In global fashion, the Swiss do not have a great reputation. We think of dirndl skirts, lederhosen, embroidery and sturdy footwear. Susanne Bartsch was not your average Swiss female and it would be hard to imagine her wearing any of these items, especially after seeing the items of her wardrobe on show at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s show, “Fashion Underground: the World of Susanne Bartsch”. Though originally Swiss, it was living in London that Susanne Bartsch developed her fashion sensibilities and style, eventually transferring it to New York when she moved there in the 1980s, bringing recognition for many of the English designers she had come to know, including John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, Mr Pearl, Body Map and John Richmond.
This is a world away from mainstream New York fashion in the 1980s and 90s – the minimalist world of Calvin Klein, the elegant utilitarianism of Donna Karan, or the romanticism of Ralph Lauren. These clothes sparkle, screech, snarl and twitter with the sensory onslaught of the jungle, albeit an urban one. What is striking is the sheer range of style on show here.
There is a gorgeous John Galliano corset dress, a draped column of midnight blue velveteen that could have come straight from an Edith Wharton novel. Then there is a Vivienne Westwood baggy, draped tweed coat and dress from her Pirates collection, not unlike some of the tweeds worn by Gabrielle Chanel when she was first mining English country clothing for a female wardrobe.
At the opposite extreme there is pure showgirl: My Pearl’s stupendous corset bodysuits and the ultimate embodiment of Thierry Mugler’s style in a sequin encrusted mermaid dress.
This is a show about a fashion chameleon who drew designers and creatives into her orbit and helped to bring them recognition. Like Isabella Blow in London, her personal style was powerful enough to be capable of showcasing some of the strongest looks created by designers operating on the edge where fashion meets art – Leigh Bowery, the performance artist was closely connected with the same club scene. As muse, model, patron and fashion impresario we have much for which to be grateful to Susanne Bartsch, if not the Swiss as a nation.
Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch is at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology until 5 December 2015 – if you are in the city be sure to see it for a pure burst of glamour inspiration.