For all the years I’ve known Leah McSweeney, she’s been one of the most determined people I know, working in a business that has been run by men for decades. Her brand Married to the Mob is arguably one of the most original women’s streetwear lines of the modern era, and certainly one that does not bother with formalities to get their point across. If men’s streetwear lines are abrasive, then Married to the Mob takes it one step further — and harder. McSweeney’s “Supreme Bitch” T-shirt made the big guns nervous, and her now famous cease and desist by Supreme was so radical at the time that even Barbara Kruger spoke out.
Married to the Mob was well into the collaborative landscape early on. McSweeney’s 2006 KAWS x MTTB bikini, which was limited to 100 sets, had a campaign that featured her straddling photographer Shadi Perez dressed in a bear suit. Married to the Mob’s 2015 Bearbrick, emblazoned with the slogan “Help keep New York grimy,” was a moment for McSweeney to remind us of her city and what gives it its edge.
History is history, of course. In honor of Married to the Mob’s 15th year, McSweeney and the brand will be returning heavy. With a new online shop opening April 1 and her recently announced starring role on The Real Housewives of New York City on Bravo, I sat down with McSweeney to discuss how her road led her to where she is now and to see just how much streetwear has changed since she started out.
Leah, let’s just take it back to the beginning. It’s 2004, and there’s an incident with the police. The arrest was pretty instrumental in many ways, in kicking off your brand. What happened there?
It’s a crazy story. I had been at Hammerstein Ballroom for a concert, and after the show ended, everybody was let out. It was maybe 4:30 a.m. There were a lot of people on the street as people were leaving the venue, but everyone was chill. So we were among the crowd and I was kissing my boyfriend goodbye, when, all of a sudden, I felt him being pulled away from me. When I opened my eyes, he was getting beat up by five cops. I threw what was in my hand, instinctually, which was a half-empty Poland Spring water bottle and it hit one of the officers in the back.
He turned around and punched me in the face; I spun around and landed on my face. I was placed in handcuffs while I was on the ground and my head got slammed into the subway grate twice, which is when I felt one of my teeth fall out. It was very disturbing and traumatic. People were calling 911 while this was happening. Luckily, when there’s a 911 call against the police officer, a Civilian Complaint Review Board — which is an internal police investigation company — gets involved. They contacted me, I got a lawyer, and I sued. Most people don’t stand up to the police in that sense. Today, of course, it’s a different time.
But through all of that, you did what you had to; you channeled it into something pretty positive, right? I’d love for you to talk more about how that led to Married to the Mob.
I didn’t end up winning the settlement, I think, until maybe a year after I started the brand in 2004.
I’m like, “God knows when I’ll ever have $75,000 again at one time, so I better use this really wisely and put this into my business.” I quit my job at Alife to fully invest my time in Married to the Mob. It was less about using the money to invest into the company and more about using the money so I could invest my time into the company.
I was very smart about it, and I ordered exactly what I sold, and just a very few extra to give away. I was pretty savvy back then. I don’t know how, but I was. I knew not to blow the money. I knew how to spend it wisely.
Let’s open that up a bit and talk more generally about your experience as an entrepreneur. It’s been 15 years. One thing I’ve heard you say before is that you hated the idea of having a boss.
Yeah, I’ve always wanted to work for myself.
And there’s a lot of boss women that you turned to. Can you tell us some of your inspirations on the entrepreneurial side?
I always idolized Oprah. I idolized Heidi Fleiss, Martha Stewart, Kimora Lee.
What is it about them?
They listen to their own voices and instincts. From a young age, I idolized women who were in traditionally male roles. That was always very alluring to me. Women who were acting like “men.” It looked like a lot more fun. I thought, “That looks like something that I want to be doing.”
Let’s look at where you grew up, New York City, which is clearly a source of inspiration for fashion and style. Talk to me about the music you’re listening to, along with the places and shops in the city that were inspirational to you.
Music was Lil’ Kim, Deee-Lite, Lady Miss Kier. Everything from their attitude to their outfits — their lyrics and album covers — inspired me. I shopped at Antique Boutique, Liquid Sky, Smylonylon, Canal Street Jeans.
What was Canal Street Jeans?
Canal Street Jeans? Oh my god. It was actually on Broadway, it wasn’t on Canal Street, and it was the shit. It was huge. It was like two giant floors, and they just had the best stuff. It was the spot to shop.
There’s a bit of a theme here, right? Because I’m hearing a lot of shops or locations that people would call “urban” or “street” at that time.
Yeah. Well, look, I also loved Betsey Johnson. I loved John Fluevog, I loved Bloomingdale’s. But not as much as I loved the Antique Boutique and the stores on Broadway, downtown. That’s where I shopped. I shopped below Eighth Street. Pat Fields on Eighth Street, of course; that’s where I got my Christmas dance dress. That was my favorite fucking place to shop.
What was Downtown like back then?
It was so magical. It was exciting. It was fucking authentic. It was bubbling. There was art, there was music. Everything was a surprise. You just didn’t know what might happen. You’d be walking on the street with no idea of who you might see and then suddenly you’d see A Tribe Called Quest walking down. I’d see RuPaul getting a new wig at Pat Field’s because Pat had a hair salon on the bottom floor that was mainly for drag queens.
Who is the Mob woman today? Or has it always stood for the same thing and represented the same persona?
I’m obviously a different person now than when I started the brand. I was 22. Now, I’m 37. I was just so much more about being debaucherous and rowdy back then. But I always wanted Mob to send the message that women can enter this industry not just as shoppers — we have also been undervalued consumers of streetwear — but to show that a woman can have a vision, build a brand, have a point of view, and be successful in all the same ways that men have been, and more. And I would say that the Mob girl is still the same at her core because the Mob girl has always been unapologetic about who she is, and she goes for anything she wants. It’s about being unapologetically you.
Can you describe some of your favorite pieces over the last 15 years?
Yeah, there’s so many good ones! I’ve actually been looking through my hard drive. I mean, it’s just crazy that my life is literally on a hard drive.
It’s nuts. It’s been so many years with so many highlights. We had Rihanna rocking Mob, Fergie and Ciara, too. Ellie Goulding and Chanel West Coast, all of them wearing Mob. It was surreal. But if I had to pick, 2008 was, like, a popping ass year for me.
That was a big year.
That was the best year. I had a baby, I had a Nike collab, I had a Reebok collab with colette in Paris. I brought my one-year-old daughter with me to Paris. I had the whole window at colette! It was one of the best years of my life, in so many ways. One of my favorite collaborations is probably doing the MCM bag.
What’s next for you and Mob?
That’s a good fucking question! We’re working on it right now, and there will be exciting shit to follow. To be honest, I’m in a great place, because I can evolve it however I want. I own my brand 100 percent. This is what I’ve always wanted: full freedom, full power. The future is bright.