After Dark: Meet Susanne Bartsch, Party Curator And Nightlife Legend
This is the thirtieth installment in HuffPost Gay Voices Associate Editor James Nichols‘ ongoing series “After Dark: NYC Nightlife Today And Days Past” that examines the state of New York nightlife in the modern day, as well as the development and production of nightlife over the past several decades. Each featured individual in this series currently serves as a prominent person in the New York nightlife community or has made important contributions in the past that have sustained long-lasting impacts.
HuffPost Gay Voices believes that it is important and valuable to elevate the work, both today and in the past, of those engaged in the New York nightlife community, especially in an age where queer history seems to be increasingly forgotten. Nightlife not only creates spaces for queers and other marginalized groups to be artistically and authentically celebrated, but the work of those involved in nightlife creates and shapes the future of our culture as a whole. Visit Gay Voices regularly to learn not only about individuals currently making an impact in nightlife, but those whose legacy has previously contributed to the ways we understand queerness, art, identity and human experience today.
Next week will be the final installment in “After Dark” and it will revisit each artist, performer, promoter and personality involved in this series. Join Nichols on HuffPost Live Friday, Dec. 5 at 4 p.m. along with two other featured individuals from “After Dark.”
The Huffington Post: You’re a legend both within the New York and international nightlife communities. What has your journey to becoming such a prominent cultural fixture entailed?
Susanne Bartsch: I came to New York for a love affair. I came for Valentine’s Day and fell in love with New York — out of love with the guy and in love with New York.
Prior to that I first came to New York City in the mid-’70s around when Studio 54 was opening. I wasn’t really that into it. But I came back on Feb. 14, 1981 and just didn’t want to leave. I ended up being bicoastal for a while — I had an antique and clothing business in England but I would miss being in New York and the incredible looks that were happening more and more. Every week here everyone had a completely new look. Nobody was dressing up in England, it was like if you had a flower in your hair you were dressing up [laughs]. England was very chic and cool, there was nothing wrong with it — I just missed the constant change of every week where you didn’t know what people were going to be doing. So I had this thought: why not import what I missed?
I decided to open a store and the area to do it seemed to be SoHo. It was still a very rundown area with a lot of warehouse spaces and I found a little store owned by a very sweet man who gave me a good deal to open a shop. I didn’t have a lot financing so I went back to England and asked a number of people to engage in a sell and return arrangement — give me some stuff and I’ll sell it in New York and give you the money. I was going to London to get clothes from English designers that weren’t necessarily established; a lot of them were in college or behind-the-scenes. I went behind the designers and dealt with people like John Galliano and Marc Jacobs while they were still very young. Essentially I came to New York and I was in the fashion business.
So I was there and it was going really well but all of the sudden everyone and their mother was moving to London because there was such as explosion of London fashion. London had been dead! And suddenly everyone was going to Sacs, Bloomingdales, Pat Field and I freaked out. After a lot of thought I decided to create this thing called New London In New York fashion show for fashion week. That was in April 1983 and I’d never done a show in my entire life and got all of these designers to come over like Leigh Bowery, Rachel Auburn, Stephen Jones, Galliano –- they all came and I said, “I’m going to do this show, put your stuff in it.”
The show was amazing — it was complete chaos and a complete madhouse… but the chaos was what was the success of the show, actually, because people were used to very polished, on time and well-done productions. It kind of was the drama of the show and people loved it. It was extremely successful and I sold a ton of stuff to all of the stores. So that’s how I got my first start.
It went really well and the second show was the same year in November at fashion week again at The Limelight. But the problem I was finding slowly but surely was the delivery with all of these designers. These kids just didn’t have money to produce. So in ’84 I started thinking about how I needed to focus on myself and I found a place on West Broadway and I turned it into this space with Goude-inspired monuments from around the world. I started to do my own designs and that was going well — the shop opened with a big bang, it was a big tourist attraction and very special.
