If you ask anyone in Joshua Tree who Susan Burnett is, they will joyfully exclaim something along the lines of "oh... Sue B!" Many call her the unofficial mayor of the small desert town, but Susan is much more than a community head. A woman with a rich history, and a well-traveled soul, she is an endless well of incredible stories. From her stylist days in NY and LA in the 80s and 90s to her pioneering motorcycle adventures with her ladies through the desert that lead her to her place at Mojave Sands, Sue makes friends everywhere she goes, and her impeccable style leaves a mark in your mind. Though she may never claim it herself, it's easy to call Susan, the real queen of the desert.
On a recent trip to Joshua Tree for the rowdy trade show cum music party, Desert & Denim, we sat down with Susan, to here her story, and how she maintains her luxe meets laissez faire lifestyle in a way that appears second nature.
Enjoy her journey with us, and visit the homepage to check out our latest editorial featuring Susan in some of our favorite new Vintage Selects pieces.
Nativen: Where are you from?
Susan: Originally from Texas. Born in Fort Worth. Grew up in Dallas and went to college in Austin.
Nativen: Do you think Texas influenced your creative pursuits in any way?
Susan: Oh well... I definitely think it influenced who I am and what I'm interested in.
And I guess even my creative pursuits to a certain degree, but I had to go somewhere else to really experience that, you know? When I was a teenager, maybe 14 or 15, I remember finding a box in the attic that had all these clothes from the 50's - my mom's stuff that she'd saved - and that was when I started wearing vintage, you know? But I wasn't “thrifting”. I grew up in kind of an affluent suburb in Dallas and you know, girls all wore the same thing, but I didn't wear any of that.
Nativen: Ah. A stranger in your own land.
Susan: I wore boys clothes, too, so Levis and white t-shirts were kind of my thing along with some of my mom's vintage. When I was 16 and 17 years old I worked at this clothing store in the mall called “Judy’s”. It was actually a California company. It was the cool store, where like, parachute pants were first sold. So, for Dallas, it was really kind of forward.
When I was working there this lady would come in. She was actually a stylist, although I don't think she called herself that. But she pulled clothes for catalog work from the stores in the mall. So one day she just offered me a job. I didn't really have any idea what that was gonna be like but I just said, "Okay." And it's funny because I ended up doing that everywhere I went.
People occasionally ask me, "What was it like being a stylist in the 80's and 90's? Did you set out to do that?" I’m like, “No! Never!" I had a little vintage clothing store that was just my own thing but I didn't do any styling work.
Then I went to San Francisco and did a video for a band, then another video, and then I moved to New York and I got some work there. The whole time I had other stuff going on but I just kept coming back to that until I ended up in LA eventually.
I did all kinds of stuff. Music videos, commercials, I did a lot of print work for big magazines. It was crazy.
Nativen: It was a different time then because the “job stylist” wasn't something that officially existed then.
Susan: That's true. But people ask me, “So, how did you get into it?" Well, I studied clothing design in college but you know, I'm so old that, at the University of Texas back then they only had a Home Economics Department and I wasn't into that! So I studied art and later transferred to the University of North Texas because they had a design school that was part of the Art Department. I studied there for 2 years then went back to Austin and finished my art degree there. They had this amazing collection of vintage clothes donated by wives of some really wealthy oil magnates from Dallas and Fort Worth. And I did the new acquisitions and repairs. So I got to see everything.
Nativen: That's amazing.
Susan: So in the early 80's I was seeing original Diors from the 50's, Balenciagas from the 60's so, you know, I learned a lot.
Nativen: I'm sure! Well at that point you’re a historian. That must have been amazing!
Susan: It was amazing.
Nativen: So, from there, how did you land in Joshua Tree? Was there something that happened in your life that that was like, “get me outta here!”
Susan: Well, I would come out here sometimes for work. That's how I discovered it. And then in the mid ’90’s friends and I would ride bikes and go camping out here. Then I had a friend who moved here in the late 90's and I thought she was crazy. It was really different then - like scenes from “Breaking Bad”.
Nativen: Yeah. That's the real deal right there.
Susan: It's not like that anymore. It's all 30-something couples that buy their AirBnB and decorate it so they look like a Free People ad.
Nativen: So what do you love most about Joshua Tree?
Susan: Well I like the geography. For sure. The wide open space. The big sky. It's hard to describe but it directly translates to your soul, kind of, immediately. You know what I'm saying? If you're open to it.
Nativen: Yeah. So was that the thing that caused you to be out here full time or was there a moment or an epiphany in your life where you're like, "I'm out"?
Susan: Well, I just wanted to get away. I mean I've lived in a lot of places and I knew that I was at a certain age where if I stayed in LA I was gonna be stuck there. And doing what I did. And living that life. So I really just took a big leap.
Nativen: Yeah but you know, ultimately it's about prioritizing what happiness and success means for you.
Susan: It's all worked out. Because I get to be myself, you know? Really myself. It's really hard to describe but you just get to be exactly who you are in a really big way, you know? It's amazing. You don't have to please other people. And especially as a woman, it can be hard for us in our culture to figure that out.
Nativen: So these are just a couple of rapid-fire questions but do you have a favorite restaurant in the area?
Susan: La Copine.
Nativen: Yup. I haven't been there yet but I'm excited. How about a favorite home goods or clothing store?
Susan: The End.
Nativen: Very good one. Well this is kind of a hilarious thing to ask in this area in particular but do you have a favorite kind of outdoor space or maybe some kind of outside sanctuary that really speaks to you in the area?
Susan: Well I love [Joshua Tree] park. Anything in the park. I have a pass so my dog, Rupert and I can go anytime we want. But he can't run the trails so we have our other little secret places.
Nativen: Is there a hidden gem in the area that you can share?
