- Susanne Bartsch and crew, 1991. Susanne’s look is featured in the exhibition.
- Susanne Bartsch has always been the centerpiece at her own parties.
- The catwalk crew at Marquee, 2013.
- Susanne Bartsch in Abel Villarreal’s leather horse look, April 1992.
- Susanne and François Sagat in Switzerland hosting an AIDS benefit. Dress by Mathu and Zaldy, 2011.
- On display in the entry of the exhibition.
- Installation view of the exhbition.
Nightlife without women would be like a meal without a table, plates, and utensils. A traditionally male dominated field, club life has been sparked by female club owners, promoters and “It girls” who liven up the scene with glamour, smarts, and a sense of how to take a party to the next level. While thuggish types sit in a back room and count the money, it’s often the ladies who plant themselves in the key lighting and make an event worth going to in the first place.
The current Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch exhibit at FIT is a testament to the extent with which queens of New York nightlife add to a party with extraordinary visuals and personality. Swiss-born boutique entrepreneur turned party host Susanne Bartsch has never been content to sit back and watch the action. Through the years, at places from the Copacabana to the Standard Hotel, she’s been the centerpiece of her own parties, dancing on the bar in elaborate, surreal, sexy outfits that defy you not to look at them. As someone who’s covered the woman for decades, I can report that the exuberant fiesta gal motif is pretty much a pose for her — she’s actually an astute businesswomen with her wheels always turning — but Bartsch plays it to the hilt, and always leads her nocturnal conga line of drag queens, club kids, and CEOs in full throttle fashion, no matter how conservative the rest of New York City is becoming.
Women have been integral to the nightlife as far back as 1920, when a brassy dame named Texas Guinan barked “Hello, suckers!” at the crowd in her Prohibition-era speakeasy, where booze — and policemen — regularly found their way in anyway.
In 1950, Sophie Tucker shimmied her zaftig frame around the stage of the ritzy Latin Quarter in Times Square. Bedecked in fur, jewels and feathers, she playfully sang Horse-Playing Papa and You Got To Make It Legal, Mr. Siegel, adding wry humor to the sometimes too-staid cabaret arena. Camp and glamour melded again in the 1960s, when artist/visionary Andy Warhol realized the importance of nightlife’s “It girls” and was rarely seen without one on his arm, in between shooting them for avant-garde photos and movies. Transsexual beauty Candy Darling was a Warhol “superstar”, and so was heiress/model Edie Sedgwick, dubbed the “Girl of the Year” in 1965. But as much as they loved to party, both women seemed doomed, a haunted beauty infusing their allure, as if handed down by Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962.
But the ’70s produced a tougher, more together breed of it women, a trend that has mercifully stayed with us ever since. Studio 54 was the ultimate disco — a glitzy, celebrity-studded hedonism palace with moving set pieces and drug-taking and sexual encounters occurring on three levels. In 1980, owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were busted for skimming. But Peruvian-born promoter Carmen D’Alessio — who’s credited with bringing elite throngs to the club — experienced nothing but good times during that era, and so did Disco Sally (a.k.a. Sally Lippman), a widowed lawyer who became a media sensation in her 70s by wearing flashy outfits and grinding on the 54 dance floor with an assortment of hot younger men (one of whom she married).
- The widowed Sally Lippman was dubbed “Disco Sally” for the wild dance moves she brought to Studio 54.
- Texas Guinan graces the lobby poster for the silent film, “The Moonshine Feud” in 1920.
- Pictured here in a fur coat and feather hat, Sophie Tucker was a famed singer and comedian.
- Candy Darling was a trans actress who starred in several of Andy Warhol’s films.
- Another of Andy Warhol’s “superstars,” heiress/model Edie Sedgwick was dubbed “Girl of the Year” in 1965.
- Transsexual beauty Candy Darling was an Andy Warhol “superstar”.
- Dianne Brill would come to be known as the queen of the downtown dance club scene in New York City in the 1980s.
- Peruvian-born promoter Carmen D’Alessio is credited with bringing elite throngs to the club.
- French singer Regine Zylberberg with Farrah Fawcett and Liza Minelli.
Not that far away, Belgian-born Regine Zylberberg opened the NYC branch of her chain in the Delmonico Hotel and was a regal, well connected overseer of all the monied partiers — and she sang too!
In the ’80s, clubs were owned by men, but ruled by women — as mascots, creators, and rabble rousers. At the multi-level rock club Danceteria, co-owner Rudolf Pieper’s arm accessory was lusty, busty Dianne Brill, a Jayne Mansfield-esque cartoon character full of spunk and pizzazz. Brill capitalized on her 15 minutes of fame to write a book, do acting parts, design a clothing line, and market makeup and perfume, which she still does, successfully. Meanwhile, Palladium was the art-laden 14th Street mega-club, owned by the Studio 54 guys. But having learned from experience, those two stayed behind the scenes while wigged and hatted Sally Randall gave good door, and in the private Mike Todd Room, Detroit born Anita Sarko wore ball gowns and Sophie Tucker-like accoutrements while spinning a heady mix of imports, exotic mixes, and other stuff that might not please visiting tourists desperate for Top 40 schlock.
Around this time, Parisian import Edwige Belmore was emerging as a sultry chanteuse and party promoter with a husky voice, a tough but adorable demeanor, and undeniable charisma as a sort of nouveaux Dietrich (with a hint of Regine) for the new wave crowd. Her death from liver failure in September sent shock waves through the world of clubland survivors, who kept her on a chichi pedestal made for a select few.
In 2001, the tall, blond Amy Sacco — who seemed like a real-life character out of Sex and the City — made waves as a no-nonsense but personable club owner who could draw throngs of celebs, cool kids, and strivers to her exclusive Chelsea hangout Bungalow 8. Around that same time, a party without spoiled little rich girls Paris and/or Nicky Hilton felt as empty as the streets of Hell’s Kitchen during a Lady Gaga special. And in 2006, up came Ladyfag, a Canadian gal who became the Pearl Mesta of the gay crowd, throwing rave-like extravaganzas full of professional guys drinking, dancing, and exchanging contact info.
None of the current nightlife women (like Ladyfag and Bartsch) are the least bit vulnerable, messy, or illegal, nor are they inevitably heading to some scandalous headline having to do with the antics at their parties. They’re self-aware and controlled and deliver much needed doses of chutzpah to a scene that craves their feminine wiles and sparkly charm. Brava, divas.
Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch runs at New York’s Museum at FIT until December 5, 2015.