A Look Into the Life of Nightlife Legend Susanne Bartsch

It's not an exaggeration to say nightlife legend Susanne Bartsch has ruled the New York club world for decades. She has sashayed half nude, covered in high-fashion finery, wigs and other accoutrements through every major club since the 80s and she's still hotter than ever. Currently holding court on Tuesdays at SoHo Grand and Thursday at Marquee, she's just finished a summer season of weekly On Top parties at the Standard Hotel. Despite the ups and downs of the crazy world of NYC clubs, the Swiss born Bartsch has the face and body of a Playboy bunny in her early 30s. Our photographer, Rebecca Smeyne, visited Bartsch at her home in the Chelsea Hotel as she prepped for her weekly Thursday night party, Catwalk Marquee. Smeyne later caught up with Bartsch while hosting her other bashes -- Tuesdays at Soho Grand and On Top at The Standard. We, meanwhile, took her on a walk down memory lane and heard her feelings about whether NYC is still number one or just ain't what it used to be.

Where are you from in Switzerland?

I'm from Bern, the capital.

Do you feel very Swiss? Do you think that's an influence on your personality and who you are?

I think Switzerland is very small and everywhere you go feels like a little village where everyone knows everyone else. I don't feel Swiss -- if anything I feel more English, but I think my roots are very Swiss. When I say I'm going to do something, I do it. I don't screw anybody over. I'm very honest. I don't bullshit. But there it's just very simple: You have your house, and your car and that's it. But I knew I wanted more to life. And then with New York, New York feels like the city of PR. There's a saying that I love -- "Every Monday, there's a million dollars to be made and come Friday it's fallen through. But there's always another Monday." I love that saying. It's so New York.

Why -- and when -- did you move to New York?

I came to New York for romance. I had a boyfriend that was a painter who was from London and he lived at the Chelsea Hotel. He wanted me to come visit for Valentine's Day, so I came over in 1981 and fell in love with New York. I had come to visit months before that and it was June and really hot and I remember thinking, "Oh my god, the heat here is unbearable. This would be the wrong place for me to live," and lo and behold, I came for Valentine's Day and never left. So it was love that brought me here. I fell in love with the city. But I was still going back-and-forth between London and New York and the rate that the change was happening in London, the flux, was unbelievable. This was during the New Romantics era, and it was just constant change. It seemed like every week everyone had a completely new look. It was so great and fun. There was nothing like that in New York and I remember missing that when I moved here for good, and the thought came into my head, "Why not import what you miss?'" And that's all I did.

Tell me about your first store.

I went back to England, I picked designers that I really liked, and I opened a store. It was sort of on a sell and return basis -- I didn't really have the money so I found a small little space on Thompson Street, just below Spring and Broome, and I sold brands like Body Map or hats by Stephen Jones. Lots of jewelery and accessories. And the store was called "Susanne Bartsch." A friend of mine John Mabury said, "Why not put your name on the door, darling? Promote yourself." And I go, "Oh, what a good idea!" And I bought [designer and sculptor] Michael Kostiff over -- he always had inspired me -- to do the décor. He had never done décor for a space before and I had never had a shop before. John Duka, who co-created KCD, he was a writer for the New York Times and even before I opened the shop he wrote a piece about me and gave me the label 'street fashion' because I really took designers from behind the scenes who were still in school or unknown, like Leigh Bowery. John Galliano was still in college.

And then it became so big that I started to see its influence on the big department stores -- the buyers for Barneys and Macy's started to go to London to look for designers. It became a whole movement. I was like, "Oh my god, what should I do? I can't compete with those stores." So I went to London and decided to do a fashion show to represent these designers. I thought, "If I can't compete with these other stores, then I'll represent the designers." So I went and did a show with like 18 designers at the Roxy in 1983 called "New London in New York." That was the first time I put on a big event -- this thing that brought all these different people together. It was such a high. People smiling, talking, there was a line around the block, it was crazy and so disorganized. In the end it was successful, and all of these big models like Janice Dickinson came to support it, but it was really chaos. At that time in New York, fashion shows were only very chic and very put together and not chaotic. The music -- I had never produced a show. I didn't think about sound or anything and you could barely hear anything when people were up on stage. It was chaos. That was sort of the start of everything for me.

