NYC Nightlife Queen Susanne Bartsch On Surrealism, Pigeon Couture and Her New Book

New York needed the iconic impresario's latest ball because, let's be honest, it’s been a hell of a year.

Four people in surreal costumes pose for a photo at a party
Matt Kovalaky, Mateo Blanco, Amanda Lepore and Susanne Bartsch. Photo: Mark Minton

On New Year’s Eve, the designer, Netflix star, style icon and impresario Susanne Bartsch took over the Gatsby Mansion with Matt Kovalsky for an epic Surrealist Ball. Think of surrealism, and Salvador Dali or Remedios Varo might come to mind, but New York does it differently. We saw cloud hats, eyeball masks, birdcage headpieces and blue alien-like creatures that transcended art history, though melting clocks made an appearance, too.

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New York needed this ball because 1) it’s been a hell of a year, and 2) we’re all desperate for a little novelty in our lives. Bartsch’s event, held at a new, cool, underground venue not many people have heard of (in the middle of Midtown, no less), was co-hosted by Amanda Lepore (famously David LaChapelle’s muse) and drag superstar CT Hedden. Attendees included Patti Wilson, steven klein, Nicky Doll, and RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Miz Cracker and Yasmine Petty. Music by Tom Peters, Leo Scheck, Clinton Foster and more dazzling acts ushered in 2024.

A woman wearing a red corset and pigeon headpiece whispers in the ear of a blue alien with red hair
Bartsch with Ryan Roachie. Photo: Mark Minton

You probably know Bartsch, who wore a couture chapeau topped with a New York pigeon, even if you don’t know you know her. She’s had a solo exhibition at the Museum at FIT focused on her thirty-year career as party host, avant-garde fashion icon and being the bridge between the art and fashion scenes of New York. And her forthcoming picture-heavy memoir, Bartschland: Tales of New York City Nightlife, is coming out on May 28.

We caught up with Bartsch post-NYE to chat about her epic New York parties and what’s next.

First, how was your New Year’s Eve bash at the Gatsby Mansion?

Amazing. It was fun, it felt organic, like a family. I had so many texts and emails the next day saying how beautiful it was, how much fun they had—I expect people to complain. It felt big, but intimate at the same time. It’s very New York. I had the idea of doing the Surrealist Ball because there’s this insane mansion in Midtown with a living room, a boudoir, a library, everything. It’s crazy. It was so surreal, that the venue inspired the party.

Why do you love surrealism?

There are many big nightclub boxes in New York where you walk in, and everyone blends in, looking the same. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted something more “everything goes.” I love it when people express themselves with clothes and are creative. Getting ready to go to a party is half of the fun. It creates a reason to dress up. It’s fun to think about what you’re going to wear, and it creates a whole energy around the event. It’s half of the success of an event, to be honest.

Tell us about what you were wearing at the Surrealist Ball.

I had this idea of wearing a pigeon. Can you get any more New York? Then, I wanted to pair that up with a red corset that acted like a theater curtain. I wanted to mix a theater curtain with a pigeon because the pigeon is the star of New York. But I had a few hiccups. The pigeon headpiece was made by hairstylist Sean Bennett, and we made a full body of the pigeon, but I only ended up wearing the pigeon head. When something doesn’t work, you still have to make it work. The pigeon was made of hair. For New Year’s Eve, it felt festive, and being inside the Gatsby Mansion felt surreal.

A person in a black strapless dress wearing a feathered mouthpiece
Douglaes. Photo: Mark Minton

Why that venue, in particular?

I don’t usually do partnerships, but Matt Kovalsky helped me find this venue, which was created for The Great Gatsby: The Immersive Show, a theater experience that ran for six months starting in June and was inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. We had a Halloween party there, too, which was incredible. That helped pave the way for this New Year’s bash.

What looks did you love the most at the Surrealist Ball?

For me, it was more about the modern take on surrealism, rather than paying homage to Salvador Dali. I liked one group of five people who all wore lampshades as hats. I saw the crowd as interpreting old-school surrealism mixed in with the current freedom of expressing one’s style and looks with the new school. There were a lot of young kids offering a new take on surrealism.

Amanda Lepore was there—she is surrealism every day [laughs]—and Yasmine Petty is such a vision. To me, the costumes were more avant-garde than you might think. Someone had a birdcage on their head, another had a clock. There were a lot of headpieces. It makes sense because you see heads at parties, not feet, so it’s best to wear your fashion on your head.

A woman dressed like a surrealist alien at a New Year's Eve party
Dawn. Photo: Mark Minton

Your work merges the worlds of art and fashion—can you speak to how art influences fashion?

I’ve been a pioneer in fashion, and it’s rewarding to see how the nightclub world influences fashion. Jean Paul Gaultier attended my events for inspiration, because back then, we didn’t have Instagram you could scroll through. Fashion and partying have been an inspiration to each other, really. You get dressed up in incredible fashion and have somewhere to go dance your butt off.

You’ve been throwing parties now for over thirty years. How has the New York City party scene changed?

The dance floor now has a new meaning—it’s one of the few places people are not on their phones. They’re actually in the moment, moving and united to the beat. It’s almost a spiritual experience. The world is tough and if there’s a moment where you can not be in the masses, and be offline, and that’s more important than ever, now.

A woman in a white feather corset with a birdcage headdress
Vera Lee Westwood. Photo: Mark Minton

How has the club culture changed, in your eyes?

There’s a huge difference. You don’t have to go out anymore; “you can do everything with that square,” as RuPaul would say, referring to your smartphone or computer. We used to have to go out to meet people. Now, promotion is harder. People are inundated with invites and the attention spans are, like, one second. You can get lost in the scroll. I used to call people and have flier boys stand on street corners and hand out party flyers to people. It feels like dinosaur days, but it wasn’t even that long ago. And New York is way more expensive; $100 feels like $10 nowadays. It’s crazy how much prices have gone up.

What do you want people to know about your forthcoming book?

It’s a book with a lot of photos, but it’s not a coffee table book. It’s a user-friendly book you can bring with you and read on a plane. There’s a timeline of what I have been doing since arriving in New York. I write about the people I’ve been involved with to create nightlife. This book was too small, though. I need to do another one!

It explains my background running my boutique in the 1980s on West Broadway, where I sold Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. And how I got into throwing parties. To me, it’s more rewarding to bring people together like one big, intimate family, rather than it being about the dollars. People in New York need to go someplace where they feel special and welcome. It’s never about the money for me. I love throwing parties where I don’t have to charge cover because it’s a way to give back to the community.

Confetti drops over a wild looking new year's eve party
Ringing in 2024 with nightlife queen Susanne Bartsch. Photo: Mark Minton

NYC Nightlife Queen Susanne Bartsch On Surrealism, Pigeon Couture and Her New Book