Just outside a movie theater on Sunset, there’s a spectacle brewing. The makeshift red carpet is rolled out, and around it grows a crowd of elaborate, jaw-dropping looks. One jeweled prosthetic leg here, a sky-high headpiece there, a man in a butt-baring purple leotard – down in front.
Everyone’s here for one reason, and one woman. Tonight is the debut of Susanne Bartsch: On Top, a documentary written and directed by filmmakers Anthony&Alex, about the namesake nightlife queen and fashion icon.
On Top spans the entirety of Bartsch’s storied life and career: her childhood in Switzerland, younger years in London, the New York City of the ‘80s, and today. In 1981, she opened a boutique in SoHo, stocked mostly with her favorite British designers. That led her to nightlife, parties, David Barton (the gym entrepreneur whom she married in 1995), more parties, and ultimately, her legacy in NYC and beyond.
“She was creating a safe space for us, where we could be ourselves,” party-goers echoed again and again. Everything outside was a construct – gender, sexual orientation – inside the club was where you could be whomever you wanted to be. You could just have fun, as long as you dressed up. Those were the rules of entry.
The film strings the decades together seamlessly thanks to a fortress of archival footage. We get to see Bartsch in her many public and private forms over the years: doting mother, loving wife, scenestress, visionary, and of course, hardwired perfectionist.
In one scene a hair stylist chases Bartsch around her apartment (she lives in the Chelsea Hotel) while trying to trim her wig. She’s visibly irked about the look, which she says isn’t working, but waves the stylist off saying “I don’t care anymore.” She may be picky, but her looks are a testament to her obsessive attention to detail.
As are her parties. Like The Love Ball in 1989, which took its cues from vogue balls happening in Harlem at the time (long before Pose did). Held during the height of the AIDS epidemic, the fundraising event took a year to produce, and brought together a veritable who’s who of New York nightlife/celebrity. Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Keith Haring, Kenny Kenny, Amanda Lepore, and thousands of others gathered to drink, dance, vogue, and bring awareness and money to those affected by AIDS. David Byrne even judged one of the voguing contests. He told the New York Times: “It was kind of confusing. I saw things I never saw before.”
Finally, when we think we’ve seen all that one woman could possibly do, the film brings us back into the future (or, 2015) where the Museum at FIT is holding Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, a retrospective of her ever-growing couture collection. We watch as she runs around pulling designs from racks (Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen), sizing up the space (she appears nonplussed at first), and running a team of various artists and assistants, including makeup artist Deney Adam, who we see applying countless breathtaking looks throughout the film. As one can imagine, Bartsch spends a lot of time getting her makeup done, even in the movie.
And while yes, Bartsch may be outgrowing nightlife a tad (she’s 50 this year) the film reveals there’s always another project around the corner. And a party. Tonight it’s at The Standard in downtown Los Angeles, where revelers and filmgoers carry on late into the night. Bartsch is there, at the helm, kissing cheeks and saying her hellos in a gold jeweled unitard sprinkled with pieces of metallic armor. A gold horn wraps around her right eye. A bionic pop star? Goddess of the underworld? Whatever she identifies as, she’s always always the life of the party.