It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about the talented New York artists, writers, and style warriors Mary Jo (MJ) Diehl and Roman Milisic, aka House of Diehl. The couple—partners in marriage as well as creativity—met in 1999 at a book party for the photographer David LaChapelle (Roman was his editor at the time), and have blazed a trail through New York ever since. I was first introduced them in 2003, and even then—before New York City was entirely co-opted by banks and franchises, they seemed like a holdout from another era, when the city was a magnet for the avant garde and the original. The fact that they stubbornly cling on in New York, rather than follow the exodus to Brooklyn, also says something about their mischievous brand of sedition. New York, after all, is fashion—not just a site of pilgrimage for people who want to buy overpriced frocks on Madison Avenue, or home to America’s designers and fashion editors, but a place that has always epitomized expressiveness and individuality. “It’s not about looking perfect, it’s about looking interesting, and the interesting and the unique is what we celebrate,” says MJ, a tall gust of energy and blond hair who grew up in Queens, and has the accent to prove it. “It’s not about buying the latest Gucci bag—in fact, that’s not cool; if you can buy something insane for $2 in a thrift store, that’s more interesting. There’s probably a medium-sized hole in the ozone from another little black dress. Do we need another one?”
If you boil down House of Diehl’s manifesto to its simplest truth you end up with a provocative twist on Dada: The designer is dead. “I said that “27 years” ago,” says MJ. “No one wants to look at things—they want to be a part of the action, so we created fully-immersive environments, where people are a key component of the action.” She is talking about Style Wars, a juxtaposition of audience participation, D.I.Y. couture, and flamboyance, in which participants are given less than five minutes to transform everyday objects—a bicycle tire, medical supplies, clothes hangers—into high fashion. Or, as MJ, sums it up, “They have four and a half minutes from concept to creation—a Hefty trashbag into Hervé Léger.” The contests, which emerged from House of Diehl’s own experiments in what they dub “instant couture” channel the comic surrealism of Pee Wee Herman mixed with the high-octane energy of a rave. Creativity, it turns out, is infectious. “It’s one thing to exhibit this concept ourselves,” says Roman, who was born in Yugoslavia, the son of a poet frequently at odds with the then-Communist government. “It’s another to say, ‘Let’s start a fire and see if is spreads. Let’s see who is out there, already doing this stuff in their bedrooms with their buddies, and put them on stage and see if they can kill it.”
The fire has certainly spread—to five continents. When the two took the show to Buenos Aires they were astonished to find a crowd of several thousand squeezing into the venue. “They were completely insane,” recalls MJ. “They threw the clothes off the rack and made the outfit out of the rack. That wouldn’t win in Macy’s or at Target, but in Style Wars it totally killed it.” The point, of course, is not to create something that would typically win a fashion award, or garner a spread in Vogue. The establishment is at odds with everything House of Diehl stands for. At one Style Wars event, participants had to smash a piñata doll of Anna Wintour in order to release the materials for the contest. “We’ve always had a ‘Bring me the head of Karl Lagerfeld’ element,” says Roman, who compares fashion designers to the ownership class in Marxist theory. “They own the catwalk, so you have to be one of the super elite to present your work where someone can see it,” he says. “We’re the fucking 99 percent. With Style Wars you can just have an idea, and you don’t need a million bucks or connections to get on that catwalk. It’s all about the currency of ideas, and how important it is to have fresh innovative concepts out there.”
This is one reason why pop stars like Lady Gaga come to House of Diehl to help outfit them in ways that reframe how we think of fashion. “Her stylists are like, ‘Hi, we need something—broken glass, a table, a shoe, and a car—can you make that in ten minutes,” paraphrases MJ. “Who else you gonna call? We’re like the Ghostbusters of the fashion world.” For Roman, helping to outfit pop stars is all well and good, but it’s on the street where House of Deihl finds it greatest expression. “The kids who will wear it downtown are the people who power Style Wars,” he says. “If you can wear something outrageous and make it work in a real setting, like they do, that’s great.” And this, perhaps, is the crux of their sensibility, to challenge the idea that fashion boils down to deciding which label to choose from the rack in the department store. “Reality is our runway,” says MJ. “It’s really about using something exclusive to be inclusive—it’s not about another watered down designer collection, like McQueen at Target. That’s not what people want when they think of fashion. They want a star-making experience. For us it’s not about looking like star, simply aesthetic, it’s about becoming a star—the best you that you can be.
On a recent Saturday evening, MJ and Roman host a party for friends at their salon/apartment in New York’s Flatiron district. It’s a potluck, and the guests squeeze into their tiny kitchen to deposit dishes they’ve prepared earlier—stuffed mushrooms, braised pork loin, a cake. Around the room are various outfits the duo has designed over the years, as well as a portrait series of iconic scenes in movies—Rosemary’s Baby, Cabaret, Taxi Driver, Bonnie & Clyde—in which the couple restyled the characters in House of Diehl couture for a 2004 BlackBook series. MJ gestures to an outfit made of lengths of tape measure that has the appearance of a revealing cocktail dress. “That one is called, ‘The dress is fine, it’s the party that makes you look fat.’” She laughs. Wit is a big ingredient in what makes of House of Diehl work, but the wit is underpinned by a deeply held philosophy on liberating fashion from dogma. “We’ve always been about transformation,” explains Roman, “What does transformation mean in the fashion world?” MJ leads me to the photo of Bonnie & Clyde. “This picture, more than anything else, represents Roman and I in the fashion world,” she says. We stare at America’s favorite outlaws as they stare back at us, pistols in hand, from the wall. “They were anti-establishment, they did what they wanted to do,” says MJ, before adding with a tart wink, “And they were sexy and stylish as hell.”
House of Diehl will be collaborating with Absolut Tune on an immersive experience that will debut in Spring 2014. To learn more about current and upcoming Absolut Tune events, visit Absolut.com.
Main image by Danielle Levitt