

Invitation for On Top, at the Standard Hotel, 2014 | Photo by Robin Souma

You’ve been credited for bringing the London party scene to New York, what was it about the atmosphere in London that differed from that of New York?

New York was more about “chic” and “sophisticated” when I came…basically pretty conservative. London was more about doing looks, experimentation and transformation, which is really a big part of my artistic practice and the way I express myself. Also London was about the weekly party, which wasn’t such a thing in NY.

The Aids benefit that you host, The LoveBall, has become an important event for communities everywhere and is clearly a close cause for you, which will continue as a legacy. What is next for you in terms of The LifeBall and your plans?

Well the LifeBall, which was inspired by the LoveBall, has become a huge annual AIDS benefit raising millions of dollars annually, and while I do it almost every year (only missed two), it feels good to continue working for that cause which, while definitely more under control than it was when I did LoveBall, is still a big thing affecting the community and the world. On a very local scale, I’ve been throwing a Christmas toy drive for underprivileged children for years and will continue to do that.

How would you say club culture fashion has evolved and do you think it is now being mirrored by some of the haute couture designers of today?

To go back to the influence of the Internet on culture, the internet is a great leveler, and because everything is given public exposure online the second it happens, I think its definitely about a constant dialogue between “club” or “street” fashion and “haute couture”. I think now the distinction between the two is not as big. I would say the “Haute Couture” looks of fashion week runway shows are DEFINITELY inspired by the “Self Couture” looks of the nightclub and street scenes.

Susanne Bartsch

Susanne, Onehalf Nelson, and Erickatoure at Catwalk at Marquee, 2013 | Photo by Marco Ovando

From your personal style you seem to be influenced by a huge range of people and designs as a sort of fashion chameleon, but would you say there is one trend or staple that has stayed permanent to you?

Headgear, Wigs, Make up and Heels!

I’m definitely attracted to the showy side of fashion.

I also think part of my signature, is playing with traditional silhouettes from various time periods and mixing it up with something else. For instance; one of the themes in my looks is “Victorian Punk”…smashing two opposites together and seeing what you come up with.

What plans do you have to continue to expand your “Fashion Underground” in the near future?

At the moment, I’m working on getting my FIT exhibition on the road, developing a television series and in the midst of being filmed for a documentary about my life.

Also working on a gorgeous book of all my looks and last but not least, I do my annual summer party On Top at LeBain and my monthly travelling party called KUNST. And oh, I almost forgot, my Couture Lash line was just launched in collaboration with MAC. So now everyone can see the world through my “Curlieque” and “On Top” lashes with more Bartschland blinkers to come!

To anyone who has not yet read the book (Fashion Underground) or isn’t yet familiar with “The World of Susanne Bartsch”, how would you define yourself?

A to Z Anything goes!
Adventure in the Closet
Celebration on the Dancefloor,
L for Love and Belief in yourself in life.
And the Z is for Zebra which is definitely some of natures best drag.

Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch by Valerie Steele and Melissa Marra is out now.

Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch

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Words: Julia Cohen
Photos: Courtesy of Yale University Press