Meet the Stylist Behind Some of Leah McSweeney’s Wildest ‘Real Housewives’ Looks

Style

She came in like a tiki torch.

The newest cast member of “The Real Housewives of New York City,” Leah McSweeney, has given reality TV fans something to talk about since COVID-related lockdowns scuppered the world’s 2020 plans. From launching decorative lawn ornaments through the air like javelins (“They really triggered me,” she said.) to facing off against de facto RHONY queen bee Ramona Singer, McSweeney made her presence known in a way few newcomers have throughout the show’s 12 seasons.

She’s not the first downtown “Housewife” on this show dominated by Upper East Side sensibilities. Bethenny Frankel of “Skinnygirl” fame and fortune, who reportedly bailed on the current season the night before filming began, gets that honor. She’s also far from the first cast member to have a mugshot; she’s just the most recent in a long line. But McSweeney is the first “Housewife” with knuckle tattoos, a streetwear label (her brand Married to the Mob celebrated its 15th anniversary on the show), and a propensity for not just lightly ribbing but downright trash-talking the one-percent.

And all of that comes across in McSweeney’s personal style, which has brought a fresh new aesthetic to The Real Housewives of New York City. Previously, even the youngest cast members on the show favored demure, high-femme styles that wouldn’t be out of place at a charity luncheon. Tinsley Mortimer and Kristin Takeman come to mind.

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McSweeney, center, in a The Rxch Lil’ Kim mugshot dress. Her stylist Phil Gomez uses McSweeney’s role on RHONY to amplify the work of emerging BIPOC designers.

Bravo

McSweeney, on the other hand, doesn’t kowtow to the ladies who lunch, sartorially or otherwise. She wore a skintight dress emblazoned with Lil Kim’s mugshot to society dame Sonja Morgan’s fashion show. She sported a sheer black bucket hat that left the other ‘wives scratching their heads. And each week after the newest “RHONY” episode aired, she shouted out the young, independent designers of those pieces — The Rxch and Ida Klamborn, respectively — on Instagram, urging her followers to support their brands.

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Past generations of New York City housewives may have favored conservative labels like Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg (or, let’s be honest, those labels’ imitators). But McSweeney wasn’t about to don a skirt suit and pearls while launching the aforementioned tiki torches through the air (she considers them symbols of white supremacy). As it happens, she did that in the nude. But even if she’d had clothes on, they would’ve been in line with her personal style: edgy, indie, streetwear-inspired.

McSweeney styled herself for the bulk of her first season on the show, but she’s now working with stylist Phil Gomez to further hone her look. Gomez and McSweeney met through photographer friend Jasper Soloff when all three were daydreaming about a fashion shoot during lockdown. The project never came to fruition, but McSweeney and Gomez “clicked right away,” Gomez said. “I was like, yes. I have to style Leah.”

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McSweeney at home in a pink satin cropped MTSZ blazer.

Bravo

Gomez says he’s always “on the hunt for unique pieces and gag-worthy looks,” whether he’s scouring the latest graduating class of a hot fashion school or plumbing the depths of Instagram. You may have seen his work when he dressed Leah in a pink and black blazer by gen-Z-beloved Italian brand MTSZ, or when she made waves in a Gabriela Ostolaza sheer red and yellow bodysuit with matching gloves.

We video-chatted with Gomez and McSweeney last week about their influences, the ins and outs of Housewife dressing, and which cast members they would — and wouldn’t — switch wardrobes with. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Phil, most of your work as a stylist is indie and avant-garde. Did you ever think you’d be styling a Real Housewife?

Phil: TBH, no. Even when I first was entertaining the idea, I was like, “Oh, that’s not my vibe.” I was a little hesitant, but I love to disrupt things. I love to do things that are way out of left field, and how much more disruptive can you be than in a crowd of Upper East Side women?

Leah: So, so true.

Leah, you’ve definitely been disruptive this season. Was it a goal of yours to visually stand out from the other women?

Leah: There was no goal, it was my first season: I was just trying to find a different shirt for each scene! I don’t wanna wear the same thing twice. I mean, who does that?

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McSweeney in a sheer Married to the Mob bucket hat.

Bravo

I knew my style was going to be different [from that of the other cast members]. I knew there was no “Real Housewife” of New York who was gonna wear Jordans or sweatshirts. I think when I met Phil and Jasper, I was so happy that these young creatives wanted to fuck with me at all. I’m an old bitch at this point. I’m pushing 40! I was psyched.

Phil dresses me in things I would never have picked for myself. He has his finger on the pulse of young designers and I like that. It’s very easy to pull mainstream name-brands but it’s harder to find these up-and-coming designers, which I love.

What are some examples of looks he pulled that you wouldn’t have chosen?

Leah: The red and yellow bodysuit with the gloves [by Gabriela Ostolaza]. Some people loved it, some people hated it. But it definitely was being talked about.

So you weren’t working with a stylist for most of filming. What was your thought process behind that? Did you think of getting one?

Leah: I didn’t know how everything went, so it was hard. Tinsley was kind of giving me the low down. She was like, “Shop, shop, buy tons of shit. Shop.” And that’s what I was doing. I can’t exactly shop like Tinsley shops, but I was trying my hardest.

