Susanne Bartsch and Joey Arias’s friendship spans more than 30 years. Moving from Switzerland to London when she was just 17, and then to New York in 1981, Susanne has had an incalculable influence on design and fashion worldwide, first as an early introducer of British designers to New York, including John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, and Stephen Jones, via her store on Thompson Street, and then with her founding of the Love Ball (which became the inspiration for the Life Ball, held each year in Vienna supporting HIV/AIDS). Joey Arias—singer, artist, and performer—catches up with Susanne in her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel and recalls their very first meeting on the street in Soho.
Nick—I would love to go back to when you first met. Susanne, were you doing your store, and Joey, were you at Fiorucci?
Susanne—Fiorucci! I was having an affair with Mr. Fiorucci whilst Joey sold T-shirts. [Laughs.]
Joey—I sold T-shirts but I was working, I was working with Klaus [Nomi] and I had just done Saturday Night Live with David Bowie so all of a sudden we’re part of the art world. I’m with Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel, Ann Magnuson and the whole group, and one day we all went out, my friend said, “I want you to meet my friend Susanne,” she says, “you’re gonna love her, I think she’s Swiss or something or English, I’m not quite sure.” All of a sudden I remember getting out and seeing this tall, statuesque woman with a white turban and no eyebrows and very stiff, and Susanne said “Hullo” [deep voice, Susanne laughs]. And I go, “nice to meet you,” and I looked like an alien because I was doing drag—
Susanne—I think I was wearing a chemise from the BodyMap and I couldn’t move, it was similar to that Rick Owens dress in the photo.
Joey—She was a tower, she could not move, and I looked more like an alien because of Klaus [Nomi], and I was looking at her and she’s like, “is he for real,” and then my friend says, “that’s Susanne.”
But then we got in the car and turned on the car and she says, “Joey, I went to the party with that vibrating egg, and I stuck it up this guy’s ass and I pulled it out and there was shit on it and I said, “whose dirty ass does this belong to?” And I looked at Susanne and I was like, I’m in love with her, I thought, I’m going to have a lot of fun.
Susanne—Right up your alley, eating garlic and—
Joey—Eating garlic and having an egg with shit on it, farting and—
Susanne—Farting and toasting marshmallows, that’s my biggest memory of Joey, when he used to do that, he had this show where he would eat garlic and then a marshmallow, pull up his ass and fart and light the fart and then he toasted the marshmallow. Could it get any grosser?
Joey—[Laughs] That was a character, that’s when I started doing drag because—I did drag for the first time and Susanne saw me at Wigstock and she was like, “Joey, I need you to come.” I was like, I don’t do drag. Somehow my career was winnowing down I used to go to the Copacabana and I remember saying, I need a job, I need something. I called Susanne and she said, “go to Copa, put on the tits and the heels, come and join me.” And I went as Justine and that was the beginning of my drag, and Susanne pulled me into her world.
Susanne—And we traveled a lot, we went all over the world. Paris, Japan, Milan…all over the place.
Joey—Exactly. I remember there was a big, gigantic—huge Giorgio Armani party, like thousands of people, the walls were covered in roses!
Susanne—They made a portrait out of my face with the whole thing, it was massive, out of roses they flew in from Morocco, special roses, the portrait was in this huge theatre, the whole wall was my face. It was incredible. I don’t have a picture of it!
Joey—That’s art! You’re art again, just say Susanne is art, and for art, fashion, personality, love, and you came out looking at what Susanne loves about art and fashion and a strong personality, that’s what I love about Susanne because she is a strong woman, and I always tell people, Susanne’s someone you don’t fuck with, she’s direct and I love this very much about this lady.
Susanne—I mean, I think I’m pretty serious.
Susanne—I’m very forgiving, too. I do get all, “hey, what the fuck,” but then I don’t. I don’t hold grudges.
Joey—Exactly. I’ve seen Susanne give people so many different opportunities as people’s careers have grown and I always feel like—you know, I did Cirque de Soleil and Susanne called me to do something, I always come back and just whatever you want Susanne, I’m always here for Susanne and whatever she needs—it could be Carnegie Hall and with Susanne and her huge events, but I love to support because it’s always giving back and supporting your friends and I feel like a lot of people don’t give back to Susanne.
