From New York to Tokyo, celebrities and club kids alike flock to Susanne Bartsch’s parties but many don’t know the depth of her entrepreneurial and philanthropic roots.
In 1981, Swiss-born Bartsch moved from London to New York and opened a boutique in SoHo, where she became the first importer of Vivienne Westwood and other emerging designers. Soon after, she produced New London in New York, the first fashion show to feature the works of Leigh Bowery, John Galliano, Stephen Jones and more. Bartsch organised the first major fundraiser to fight AIDS, The Love Ball, and subsequent installments have raised £1.6 million.
“The Love Ball came out of pain,” says Bartsch. Many of her friends were early victims of the burgeoning AIDS pandemic. She invited members of the Harlem House Ball — the community most heavily struck — to perform at the event to celebrate life. Her idea was to invite fashion brands like Barneys New York, Donna Karan and Armani, among others, to ‘walk’ and compete for trophies in the style of a ball. Each brand paid to be represented, to make a statement on stage for three to five minutes, and were judged by a celebrity panel. In this way, Bartsch was the first to unite counterculture, mainstream fashion and stardom for a good cause.
The Love Ball was followed by Love Ball II, The Crowning Glory, The Hoppening at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles and Ballade de L’Amour at the Folies Bergères in Paris. In 1992, inspired by Bartsch, Gery Keszler and Torgom Petrosian began the annual Life Ball in Vienna, Austria. It has since become the largest AIDS benefit in Europe. Bartsch continues her involvement by organising an event within theirs, showcasing New York artists and musicians. She also holds a holiday Toy Drive, along with her husband David Barton, to collect thousands of toys for underprivileged children each year. This December, the Toy Drive will coincide with the opening of Barton’s new fitness center in Hell’s Kitchen.
According to The New York Times, “Bartsch’s name is the night life equivalent to a couture label,” but, despite her reputation, she remains humble. “I can’t paint. I don’t act. I’m not a dancer. I’m a good dancer but not a dancer as a profession. So, I express myself with looks. I am my own canvas. I think that’s an art,” she suggests, as she saunters across the living room of her Chelsea Hotel apartment (Bartsch is one of the remaining full-time occupants of the historic building which was once home to Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin and countless other artists).
Bartsch’s personal style makes her a muse for many, including fashion designer and long-time friend Zaldy (best known for outfitting Michael Jackson and other pop stars). He says he is: “inspired by her vision and quest for the best complete look, head to toe. Susanne can wear almost anything convincingly and brings a sexual yet fun element.”
The queen of nightlife is also a curator of individuals, especially those living at the fringe of society. “The people that I bring together are mostly artists,” she explains. “Some are singers. Some are actors.” Bartsch hosts various parties in New York, including her summer favourite, On Top. There, nested on the rooftop of the Standard Hotel, she provides a surreal haven for people of all kinds to express themselves freely against the panoramic views of Manhattan’s West Side and Hudson River.
Her latest ventures focus on the fashions worn at her parties. “I saw the people doing these incredible looks and said to myself, ‘What can I do with this?’” she explains. “In the clubs, they are undervalued. So I wanted to put them into a gallery setting.” She is referring to bARTsch, an event held at the Chelsea Hotel Storefront Gallery last June. “People that came said, ‘This is how it used to be in New York.’” Bartsch also held a five-day event last September, during fashion week, called Art-À-Porter, which comprised installations and performances in two locations in Times Square, sponsored by MAC Cosmetics.
This autumn, The Fashion Institute of Technology will host a retrospective on Bartsch, curated by Valerie Steele and Bartsch herself. The exhibition will display 80 of her looks, including her make-up and iconic eyelashes. Designers whose works will be featured include Rachel Auburn, The Blonds, Leigh Bowery, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Pam Hogg, Stephen Jones, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Rick Owens, Vivienne Westwood and Zaldy.