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Happy Days

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In the neon cage above the dance floor.  

Christ! Look at them all! It’s barely past midnight, and already the place is teeming with people, hundreds of them, all pressing against her, all chanting the same chorus: “Susanne!” “Oh, Susanne!” “Let’s go say hi to Susanne!” The music is a riotous fusion of electronica and rock, genres as mashed and disparate as the bodies colliding on the dance floor. There really is one of everyone in here—like swimming around a petri dish labeled NO, BABY, THIS IS NEW YORK! You’ve got gay boys and straight boys and closeted boys; reptilian model girls who’ve stripped down to tissue-thin panties; uptown businessmen in pin-striped suits with loosened ties; hollow-cheeked hipsters in retro sneakers; old-school and new-school club kids; a moon-faced midget; ambiguously gendered Asian hotties in hot pants; three less-than-sober gossip columnists; and a sprinkling of drag queens giving a sequined nod to the old days. The democracy of it all! That’s what Susanne loves the most: that no one owns Happy Valley, that a kind of jubilant, pheromonal anarchy presides. This is by design, of course. There is no cover, no “list” at the door. You heard there was a party? Oh, excellent! Come on in—

“Come, come!” says Susanne. “Time to say hello to everyone!”

The lighting is almost doctor’s-office bright. It gives everything a weird spotlight feel, everyone on a stage, performer and audience merged into one. The balconies are neon-trimmed. The D.J. booth is a deliberately kitschy disco ball the size of the studio apartments most people here have escaped for the night. The whole place feels pleasantly slapdash: not so much a self-conscious homage to the eighties as a club that was shuttered in ’86 and has been lying dormant for two decades, collecting dust until an hour ago, when someone figured, what the hell, let’s open the doors and see what happens. (The effect is the brainchild of designer Jeremy Scott—another total geeenius.) In the neon cage hovering over the dance floor, a white dude with an Afro drops his track pants and gyrates to remixed Franz Ferdinand as a clique of girls with polyurethaned lips cheers him on. “It’s good, right?” says Susanne. “Like if you want to get naked for some reason—fine, you can! This is what I try to create.”

How Susanne became a professional party girl is an object lesson in the power of charm, momentum, serendipity, and a city that once operated as a laboratory for creatively minded misfits looking for a place to experiment. At 17, she left her middle-class Swiss family for London, soon finding herself hanging with Mick Jagger at Speakeasy, accessing Jimmy Page’s estate with her own key, and starting a boutique knitwear company that catered to bands and semi-anonymous “It” girls like herself. She moved to New York in 1981 when a painter invited her to spend Valentine’s Day in his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. He ended up leaving her for another woman; she never left the apartment. She started importing avant-garde clothing from London, selling it out of a tiny boutique on Thompson Street, introducing New York to figures like Leigh Bowery and John Galliano, and eventually expanding her store in Soho, with Limelight owner Peter Gatien as her silent backer. When that didn’t work out, she noticed another opportunity for persona expansion: a club called Sauvage opening in her neighborhood. She approached the owner about throwing a party. Did anyone have a more eclectic, ready-made guest list?

A white dude with an afro drops his track pants and gyrates to remixed Franz Ferdinand. “It’s good, right?” says Susanne. “Like if you want to get naked for some reason— you can! This is what I try to create.”

“Now let’s go see if Junior is up in that disco ball,” Susanne says. But that twenty-yard journey is going to take two hours. She keeps getting swarmed with people she either knows or sort of knows or pretends to know—it doesn’t matter. Some are her age, stalwarts from the Copa days emerging from hibernation. Others are vacant-eyed androgynous children wearing fingerless gloves and leg warmers, their eyebrows pierced, their fishnets meticulously torn. “I knew the kids would be wrapped around her finger,” says Kenny Kenny, her longtime doorman. “I gave it three months. It took three weeks.” Among them is Mark Hunter, a 20-year-old photographer who runs a Website called The Cobrasnake, the New York Social Diary for hipsters with headbands. “Man, I’m used to going to indie-rock parties,” he says. “This is just a crazy mix. I like all the hot model girls who shouldn’t be here and all these weird old people. I wasn’t even familiar with Susanne Bartsch. Just heard she was some legendary party person. It’s fun to feel like you’re back in the eighties, you know?”

Well, sort of. You do notice a number of asymmetrical haircuts and more than a few pairs of jelly sandals. And maybe there is something to the notion that the times are reminiscent of Susanne’s Copa days: a Bush in the White House, a Republican paranoia in the air—and maybe this has stoked a latent rebellion among a certain set of New Yorkers eager for an excuse to gleefully give the finger to the era in which they’re stuck. Maybe. But that’s not why Happy Valley works. Susanne’s latest party does not have the tragic feel of a reunion tour. There are plenty of Mark Hunters here, kids who don’t know Susanne Bartsch from Oliver North. As Heatherette designer Richie Rich, who just showed up, puts it, “People here, they don’t even get what Susanne meant in the eighties. And that says something, you know? Like the kind of impact she can have just by what she does. She is so important to the city. I’m telling you, man, she is like the Statue of Liberty.”


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