Long before DJ-producer Diplo became an omnipresent figure in the world of fashion-forward music moguls, he was a DJ in Philadelphia just starting to make a name for himself via his storied Hollertronix parties in the early 2000s. Interviewed while having his hair styled for a fashion shoot a few days before jetting off to Dubai, the man born Thomas Wesley Pence reflects on his gradual evolution into the sharp-dressed gentleman scholar of the worldwide DJ scene.
“It’s funny, because I was looking at some photos from Hollertronix the other day, and the way people were dressed, it was like they were going to Disneyland or something,” he says. “There was no style at all. It was pre-hipster, people just went there for the music alone. But the parties changed, and now, 10 years later, we have so many different worlds when it comes to music and fashion.”
For his part, Diplo, who’s produced for the likes of Beyoncé, Madonna, Justin Bieber, Usher and M.I.A., all the while running his Mad Decent record label and making chart hits of his own with side projects Major Lazer and Jack U, has embraced high style to a striking degree. Alternating a large stock of sharp suits with a love for forward-thinking streetwear purveyors like Hood by Air and KTZ, he’s been the subject of GQ fashion spreads, modeled for Alexander Wang and attended this year’s Met Gala in Calvin Klein.
“I like the classic men’s suit designers,” he says. “I love Thom Browne, Dior Homme, Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, the people who can bring new flavors with a classic twist.”
The producer repeatedly emphasizes the cross-pollination between his personal style and his musical explorations, and though he admits, “I might be wearing sweatpants every day when I’m in the studio,” he’s come to understand the importance of presenting a public image that adds to or plays off his musical output.
“I feel like I’m always trying to switch up my style and do something different, presenting an image that people can understand,” he says. “I went from the Hollertronix days just having fun, to Major Lazer and having this sort of Mod look, to doing fashion collabs with different designers. I’ve become really close to a lot of designers, the usual suspects like Alexander Wang and Jeremy Scott.”
Growing up mostly between Tennessee and Florida, Diplo remembers finding high fashion “cheesy and pompous as a kid, watching these people on TV going to runway shows in Saint-Tropez.” As a teenager, he spent most of his clothing budget in thrift stores and on mail-order catalogues in skater magazines. But he recalls starting to develop his own personal style when the dance music boom finally hit in the United States at the end of the last decade.
“When I started doing Las Vegas residencies, and really being a DJ in the DJ world, everything felt so homogeneous, both in the music they were playing and the way they were dressing,” Diplo says. “Everyone had the same all-black outfit — black jeans, black shoes, black leather jacket — and they were all Swedish,” he says. “I was already 30 years old then, so I didn’t want to look like a corny-ass DJ. I wanted to look smart, look a little professional.”
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Diplo’s style, both sartorial and musical, is fusion. Throughout his discography and DJ sets, Diplo has exhibited an omnivorous ear for new sounds, making pop music out of everything from Jamaican dance-hall and Brazilian carioca to house and trap. And in the course of his extensive world travels, he picks up plenty of style tips along the way. He recently became one of the first U.S. artists to play in Cuba, performing a free concert with Major Lazer in March, and came away impressed with the DIY fashion on display.
“I couldn’t believe how stylish everyone was,” he says of his time in Havana. “Mostly it was the haircuts — every kid there had the coolest hair you’ve ever seen. And they were doing it usually on zero budget, so the ingenuity impressed me.”
He continues: “I’ve always tried to play places like Korea and Kenya, Jamaica, Cuba. I don’t want to just play Las Vegas every weekend, because that’s not really adding anything to the culture. And when it comes to style, it’s important to see what you can learn and how much you can mix up. That’s what I try to do as a DJ, too, to mutate music and mutate culture. That’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”