"THIS is not ready-to-wear. This is ready to ruuummmble!"
That was the rallying cry at Cinespace in Hollywood last month, when hip-hop beats competed with emcee Mary Jo Diehl's booming voice. No, Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya weren't emerging from their corners for a welterweight championship. This was Style Wars -- a touring fight-out for the fashion-savvy art set with eight contestants going head-to-head in an attempt to out-design each other for prizes and a title.
DJ Red 5, sporting a Superman T-shirt, revved up the turntables, and with the first bass beat, the hosts were off to demonstrate.
New York fashionista Diehl and her collaborator Roman Milisic began by cutting up three black umbrellas and reassembling their pieces on a blond model using duct tape and a staple gun. Their muse, looking like an Audrey Hepburn for the post-consumer recycling era, strutted the resulting hoop dress down the short runway before camera flashes.
After the hosts' teaser, professional and aspiring designers of varying ages took the stage for a series of 4 1/2-minute rounds, creating outfits on the spot from vintage garments and unconventional materials. One contestant constructed a dress out of newspapers. Another tagged her model's chest with spray paint amid gags and winces from the audience.
Style Wars grew out of Instant Couture, a live art/fashion concept created six years ago by Diehl and Milisic (known as House of Diehl for their creative collaborations). The purpose of Instant Couture was to raise fashion's already quick pulse to New York-minute speeds via fast-paced live styling, snipping, clipping, burning and taping of just about any material -- textile or industrial. Diehl and Milisic acted as the designers, and willing audience members were their impromptu models.
With the addition of the do-it-yourself element and night club settings, Style Wars is "Project Runway" for the Club Kids. Contestants applied online through event sponsor Moli.com, a social networking site for creative types. Another sponsor, secondhand retailer Crossroads Trading Co., provided the clothing.
Judges included pop singer Jodi Watley, whom Milisic called "our own Paula Abdul"; last year's "Project Runway" winner Jeffrey Sebelia; Canadian purse designer Nikki Chu; and Style Network host Jess Zaino.
"We've been doing this since 2001, when there was no 'Project Runway' or 'American Idol,' " says Diehl, who with her partner has opened for art rock band Sonic Youth. A pair of single-lens sunglasses that they designed even made it into Gwen Stefani and Eve's "Rich Girl" video. "Spies definitely attend our shows," says Diehl.
The design duo has closely orbited the fashion industry. They met at a party for renegade fashion photographer David LaChapelle (Milisic edited his book "Hotel LaChapelle"). Yet neither studied fashion formally. Both were philosophy students. Not surprisingly, Diehl once declared, "The designer is dead," an irreverent take on Nietzche's "God is dead" credo.
"The art of fashion is often at odds with the business of fashion," she explains.
Whether or not spies from the mainstream fashion industry borrow ideas from House of Diehl, one thing appears certain: The duo and their judges frown upon borrowing ideas from the mainstream fashion industry.
In an early round in the night's competition, one contestant created a stylish and flattering Southwestern outfit but was lambasted by Zaino, who quipped: "Pocahontas is very common." Her opponent, a young woman who created a purse out of an old computer keyboard, advanced to the next round. "Over the top is never too over the top," Diehl says. Breaking the mold is apparently not an option but a mandate. One finalist -- who wore a skirt hanger in her hair -- created a fuchsia and yellow coat dress with shoulder pads made of aluminum pie tins and yellow latex kitchen gloves with the fingers cut out. It drew raves from Chu: "That is hot. . . . It's Tina Turner 'Thunderdome,' 'Mad Max.' "
In the final round, Diehl took the mike to introduce San Francisco contestant Domini and her rival, the L.A.-based Paul Magalad.
"The theme is Fabulous Rehabulous," announced Diehl. "Design or die!"
The competitors scrambled to re-purpose wedding dresses. A couple of minutes into the round, the audience, increasingly restless, catcalled the contestants, and time was called. The models paraded the resulting outfits to the beat of Unk's club classic "Walk It Out." "Married or buried, we can't decide which one," said Milisic, eyeing Magalad's elegant flowing white gown and Domini's crepe-wrapped creation, accessorized with a pair of white pantyhose stretched over the model's face.
After a few more quips from the judges and hollers from the audience, Magalad was proclaimed the winner of Style Wars L.A.
He now advances to the New York final -- where crinoline, spray paint, keyboards and such may be declared "so yesterday" and competitors will -- as Milisic puts it -- struggle "to capture that zeitgeist and get it on the runway at the same moment."