After the backing went south and I left the store I decided to start with the concept of weekly parties, which was something that I knew about from growing up in Switzerland and was used to as a kid. I wanted to create an event where you could show off your clothing: high energy, bright lights, disco music and people could come and be seen and dress up. That’s really how it all started. For my first party I put Kenny Kenny on the door, who was a jewelry maker at the time… and it was instant madness. We had 1,000 people the first night — Michael Musto and everyone came. That was the beginning of the party and events business that I’ve now ended up doing a lot.
I want to grow. I don’t mind sitting still with myself, but at the same time I don’t want to stand still. I like to evolve. I don’t want something to kill me, I like to kill it [laughs]. I was loving everything; dressing up and having fun and bringing people together from all walks of life.
While I had my parties, I also started to travel and take things on the road. I went to Japan and we did a tour — I brought the voguers before anyone knew about voguing. But this was also at a time where more and more people were dying of AIDS. I mean, half of my address book was crossed out and I became very depressed. So I came up with the idea of the Love Ball.
In those days I was going to the Harlem House Balls. The House Ball community was very heavily hit by the epidemic anyways, so I thought, why not use that community to create an event, give them exposure and raise a massive amount of money for AIDS research? The Love Ball made Houses out of stores, like Barneys, by teaming them up with the voguing community — they could be a house for a night and pay to be on stage with three minutes to do whatever they wanted to do. We had a celebrity panel of judges and the winners got trophies created by big artists like Keith Harring. Businesses had to pay to be on stage and we also had high-end tables going for $10,000. The servers were all drag queens — I freaked them all out [laughs]. So we were all going mainstream but everybody loved it. And it raised a lot of money, like half a million dollars. This was actually the first AIDS benefit that the fashion community came together for.
We did it again in 1991 and in 1992 we did it in Paris. I also had a benefit at the Playboy Mansion — in all we threw four events to raise money for AIDS research and raised about $2.5 million dollars.
Then in 1994 I had my own “Love Ball” — my son. So I decided to just continue my monthly night at The Copacabana and not do the nights at the club anymore. I’d gotten bored with it; not because it was boring but I’d done it as well as I could. What more could I do in this business? I couldn’t grow anymore. I had Bailey, my son. I got married and decided that I didn’t want to be in a club anymore. And I really didn’t think I was ever going to again… until Happy Valley in 2006.
I wasn’t looking but at the same time I was maybe a little restless. In 2006 Jeremy Scott built this club and called it Happy Valley. Kenny Kenny was doing something there and called me up saying that if I was interested in coming out he’d introduce me to the owner. So I went over there and I loved it. Kenny brought me back out, really.
The party was really special. Things got depressing after 9/11 and it seemed to be the first thing since 9/11 that I was really interested in doing. The party initially wasn’t working and I came out that first night, bringing hundreds of people, and it worked. They were excited that I was coming back out.
Happy Valley eventually closed with no notice and Kenny and I bounced around for a bit… then Vandam opened. They told us that we could have a Sunday and I was really worried because I didn’t think Sundays worked. But then through Vandam, Sundays started to become the night to go out. It was just so successful and we were there for almost six years. We were forced out not because it wasn’t working but the police kept coming there — they wanted to shut the club down. And the fight that happened there with Chris Brown was like the nail in the coffin. As a whole Vandam was fabulous and Kenny and I had a great time. I miss it.
Then Kenny and I separated. This past year and the year before I decided I wanted to expand. As I said, I like to grow and I’d been in the club; I’d done the Sunday and it was doing well. I had all of my special events but at the same time I also wanted to do different markets as well. Towards the end of Vadam I ended up doing several parties a week: I had Vandam on Sundays, the SoHo Grand on Tuesdays with Joey Arias and Amanda Lepore, which was more of a salon feel, and the Marquee on Thursdays, which was more of a focus on the art community.
What’s happened between the ‘80s and now — Friday and Saturday used to be bridge and tunnel. And now we don’t have bridge and tunnel. We have a tunnel but we don’t have a bridge anymore! There ain’t no more bridge [laughs]. Sundays are the hardest night to do these days and Friday and Saturday are the big nights to go out now. Between the economy and having to worry about being to work on time, people don’t want to go out on Sunday. And the gays who do go out prefer little bars; more intimate spaces.
