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As the queen of New York nightlife in the eighties, Swiss-born Susanne Bartsch turned New York on its ear when she introduced some of Britain’s edgiest fashion to the city and then staged events where avant-garde style enthusiasts could strut their stuff. A member of the “New Romantics” style movement when she moved to London from Switzerland as a teenager in the late ‘70s, Bartsch was all about celebrating herself via fashion, and after moving to New York in the early ‘80s, she made it her mission to encourage others to do the same. Her philanthropic efforts for the creative gay community are legendary – her famous “Love Ball” events raised millions for the AIDS cause. Now the Museum at FIT in New York is paying homage to Bartsch’s “art as fashion” philosophy with a exhibit entitled Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Featuring more than 100 outfits from her personal collection, the show includes designs by Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. I spoke with Susanne Bartsch about the glory days of expression through fashion, her staunch support of the ravaged gay community, and the inherent joy in simply dressing up.

You turned yourself into a walking work of art as few people on the planet have. But what most may not realize is that you were collecting and selling outfits worn by other fashion eccentrics as well.

Yes, names like Rachel Auburn, Leigh Bowery, BodyMap, Stephen Jones. I had a store in the early eighties that I opened in SoHo because I was missing the looks from London. When I was living in London, we would change our looks every week! New York was very nice but it was very conservative. Then I went back to London and I saw all these people that I loved, like Leigh Bowery, and asked them if they would want me to sell their clothes in New York. They said they would love it. They were even designing things at home, and some of them were still at college or working behind the scenes at design houses. So I came back to New York in ‘81, found a great location on Thompson Street with fabulously low rent, and opened my shop. In ‘85, I moved to a bigger shop and started selling Westwood, Galliano and many more.

When did you decide to get out of retail and transform yourself into an event planner?

People used to come out in busloads to look at my store; it was very flamboyant, chic and beautiful. My customers started suggesting, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a party where the people who shop here can go and wear the clothes that they buy here?” Because the club thing was not that happening, I wanted something very colourful and high energy, with disco music – a place that people would be seen and see each other. I found a space near the Chelsea Hotel and a guy who got a liquor license and three weeks later started with a massive party. A thousand people dressed up head to toe. It was the first time I saw people coming in droves to something that I created. That place was called Savage, and it was the spring of 1983. A month later, I staged the first show called “New London in New York,” which represented 25 designers. It was amazing. People loved it – it was chaos but they loved it. I sold like $650,000 (U.S.) worth of clothes to Saks, Pat Field and Bloomingdale’s. And I became a rep for all those labels.

Photo courtesy of Museum at FIT

You’re such a show woman and always have been. First, in the way you presented yourself to the world, and then how you managed to excite others. And I was lucky enough to be at some of your legendary parties with my TV camera. Those parties were magical, crazy, spectacular events. It was like going to a circus.

It was a place to express yourself, to be yourself, and have fun with who you were. For me, dressing up is an art. My body is my canvas. And with the right makeup and hair, you can be whomever you want. You can be a silver-screen siren, a super “Peggy Moffitt” sexy supermodel or a punk baroque creature. It’s fantastic!

The era was also a very sad time. The gay community was being ravaged by AIDS, and we were losing some of our most creative, beautiful people.

It was devastating. My first loss was [German performance artist] Klaus Nomi in 1983. I’ll never forget visiting him in the hospital. Nobody knew what the disease was. After a few years it became more and more devastating. Half of my address book was crossed out. I got really depressed and thought, “What can I do instead of just complaining and crying?” And then somebody suggested that I give part of the proceeds from my parties to the cause. But I didn’t think that was enough to give; I needed to do more. Then I struck on the idea of house ball concept, and thought of getting the community involved. It was a heavily stricken community. I knew I wanted to celebrate, not mourn, life. I wanted to celebrate with a lot of people who were fighting AIDS. So I started selling sponsorships. I did four of those “Love Balls” and raised $2.5-million (U.S.).

Photo courtesy of Museum at FIT

There was such a strong art-fashion connection back then, and now there seems to be a revival of that notion. But you’ve always seen fashion as art. What are you hoping that people come away from this exhibit with?

Joy. I want people to have fun and just have a moment. This is a very different exhibition that FIT is doing. It’s not the usual exhibition where it’s about technique and design and how an outfit was made. It’s about how something becomes something. You know, like, by having this headpiece with that makeup with this incredible garment you really create something special. It’s about mixing different eras, mixing different stuff together and having people able to see my world, really – the “Bartschland” world. It’s nice to be able to see it all in one room. So it’s sort of like a moment of forgetting … like coming to a party.

You’ve been a muse to many designers. Is it ever too big of a responsibility, always having to look fabulous wherever you go?

Right now, to be honest, it’s a little hard because I have events to go to and I have a lot of work and deadlines. But is it a chore and effort? No! I love doing it. I love thinking about it. Lately, I’m building my look more around makeup than around the dress. I’m not really doing this because I want attention. It maybe looks that way. But I do it because I like it, and I do like it when I see smiles. I walk down the road to get a cab and people stop me and say, “Oh can I take your picture?” I love that. It’s like a piece of art. It gives me joy and it seems to give people joy and it encourages style among young kids and inspires other people to dress up, too, and to use their imaginations.

Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch runs at the Museum at FIT until Dec. 5.

This interview has been condensed and edited