Pride Throwback: Love Ball ’89

On the heels of Love Ball III with CFDA, founder Susanne Bartsch recalls the extravaganza that started it all.

Before nightlife, I had a store [in New York] selling London designers like Body Map and Vivienne Westwood. But there was nowhere for people to go in the fabulous clothes I was selling. I wanted a space that [encouraged] dressing up, so I started [a party] all about head-to-toe looks—being seen and high energy. That was always the message [of all my parties].

One night I came home just depressed and devastated; I’d had another friend pass away [from AIDS] and it all felt so surreal. Two of my closest friends, roommates who also worked at the shop, had also died of AIDS; it wasn’t one or two deaths, but a series. At one point Kenny Kenny had said, “You should give a night’s proceeds to an AIDS organization.” I thought, that’s not enough. But a lightbulb went off: Why not borrow the format of the Harlem house balls, and invite companies to pay to be their own “house” for a night?

First I called Annie Flanders of Details, who agreed to [secure] ads, and Simon Doonan [of Barneys]. So in an hour two massive people were [on board], and by the end sponsors included everyone from Body Map to Absolut Vodka, and Thierry Mugler [pictured], David Byrne and Iman had agreed to judge.   

For the venue, I wanted an old-school space, large enough to put on a show. Roseland Ballroom was always the one, but institutions like that normally charge union fees—$10 to screw in a lightbulb. But for us, Roseland agreed to break the union [contract]; that was a real coup. The guestlist came together easily: Whoever bought a ticket could come, no VIP or anything. Fuck the guestlist; it was about charity.

Planning took a year, A to Z; I had a hand in everything. A million people helped, but in the end, it was my party. One of the reasons I agreed to Love Ball III this summer was the CFDA partnership; on my own, it was almost too much. That first night, I was running around like a headless chicken. But after the opening number, which had skateboarders flying over the crowd, [I paused]. I started crying—like, oh my God, this is happening. It was really the first time the fashion community had come together and acknowledged that we were all a part of this [epidemic].

Anyone that mattered to me was there. It was the most eclectic group—Anna Wintour and Isaac Mizrahi, Leigh Bowery and Pepper LaBeija of House of LaBeija, as well as the [corporate managers] of companies like Calvin Klein and Kiehl’s, all drinking champagne served by drag queens. I think that was one of the first times [many of them] had ever seen drag. Madonna was a bit of a surprise—you never know who will actually show up. But the message was the same—to celebrate life, and bring on the feathers and glitter!

The end of the night was the most beautiful… I came out to thank all the guests, and the first person I saw was Bill Cunningham… I missed him at Love Ball III. He was right in front of me, and behind him was a standing ovation. I thought, this is the definition of love. I felt the love go through me, and back out through my outstretched hands. We raised $400,000 that night, [but] that feeling was worth a billion. I could have moved mountains, feeling that way.

Judge Thierry Mugler and host Susanne Bartsch at Love Ball I, 1989, (Courtesy of CFDA)
Susanne Bartsch at Love Ball I, 1989, (Courtesy of CFDA)
Susanne Bartsch and guest at Love Ball I, 1989, (Courtesy of CFDA)
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