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  1. Visual Arts

Tampa Museum of Art's Susanne Bartsch exhibit lights up New York fashion

“Susanne Bartsch: Art-a-Porter,” which is at the Tampa Museum of Art through Nov. 12, celebrates self-expression as an art form. It features clothing, wigs and headpieces and more.
“Susanne Bartsch: Art-a-Porter,” which is at the Tampa Museum of Art through Nov. 12, celebrates self-expression as an art form. It features clothing, wigs and headpieces and more.
Published Sep. 27, 2017

TAMPA

When you enter the "Susanne Bartsch: Art-a-Porter" exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art, you've stepped into the fabulous world of New York City's "Queen of the Night."

The exhibition of fashion icon and event producer Susanne Bartsch's wardrobe is a visual timeline of her influence on New York's art, fashion and nightclub scene, and fashion's top designers, spanning from the early 1980s through today. While the designs are all incredible works of art, the notion of self-expression as an art form is what's truly being celebrated here.

You're instantly greeted by a mannequin of Bartsch in a slinky, sparkly dress by Zaldy, paired with a military jacket from Jean Paul Gaultier, backed by a graffiti wall holding a long scroll, meant to be a guest list. The tone has been set: a mix of high fashion, whimsy and fearless personal style, with a lifestyle to match.

Swiss-born Bartsch came to New York in 1981 from London, bringing with her punk fashions from up-and-coming designers, which she sold at a boutique in SoHo. A few of these early looks are on display, and are a precursor to the full-on theater into which Bartsch's looks evolve. A papier-mache skull mask is perched atop Leigh Bowery's punk take on the classic trench coat.

After moving her shop to a larger space on West Broadway, Bartsch's boutique was one of a few to carry designs by Vivienne Westwood, the so-called "mother of punk." Included in the collection is Westwood's Mini Crini Dress, circa 1985, which resembles a maid's dress, very reminiscent of something from the The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Bartsch began throwing her legendary parties at nightclubs in 1987. The vibes created in these parties gave way to the Club Kids, who came to the forefront in the early 1990s with their DIY, outrageous costumes. Through the parties, Bartsch forged friendships with designers Thierry Mugler and Mathu and Zaldy, of whom she was a muse. Many of their pieces are included in the show.

During this period, the theatrical element of Bartsch's style ramped up. The corsetier Mr. Pearl began dressing her in his elaborate creations, bejeweled and nearly architectural in structure. Bartsch has the figure of a human Barbie doll, so the tiny waists on these are a sight to behold.

One point of departure comes in the form of a dress by John Galliano, whom Bartsch met when he was an emerging designer in the mid-1990s. The blue velvet evening gown, one of Galliano's first gowns ever made, is exquisite, but seems almost demure for Bartsch in comparison to the rest of the exhibit.

Another standout is Alexander McQueen's sublime Leaves Dress, with black leather leaves intricately cut out. The exhibition label says the dress was made in 2010, so this may have been one of his last designs before his death.

Bartsch clearly has an affinity for bodysuits, as a number are featured in the show. Many are made by Mathu and Zaldy, including a spectacular, mirrored suit with attached boots. Another recent bodysuit, from designers the Blonds, features hand-cut paillette scales and a chromed fiberglass bust.

It's not all about the clothes, of course. Makeup and hair are vital elements of Bartsch's look. Elaborate wigs and headpieces, masks and jewelry are also crucial. Feathers, tulle and mesh, actual crowns fit for royalty (she is the Queen, after all) and even cages for the face take each look to the next level. Strangely, the exhibit is devoid of shoes.

And it wouldn't be a respectable fashion event without the wedding element. As you can imagine, Bartsch's would be over the top, from the ceremony to the outfit. She married David Barton, the founder of a successful chain of gyms in New York, on the runway after one of her fashion shows. She wore a nude leather bodysuit made by Abel Villarreal, topped by a giant egg-shaped veil made by Thierry Mugler. Her new husband wore a leather thong.

Contact Maggie Duffy at mduffy@tampabay.com.

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