So I did everything there for a year and a half: all of the different markets. Now I want to focus on some really special things and I want to start a weekend monthly at the end of January. And, as you know, I braved the bridge at the beginning of this year and finally went to Brooklyn to start Kunst. I love it.
Most of your parties are supported by and staffed by a group of emerging artists and designers like gage of the boone, Ryan Burke and Domonique Echeverria. What role do they play in what you’re doing now in nightlife?
I just really like them all a lot. gage is great and I’d like him to be more involved than just as a host, like he’s been with Kunst. Domonique is really fun and stylish — she cares and she gives and she looks great. I love that she’s voluptuous and sexy; she’s just special. I mean, if she’s naked without anything on she’s special [laughs]. She looks amazing and I like her looks and she’s there to care — you can’t ask for more. Ryan is incredibly talented; I love his looks. They’re just so good. For my Chelsea art show “bARTsch” with Ryan, gage, Erickatoure, one-half NelSon and Muffinhead — what I like about these artists is it’s all something that you haven’t seen before. It’s not like, “Oh, I’ve seen this done in a different way.” NelSon and Ryan will without fail show up in things that they’ve invented. They inspire me so much.
We previously talked about this initiative you’re pushing to take art out of the nightclubs and showcase it in a gallery context. Why is this important to you?
First of all, I think nightlife is so blah now. I just don’t see anything new happening; everyone seems to be rehashing everything. Also, I think people are going out less because people don’t need to go to gay bars to hook up anymore. People also aren’t going out because you can have a life at home on the computer. It’s extremely depressing. I find it very uninspiring… but this is where it’s at.
So these people are looking so incredible and also have all of these pieces they’ve produced. I just want to give them a platform where they can get noticed. The work is undervalued and people go to the clubs to get laid, have a drink or be social. People will see this incredible art without really taking it in. So I’m inspired by the idea that I can get people to look at that as art, which means it has to come out of the environment that it’s in.
Do you feel like nightlife used to have more of an art-centric focus? What’s the main difference now?
I think definitely yes. And I think the main difference is that legally it’s a nightmare to do anything. Also there’s no impulse — it’s almost like the social media makes everything seem planned. You decide what’s seen… it’s not just seen. I’m not saying that’s bad but at the same time everything is so controlled. It’s a weird time and nightlife has definitely moved to Brooklyn. I go to Brooklyn and I see more people in one hour then I see all week in Manhattan [laughs]. But I don’t know how long that is going to last; everyone and their mother is going over there.
The reality is that these people need to be out of this environment and be seen and that’s the whole point of bringing the art out of the clubs and into the galleries.
What do you have coming up?
I’m bringing Kunst to L.A. this month. I’m also teaching a MAC master class and doing a lot of stuff together with MAC. I’m working with FIT on a massive project and also have more projects in the works with MOMA. FIT, MOMA and MAC — That’s where I want to be. I want to do things with people that are creative and that get it.
As a legendary figure who brings people together and curates other-worldly experiences for the public — at it’s foundation, what is nightlife for you? Why have you stuck with it for all of these years? What makes it so special and worthwhile?
At the end of the day it’s self-involved behavior [laughs]. When it works, it’s magic. When things gel, there’s nothing better. It’s like a high — maybe it’s like a drug, but it just feels so good.
But when it doesn’t gel, which is often the case, it’s still good. I love bringing people together. I’m a Virgo and I love people. I really enjoy seeing people smiling, talking to each other — it’s just a magical thing, really. People united is the best thing in life, there’s nothing better — it’s called love. They love who they are, they love what they’re doing, they’re united in that feeling. That is what I love about nightlife.
Next week will be the final installment in “After Dark” and revisit each artist, performer, promoter and personality involved in this series. Join James Nichols on HuffPost Live Friday, Dec. 5 at 4 p.m. along with two other featured individuals from “After Dark.” Missed the previous installments in this series? Check out the slideshow below.