Susanne—No, and I’ve been very instrumental in a lot of people’s careers and some of them I don’t hear from anymore, you know, it’s actually quite amazing how—you’re one of those people who just, you know, I was there for you and I mean I’ll never forget when you were doing the Carnegie Hall—
Susanne—What was the thing, Billie Holiday in a suit, and I said put on a dress. And you did and from there it took off and the dress was the key.
Joey—Exactly. Susanne’s like my drag mother.
Susanne—I’m not even, it wasn’t even about drag, it was just—
Joey—She saw it. She just said the suit is good but a dress would be better. “Joey, a dress would be better,” and I was afraid of drag, but she was right, she saw it.
Susanne—I mean, the whole drag movement wasn’t respected and people looked down on it, and I brought it out from the underground and put it on the mainstream by having—I love the whole drag movement then and now but I’ve moved on already. I mean, a lot of people still think of me as a drag queen because, you know, that was a very strong thing I did, I had the Love Ball AIDS benefit, I created this ball and I had this house ball and I sold a house ball and I used the house ball for that—
Joey—She brought Harlem downtown.
Susanne—I brought the Voguers out and the servers were all drag queens, they were pouring champagne to these $10,000 ticket people from Calvin Klein to Donna Karan to the CEO of whatever.
Susanne—She came, yeah. It was scandalous, but they liked it. It was incredibly amazing, wasn’t it, the Love Ball?
Joey—It was fantastic.
Susanne—This was in 1989.
Joey—And you did what, four of them? Three or four?
Susanne—Four. I did a 1989 Love Ball at Roseland and then I did the Bal de l’Amour at the Folies Bergère in Paris, and then I did the opening at the Playboy Mansion and then I did another Love Ball here, so those were four, and then I wanted to do another one and then it just got too complicated and somehow—I mean, eight isn’t bad. We were early, I was a pioneer.
Joey—I remember sometime after the Love Ball, in the back crying on each other’s shoulders—
Susanne—So many people.
Joey—So happy that Susanne was doing it, we looked at each other and she said, “I’m fighting this, I’m fighting this, I’m trying, I’m pushing.”
Susanne—Out of depression, you know, I was depressed, I lost so many friends. Half of my address book was empty. Crossed out, I mean. And I was depressed, what could we do, and then actually a friend said, “oh, why don’t we give the proceeds from the Copacabana one night.” I said that’s “not enough, what’s that gonna do, buy one, one pill for somebody?” They didn’t even have pills yet. And I said, “no, this has to be something major, it’s not about money only, it’s about celebrating life and creating awareness, get the people to rally around this, it’s something we need to get together and fight, because there was still a bit of it’s a gay thing.” It was the first event that the fashion community really came together to fight AIDS, that was the Love Ball.
Joey—You brought amazing people together.
Susanne—Oh my god, everybody was involved.
Joey—Every house from Paris, all of Wall Street, it was mind-
boggling. And people, you know, then of course years later—
Susanne—Hollywood was involved. We had Susan Sarandon, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Sandra Bernhardt, Mugler.
Joey—But then somebody else picked up the ball and turned it into the life ball.
Susanne—Yeah, it inspired them I guess.
Joey—Well, Gery Keszler was the makeup artist for Mugler and I will never forget we were walking on 14th Street and he goes, “Joey, can I talk to you about something? Joey, I’m such a fan of Susanne and I really wanna try something in Europe and you think she’s gonna get mad at me?” I was like, why don’t you just tell her?
Susanne—Why would I, are you insane? What, he wanted to do a Love Ball and I would be mad?
Joey—He told me that, I was like, just call her up!
Susanne—Maybe because he wanted to do the same thing.
Joey—He wanted to copy your format.
Susanne—I guess that’s what it was, I don’t remember, I’m happy he did it, it’s amazing, it’s huge, the Life Ball, you know, it’s a big, big thing. But that was his inspiration, my Love Ball, and he still says publicly that’s what inspired him and it was the baby.