Susan: One of my favorite things is the Noah Purifoy Museum. And that really was something that people just didn't even know about until LACMA did a retrospective last year. Have you been there?
Nativen: I haven't yet, actually.
Susan: It's really close to here and it's just 10 acres outside. It’s this cool combination of really high concept art and sculpture, and weird junk that he turns into some real high concept pieces. It's an amazing place.
Nativen: So what part of your process in the work that you do now brings you the most joy?
Susan: Well my work here [at the Mojave Sands] is always pretty fun. I get to stay in one place and meet people from all over the world.
I have some people here from Australia today, San Francisco, Germany, New York ... yeah so it's really fun. And you know I love people so ... I know that's such a cliché but I really do.
Nativen: It's great to be somewhere where the world comes to you.
Susan: Yeah and it's small, so I can spend time talking to people and finding out who they are and what they do and what brought them to Joshua Tree and I can try to help influence, in a way, what kind of experience they have here, which is pretty cool. There's a few of us here that do that and we're obviously doing a pretty good job, because we had two-and-a-half million visitors in the park last year. Up from 2 million the year before.
So now we're in this place where, how do we keep doing this and grow, but grow in a good way so that it doesn't get out from under us and turn into some gross tourist place, you know?
Nativen: Yeah... shepherd that responsibly.
Susan: But really, you know, interacting with people is my favorite part of my time.
Nativen: That's great. What do you think is the greatest struggle?
Susan: Cleaning up after people.
Trying to get people to understand what it means when I say we're on a septic.
Nativen: Well, you seem to be living a relatively well-balanced life out here. But is there one thing you’ve always wanted to do and haven't done yet?
Susan: Oh, I could probably give you a huge list.
But, you know what I'm saying? I've never ridden a mule down into the Grand Canyon, which is something I'd like to do. I've never been through the Badlands and South Dakota and that part of the country. I love to travel so the one thing about this job is that it is a lot of work, which I'm okay with. But there are a lot of trips I'd like to take that I haven't done yet.
A little at a time.
Susan: Last year I went on this amazing trip down to Baja. I won't even say where I went because it is a super cool place. And it was amazing. Spent every day on the boat in the water and water skied with 200 dolphins in a giant pod.
Nativen: Like you do.
Susan: But it wasn't like a glamorous vacation. I was sleeping on a cot in the yard of some old house where we had a flushing toilet but no electricity. But, because I am willing to travel that way, man, I have had some amazing experiences! We caught all our own food - crabs, clams, fish, and then we'd make our meals every day and … yeah.
Nativen: That sounds lovely, which actually transitions nicely into my next question ... what destination would you travel to if you could go anywhere? No rules. No obligation, just wherever you want to go.
Susan: I'd go to New Zealand … Australia. For like a few months.
I really like to travel, but I like to go and be somewhere for as long as I can. People come here where they're just like, "We're gonna cram it all into one night”. I'm like, "You can't come to Joshua Tree and check in here at 3 o'clock and leave at 11!” That's just not enough time, you know? That's just a roadtrip. It kind of breaks my heart. I've been here three and a half years and I haven't done it all! You know what I mean?
I haven't been to the Morango Preserve since the winter. And that's amazing. It’s just a short little hike. Have you been down there?
Nativen: Yeah, I have. I went horseback riding near there a couple years ago. It's beautiful.
Do you listen to any music while you work or do you have a song that keeps your...
Susan: I'm on a John Doe kick right now. He's a good friend of mine.
I work at Pappy's, at the door. People always say, "Why do you work at Pappy's?", “Because I like to go see music and if I work the door at Pappy's I save about $120 a month on tickets.” So that's fun.
Nativen: Yeah. You meet interesting people too, I'm sure.
Susan: And hear all kinds of music. I love a lot of different kinds of music. I'm older so I've been listening to music for a really long time. The cool thing about working at Pappy's is that I just get to go and experience and hear whatever is happening there, so it can be anybody from 80 year old Wanda Jackson to Little Dragon.
Nativen: Super eclectic mix. That's cool.
What's the most helpful advice that you've received or that you might give to someone that's looking to pursue their creative dreams?
Susan: I'm not very good at giving advice. I always think I want to give somebody advise because I'm bossy. Which is a good way to be because I'm sure of my own mind. I took a lot of risks. I have not lived a very safe life, you know? If I wanted to move somewhere, I did. I kept thinking when I was younger … just go do it. Because when you get older, you won't want to go and do it. But I moved here when I was 50 years old. With what I could fit in my car, you know?
I think I would just tell people that sometimes you have to take a risk and you have to believe in yourself and even if it goes bad, it can still be a good thing. You can't always think that you know what outcome is gonna be the best because sometimes the outcome that isn't the best turns out, in hindsight, to have been a really good thing. And if you're constantly trying to control how things turn out, you might miss making a mistake that will actually catapult you into a place you really wanted to be, you know?
Nativen: That’s really good advice.
Okay so this is our last question: What are 3 things you can't live without?
Susan: My dog Rupert, my friends ... I really have always been a person that made a lot of friends. I'm a social girl. But this place is really ... there's some crazy magic here, you know? Even though we all work a lot ... we make the effort. I don't have a TV. My phone doesn't work. I mean, I talk to my dog because you can get really isolated here. So I think it forces us to really maintain some ties and we have a lot of fun and we get to do stuff that when I was living in the city and working 14 hours a day... it didn't seem that regular.
So I would definitely say my friends and... I don't know... you don't need a lot here. I need my car, I guess.
Susan: It would be a drag if I had to ride my motorcycle everywhere in the dirt. It's not a dirt bike.
Interview by: Lily Hetzler
Photography by: Jac Potorke
This interview has been condensed & edited
all images copyright of Nativen