Phil: For me it’s really fun, I’m not thinking of it as a personal-style-type project. I’m thinking of it more like an editorial or a music video because that’s kind of what the fans of “Real Housewives” want to see. They want to see the fantasy, they want to see these characters and personalities that are so vibrant also be visually vibrant.

When I became a fan [of “Real Housewives,” it] was with Beverly Hills and Atlanta, because those [franchises] were pioneering the visual, the glam, all of that. I was like, “Wow these women are really amazing.” And I’m like, “Why aren’t the New York women like that?”

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McSweeney at home in a Gabriela Ostolaza sheer red and yellow bodysuit with matching gloves.

Bravo

When you guys did the gloved sheer bodysuit, did you know it was going to be so controversial? So many people had opinions…

Leah: Listen, they’re not supposed to get it. Not everyone’s gonna get it. But you know what? All the drag queens that follow me love it, so that means it’s a winner.

Phil: I usually work with musicians or artists and usually everyone stans for whatever a musician does. But I feel with Leah, everyone’s so open to being critical. Just with reality people, I think because there’s a sense of, oh, they’re reality stars, we can…

Leah: Tear them apart.

Phil: Yeah. Sometimes it’s hard not to go into that wormhole of reading the comments but Leah’s right, some people will get it and some will not, but I’ve never had that type of feedback before with styling. When you [Leah] post a new outfit or something, I’m kind of like, “Ahhhhh!”

Leah: I didn’t know that! I’m used to it at this point. I’m like, whatever. If we wanted to please everyone, we’d play it very safe. I’m not interested in pleasing everyone. I don’t care. I wanna please myself.

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What about when the feedback goes into the territory of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation? Is that something you think about since you have such a streetwear-inspired aesthetic?

Leah: That’s such a good question and I feel like there have been people who’ve said things in the past maybe. Look, I used to have gold fronts. Am I gonna wear them today? No. Like, I’m not. Things change and what was acceptable 10 years ago isn’t acceptable now, so why create that for myself?

I also feel like I was raised at a time in New York City where a lot of white people were very immersed in Black culture and in hip hop and a lot of different ethnicities, races, all hung out together. All socioeconomic groups hung out together. It was the skate world, Kids, raves, hip hop, everything in the ‘90s. I have a different perspective on things than a lot of people who didn’t grow up that way. I’m not too worried about it, I feel like I’m kind of good with knowing what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.

“I think that’s the right way to do fashion in a conscious way where it’s not appropriating it, but it’s more amplifying it. There are many, many POC, queer, independent designers that could use that amplification.”

Phil: One of our first projects was during the height of [Black Lives Matter protests worldwide after the killing of George Floyd]. I wasn’t nervous but at the same time I was kinda like, oh my god, right in the height of this moment I’m gonna be styling Leah. It was just like… thoughts do come in your head.

But I was like, you know what? When a white woman talks, people listen. So this was my time to kind of shed light even through fashion. We were like, okay, you definitely have to wear a Black designer. You have to amplify voices. Baby Phat was just relaunching again and I was working with them and I was like, let’s get her in one of those iconic velour suits. I think that’s the right way to do fashion in a conscious way where it’s not appropriating it, but it’s more amplifying it. There are many, many POC, queer, independent designers that could use that amplification.

It’s the same thing with [the jewelry McSweeney wore during Bravo’s “Race in America” special.] It was an independent Black designer [Johnny Nelson], and it had faces of Black women musicians. The ring was Lil Kim, the necklace showed Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Lil Kim again and Janet Jackson.

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McSweeney, left, in a taffy pink bodycon h:ours dress with a highlighter yellow YSL bag.

BravoGetty Images

Have you ever been tempted to tone down your style on the show and go in that Upper East Side direction?

Leah: Not at all. No. But I was actually influenced fashion-wise by the Upper East Side, I went to school on the Upper East Side for many, many years. I have Ralph Lauren riding pants and button-up silk printed cardigans. I have preppy stuff but I mix it up with something else. I wouldn’t go full-on… well, maybe if it was a Chanel suit.

Did you expect the other women to have such a hard time with your tattoos?

Leah: No, I didn’t even think about that. I forget that I have them. There are people with so many tattoos I feel like I barely have any. It’s so mainstream. I’m, like, boring at this point because I have tattoos. It’s nothing weird. But alas, they found it very weird.

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The ladies of RHONY.

BravoGetty Images

If you had to switch wardrobes with any of your castmates, who would it be?

Leah: Probably Tinsley or Dorinda.

Phil: Dorinda has some good pieces. If they were styled well, it would slay. Dorinda knows how to shop.

Leah: She does, oh my god. She’s very good at shopping and she has a lot of respect for items. So she’s got an amazing closet.

Who would be the one you would least want to switch wardrobes with?

Leah: I don’t know, now I’m gonna start shit with them. I guess… I’m just gonna say Ramona, just because me and her have been fighting all season even though we’re fine now.

Phil: The way I look at it is like, which wardrobe I would pull from? I would pull from Dorinda’s and Tinsley’s, but yeah, I just don’t think we would find anything [in Ramona’s].

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