We did another show in the Limelight in November or October of '83 and one of the dailies from Japan saw it and they came to me and asked me to go to Japan with the show. So I went to Japan and we called it "London Goes to Tokyo." It was a massive show that went on for three days. The Prime Minister came. And Leigh Bowery comes out in like an apron with nothing else on, so when he turned around everything was just hanging out. It was really good.

Were you doing parties while you had your stores and fashion shows?

No. There was nowhere to go. There was nothing that high-energy happening. I was inspired by Taboo, that club in London. And I just thought "I'm going to start a night here so that kids can get dressed up and have somewhere to go." I started a night in '86, downstairs at the Chelsea Hotel. It was called Savage. This guy came named Mr. Leo, who was so cocky, and he was building this place called Paradise Garage. So I saw that and was thinking "Oh, I'd love to do something there." And then he told me they didn't have a liquor license and I was like, "Oh, forget it." And then right as I was leaving the company, he called me and said, "Hey, I got the liquor license. Do you still want to do something?" And I said, "Yes." I had just lost everything. So I went down there and made a deal and started a Tuesday night. And I think the first person to walk through the door was Michael Musto in drag. Ms. Musts pour homme! When I saw him, I thought, "I've made it. This is a hit." At least a thousand people came dressed up head-to-toe. It was absolutely incredible. I found Kenny [Kenny], he was a jewelry maker and I asked him to come do the door for me. He had no experience but I liked him and liked that he was Irish and I liked his look. And Gene Krell helped with the door too. I wanted to have hookers there to make it a little edgy. There was no VIP. I wanted to play stuff like 5th Dimension and make it really camp.

It's amazing that 25+ years after that first party, you're still such a huge success. Do you feel like your formula has stayed that same or have you had to change anything as times have changed?

After Savage, I wanted to grow. I added trannies, I started [producing] the Life Ball. I wanted to bring out the underground -- the trannies, the voguers. So I evolved. But as far as the basics go, it's always been the same. It's the space, the mix of people, and the music. Even if you come in your t-shirt it doesn't mean you're not making an effort. That's always been the same. It's a production. There's more to it then just, "I'm here in a wig." I'm inspired by creating. Right now I'm working more with artists -- people are more than just their looks -- like [former club kid and Creative Director of PAPER's sister company, Extra Extra] Desi Santiago.

There are people who complain that New York nightlife isn't as great as it once was but it seems like you always manage to find these classically "New York" types to work with -- the Leigh Bowery or Kenny Kenny types. Do you think more are still out there?

Oh yeah, they're out there. There are always creative people, there are always people who want to be seen. It's true, yes, there are less great places than there used to be but it also seems like there's so much more now, too. Anyone can have a party and promote it on Facebook. Anyone can be a DJ. You can stand at your MacBook and hit some buttons and play songs. It didn't used to be like that. Going out and organizing used to be a lot more work pre-social media. You'd have to call people to network or tell them about a party. The work is not easy, but it's easier to create something now. In that way, it's allowed more to happen but it also creates this sense of "Oh, anyone can do this." If I see something I like, that I'm into, it doesn't matter if it's 1980 or 2013. It's something that I like. I think it's really about being open to what's going on now and not looking to the past.

Have you ever done parties in Brooklyn?

No. It's not that I'm against doing stuff in Brooklyn, I just do my parties in Manhattan. I think it's great that people are doing stuff in Brooklyn. To do a little party in Brooklyn is much easier than in the city. Manhattan is so populated -- there are so few spaces where you can do good parties. I think it's a good thing that the cool people moved to Brooklyn. It's like the West Bank of Paris. If an opportunity popped up in Brooklyn that I thought was really great, I wouldn't rule it out. Right now I have so many great thing happening in Manhattan, though. The Soho Grand is like a home away from home. On Top is so glamorous -- Le Bain for dancing and Boom Boom for lounging. And then I'm going to do the McKittrick once a month -- where they do Sleep No More. It's a metamorphosis of everything I've done. At the McKittrick, I might come in a ballgown and leave naked.

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