Born in Switzerland, Susanne Bartsch moved to London as a teenager and quickly became a part of the fashion and music underground there. On Valentine’s Day 1981, she arrived in New York City and has been our edgy nightlife sweetheart ever since. Her eponymous SoHo boutique is where scenesters, club kids, and drag queens outfitted themselves for nights on the town and for Bartsch’s own soirees in a basement club at the Chelsea Hotel, where she lives and where she raised her son, Bailey (a senior at Brown University), along with then-husband and gym owner David Barton. During the ’80s, Bartsch witnessed the devastation of AIDS among her circle and decided to party with a purpose. She created the Love Ball, a fundraising event that harnessed the influence and finances of the fashion industry to benefit AIDS research—and raised more than $2.5 million. Today, she still hosts regular bashes where she hopes everyone can feel free to express themselves. She spent some rare downtime with us.
What Should We Do: You’ve been hosting wildly popular parties and events since 1987. How have they changed since then? Do you see any generational differences?
Susanne Bartsch: Thirty years is a long time. New York has changed, we have changed, nightlife has changed. I think the biggest factor in the change is the corporatization of New York City and how expensive rents have gotten. I also think bottle service has affected the scene.
And the digital age has changed the landscape, of course. You can now click on a site and meet someone in minutes and have hundreds of friends! It’s all in that little square screen. So there’s less of a necessity for people to go out to connect.
WSWD: How has the city changed in general since you first moved here?
Bartsch: There was a more thriving counterculture community when I came here, and I think that has been changed by the speed at which ideas travel in our information age. There is a sense of mystery and discovery that is lost in the process, and that kills the underground. In the past, things happened much more organically and there was time for ideas to incubate and become whole. Now something happens and is posted and witnessed by millions in a millisecond. So ideas get old very quickly, before they’ve had a chance to grow.
WSWD: Would you ever think about leaving?
Bartsch: No. At the end of the day, New York is my home. I’d never leave.
WSWD: Do you always dress up? What do you wear when you, say, go to the deli for coffee?
Bartsch: I sort of have three states of dress-up that I exist in: day drag, semi-drag, and full drag.
Day drag definitely always involves sunglasses and some headgear. Semi-drag is for dinner dates, cocktail parties, and theater, and usually includes a wig, light makeup, and something chic for the evening with a little ooh-la-la ruffle here or there, but it’s still what could be considered “wearable” by most. Then there’s full drag, which is a head-to-toe look. I get a kick out of bringing out the big guns: big wigs, sculptural eye makeup, and fantasy fashion looks.
WSWD: Halloween must be your favorite holiday.
Bartsch: I love Halloween, of course, but it’s wrapped up in business for me, as well. Halloween was the most fun for me when I could dress Bailey up. Who doesn’t agree that there is nothing more adorable than a toddler in a carrot outfit? And as an event-planner mom, I’d be slacking if I didn’t throw a couple bashes for my son. Bailey’s Halloween party invites were coveted among the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers set. What other 8-year-old kid gets to throw a private Halloween party in the Chelsea Hotel in a room fully decked out with spiders, cobwebs, inflatable ghosts, and a fog machine?
WSWD: When you’re not attending your own parties, what are your favorite things to do in the city?
Bartsch: New York is great for walking around. I live in Chelsea, so I like to make the most of living next to the galleries, and I visit them frequently. But since I’m always out and about, I love to stay home and read a book.
WSWD: What’s your secret to staying so young and fabulous-looking?
Bartsch: You’re only as old as who your date to the disco is!
Find out more about Bartsch’s happenings; line of couture eyelashes, Beauty and the Bartsch Lashes; and upcoming documentary here.