Nick—Tell me a time in your life or your career where you realized that you love what you do and this is what you want to do, if it’s an amazing party, something that you did together?
Susanne—I definitely never planned on coming here [to New York]. I came here for a love affair, London I went to get away and if I’d stayed in Switzerland I’d be ending up as a banker’s wife with a bloody house and children and a car, Switzerland was very conservative then. I fell in love in New York, and I would go to the Met and I was like head to toe with looks like—nobody was dressed up. Bill Cunningham used to go wild when he saw me, bangles everywhere, gold bracelets all the way up, and I was missing that in London at that time in the late seventies, every week there was a new look.
I’ll never forget sitting [in the Hotel Chelsea] right where I’ve been ever since I got to New York and realizing, “why not import what I miss?” I’m going to open a store—just like I’m doing with the arts thing, I had no idea what I’m doing—I’m gonna open this store, I’m gonna go to London, I’m gonna bring Stephen Jones, John Galliano, Leigh Bowery, Andrew Logan, Mr. Pearl I didn’t know yet, and I’m going to bring their clothes to New York and sell them here. And I went to SoHo and I found this little store on Thompson Street and it was an empty space and I found out the landlord, and I told him I haven’t got a lot of money but I brought my stock of this really cool movement which was not happening here in New York. He was a very creative guy, he saw it and said, “I’ll give you the space for very small rent.” I took the space and I went to London, I didn’t even have any designers yet [Laughs]! I went to London on a tourist visa! Can you imagine, with no social security number, nothing? I don’t know how I did it. So if you have passion you can do it all. Passion is the key, love and passion.
Then I went to the design houses behind the scene and I picked people that I liked that weren’t actually out there designing, I said, “hey, make some stuff for me, I’m going to sell this for you in New York.” Galliano was still at college and I saw his collection, French Revolution, I was just gagging. So I didn’t go the conventional way. It was an instant success, Donna Karan dropped in, Norma Kamali came in every five minutes buying all my jewelry.
I went back to London mid-’82 and I knew I was going to have to do something, so I went over there and I got all these people, 25 designers, to sign with me, and in return I told them I’m producing a show in New York. I have no idea what or where, but I’m going to have my own show in Fashion Week, I’m going to call it New London in New York. They all loved the idea and when I came back we had the first show at the Roxy in April ’83. I had a line around the block with a huge attendance and that was the first time I knew I liked to bring people together and have a spectacle. It was really magical to see everybody.
Joey—Isn’t Susanne like the Diana Vreeland of the night world?
Susanne—Now, there’s the exhibition at FIT [a retrospective of Susanne’s fashion for Fall 2015]. The kids want to have an exhibition for the younger generation, they’re loving the idea of corsets. They said they added corsetry classes and there’s a big demand for corsetry again. I have so many corsets and they said the kids are going to love seeing this, they come to my parties, you know, and they dress up for it and they see this now in an exhibition so that was one of the attractions for them as well.
I’m really also glad to have had a part of my life—most of my life—in a non-technology, world. I mean, if we had social media we’d probably be superstars. The things I did in the eighties, it’s beyond, you can’t even imagine. There’s no pictures, no nothing. I’m so glad I have that history of no social media, because people don’t talk on the phone anymore, it’s all about that square, the TV, the—it’s all in that square and I’m glad I have the history of not being in the square because it helps to be organic. Do you know what I mean?
Joey—It’s right on, you’re perfect.
Susanne—So I think that’s also attractive to the generation that just is that. Can you imagine we didn’t have email?
Joey—I know, it was crazy.
Susanne—Can you imagine we didn’t have—
Susanne—I’ll never forget when the fax, [Joey laughs] the first fax machine, Peter Gatien called me up and said, “Susanne, I got a machine now. Come over and have a look at the fax” It was so wild. The answer machine was the most we had.
Susanne—I didn’t even have an answer machine for years, I remember not having—
Joey—Exactly, but we got around.
Susanne—We still did so much.
Joey—I think we did more then than we do now.