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Susanne and her Love Ball 2 crew, 1991Photo by Michael James O'Brien

The 80s icon who united club kids and catwalk

Susanne Bartsch is the demi-monde dame who galvanized NY's fashion underground. She talks about her new book, discovering RuPaul and fighting AIDS with voguing

“There was the uptown and the downtown, the gays, the straights, socialites, Brazilian dancers, muscle men... We had it all!” Talking to Susanne Bartsch is like scrolling through Instagram photos of the best party you’ll never attend ­– you’re just asking for FOMO. The original ringmaster of after-dark counter culture, Bartsch is practically a New York institution: since moving to the city in 1981, she’s opened innovative fashion stores, raised $2.5 million for AIDS advocacy and hosted too many wild disco parties to count. Running a series of legendary nights in the 80s and 90s, first at Savage, and later at the Copacabana, Bartsch’s infectious energy and madcap personal style was a magnet for New York’s new underground: upstarts like Keith Haring and Marc Jacobs mingled with legends like Leigh Bowery and Laurie Anderson, while drag culture was made visible in an art and fashion context for the first time.

Now, as a new exhibition dedicated to Barstch opens at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the photographic archives of the parties that were have been collated in a new book. Penned by Valerie Steele and Melissa Marra, it’s an incredible testament both to Bartsch’s personal style and that of the community that she was a catalyst for. From sequin-doused cowgirl to android geisha to a human disco ball complete with nipple tassels, these photos are testament to fashion and make-up’s transformative power. Though Bartsch was a fashion plate for out-of-this world creations by Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler, she continuously supported young designers, nurturing the talents of club kids and introducing them to the fashion world: costumes by Mathu and Zaldy and corsets by Mr. Pearl are just some examples.

Bartsch’s love of dressing up began when she was a teenager, in Switzerland. “It wasn’t necessarily about being glitzy as a young kid,” she says in her distinctive Swiss-German purr. “I was basically wearing second-hand clothes – it was less about make up, more like a ragamuffin, bag lady vibe.” When she moved to London, she fell in love with the city’s inimitable style. “I remember drawing rainbow eyes with crayon, and wearing tiny little hot pants cropped up my bottom. And Stephen Jones taught me I could never be without a hat.

In New York, she found it lacked the energy of London’s Blitz kids. “Things were conservative, and people weren’t expressing themselves so much with dressing up”, she recalls. The only club that really reminded her of home was “actually someone’s apartment that had been turned into a club”. After opening her own store in Soho filled with designers like Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, she got into club promotion for the simple reason of creating an environment fabulous enough in which her customers could wear their purchases.

“I loved the whole drag scene. I would worry about, 'Oh, is this going to last the whole night? Will it stay on?' They just put it on and didn't think about it” – Susanne Bartsch

It makes sense that Bartsch would fall in with the only creatures of the night who truly lived to dress up as much as her. “I loved the whole drag scene!,” she exclaims. “I loved how they just slapped their outfits together. I would worry about, ‘Oh, is this going to last the whole night? Will it stay on?’ They just put it on and didn’t think about it.”

She is often cited for bringing the underground drag scene into the mainstream, a point that she doesn’t dispute – she was even the first champion of pop culture’s most loved drag queen of all. “RuPaul was this amazing new queen in town,” says Bartsch, recalling the time she first hired the unknown go-go dancer at Savage. “I went up to him and said, ‘You’re going to be a star. Never forget it.’”

But while Bartsch’s nights at Savage and the Copacabana fuelled the scene with new energy, another force was waiting to suck it back out. Relating her experience of the AIDS crisis, to which she would lose many friends, Bartsch’s usually ebullient voice quietens. “By the mid 80s, I was really depressed. At this point I was going to Harlem House Balls, these incredible gatherings where people competed for trophies. They had all these categories like Best Dressed, Best Legs, Best Swimsuit… Voguing came from that. One night, I was at a ball, feeling really sad and depressed. Someone suggested we gave the proceeds from the Copacabana to help. What was that going to do? Nothing. But when I came home the whole thing came to me like a lightbulb in my head. ‘Oh my god, I’ll do a ball!’”

The resulting event, the 1989 Love Ball, channelled the optimistic energy of the Harlem underground and amplified it into a thousand-watt, celebrity-packed, inclusivity-first fundraiser. With Annie Flanders (of Details magazine) and Simon Doonan (then creative director at Barneys) behind her, the event was such a huge success they did it twice (the second in 1992). David Byrne, Lady Miss Kier, Andre Leon Talley and Malcolm Forbes were there; Madonna, watching the Harlem performers on stage that first night, would later famously hire voguers from the House of Extravaganza for her own performances.

“It was glamorous, it was camp, it was mad, it was chic, with the most unexpected people bouncing next to eachother” – Susanne Bartsch

Reminiscing about the collaborative spirit behind the success of the Love Balls leads Bartsch to the feeling behind the current exhibition and book. Hard to believe from a woman who once got married wearing a “naked” leather bodysuit and a huge Mugler veil in the shape of an egg, but it has never been all about her. “The beauty of it is the support and the love you receive. If you get money that’s great but it doesn’t fill that hole. We’re nothing without eachother.”

Summing up her experiences in the 80s and 90s, Bartsch paints a vivid tableau of bright and beautiful after-dark encounters. “It was glamorous, it was camp, it was mad, it was chic, with the most unexpected people bouncing next to eachother.” Though she would readily add them to her rotation of eye-catching accessories, she isn’t one to look back with rose-tinted spectacles: “We talk about what it was like then, but I’m still doing it! I’m still on it baby.”

"Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch" is published by Yale University Press on 8 October. The exhibition is on at the Museum at FIT from now until 5 December.

Roxanne Lowit, who contributed many of the book's party photos, is the recipient of the Lucies Achievement in Fashion award for 2015.