Based in Detroit's Eastern Market, a district half-flourishing with creative spirit and bootstrap entrepreneurship, you'll find the Hygienic Dress League, a legally registered corporation whose sole product is the promotion of ... the Hygienic Dress League.
There are three levels of Hygienic employees: Extractors sit on the lowest end of the totem pole, followed by mid-level management Transporters, and at the top we find the Executives. Each has its own uniform, from hazmat suit to boardroom wear. All employees cover their eyes, noses, mouths and hands in gold. And the pigeon is their sacred fowl.
Maybe you've seen their "billboards" around town, or the "No Vacancy" neon sign atop the dilapidated Roosevelt Hotel in Corktown.
Maybe you've no clue what I'm talking about.
You see, the Hygienic Dress League is the brainchild of artists Dorota and Steve Coy.
Steve Coy, 32, grew up in and around metro Detroit's northern suburbs; when he turned 18, he busted for Australia, then California, and finally Hawaii. Dorota, 32, was born in Poland; in her teens her parents moved the family to upstate New York. She bounced around from Vermont to Philadelphia, California and Hawaii.
In 2007, the two set up shop in downtown Detroit.
Soon Steve and Dorota started to blur the line of high- and low-brow art, bridging these communities in Detroit using "billboards" featuring stencil spray-painted "employees" as metaphors to comment on the tiers of class structure, but for many passers-by their work seems to be legitimately commercial, a promotion for a boutique that'll never open. Hell, the painting might not last weeks. But it might last two years.
The work is decidedly clever and playfully confusing. Sexy, highly designed, engaging and perhaps primed for the global stage.
Coming off a week that saw the Hygienic Dress League pop up outside of Detroit for the first time while they (or at least their fictitious employees) were featured in a gallery exhibition in town, we sat down in their Eastern Market workspace to get the lowdown on what brought them to Detroit, prodding them to dissect their design — including augmented reality art experiences. What is that, you ask? Keep reading.
Metro Times: Hygienic Dress League is really you two. How was it formed?
Dorota Coy: We met in Hawaii in 2006. Steve was getting his master's. He's an artist. All of our friends were too.
Steve Coy: In Hawaii, the Hygienic Dress League was a group of six or seven artist friends. We formed to put on a show that examined the lengths people will go to present themselves in certain ways. We were largely commenting on fashion. We made the gallery — Arts at Mark's Garage — look like a boutique. I don't know if it was because we advertised that models would be at the show, but I don't know how many thousands of people came. The models were part of the performative aspect — the idea was to reflect how corporations conceive brand identity.
MT: Why Detroit?
Steve: We moved to Detroit for the reasons lots of people are moving here. It's less expensive, and there are real opportunities for artists.
MT: What was your first trip around the city together like?
Steve: It was 2007, we're driving around Detroit and Dorota was crying, like, "This is where I'm going to live?" Seeing it through her eyes was something else.
Dorota: It literally looked like there had recently been a war in Detroit. I was like, "Where's this cute little neighborhood with brownstones that we're going to live in?" I was still carrying that idea. ... Steve said I should just give it a little time and see how I liked it. And of course I love it. We're not going anywhere.
MT: Is your studio in Eastern Market's Atlas Building the first place you found?
Steve: Yes, and it's an amazing space. It had real history. There were artists in here throughout the '60s. It's been a notorious place for artists and still is. Derrick May is our neighbor, so are Greg Holm, Jocelyn Rainey, Rebecca Mazzei, and the Cyber Optix Tie Lab is right below us.
MT: What was your plan when you moved to Detroit?
Steve: The idea was to create a corporation whose sole mission is to promote itself. We thought of this hilarious conceptual art project and just started running wild with the ideas of all we could do in the framework as "corporation as art medium," because there's so many things that corporations do that we could follow. ... In the name of art, not profit.
MT: Three characters pop up in your work. What can you tell us about them?
Steve: Those are our boardroom employees — the Executives — they have the plan laid out on the board room table. Meanwhile the Extractors are out chasing pigeons, to turn them into gold. Transporters are the ultimate middlemen.
MT: Pigeons are heavily utilized by the HDL designs.
Steve: Like any corporation, we were looking for identity so we needed a logo. Pigeons are pretty common in street art, and just as birds they aren't thought of as being at all intelligent or clean. We were riffing on urban wildlife to an extent. I mean, we see them everywhere around Detroit.
Dorota: It's the urban bird.
MT: Another theme is gold; gallons of metallic spray-paint gold. What's the infatuation?
Dorota: Gold has been a part of the project from the very beginning — it brings to mind price, cost and value.
Steve: But it's a false sense of value, right? Really it's this shitty fake coating of gold on a pigeon or something. We're always commenting on value. We often utilize a pattern that's very much inspired by Louis Vuitton, because — is a Vuitton bag valuable because of the way the company presents itself?
MT: And what does hygiene have to do with the concept?
Steve: We were reading this obscure dada text from the '20s all about dress reform, something about being anti-corset. We came across this paragraph about this dress reform group called the Hygienic Dress League but not much else was mentioned about it. We loved the name. The response we want to elicit by using the name is "What the hell is that?" Because that's what our reaction was.
MT: How long were you in Detroit before your art popped up?
Steve: For our first big one, we contacted the city and said we wanted to do a mural on the GAR Building [Grand Army of the Republic building, built in 1897, known as the Castle], which was covered in half-torn posters and tags. They were like, "Yeah, go ahead, do whatever, we don't care, just sign this waiver saying that if you get hurt we're not responsible." That was it. We got out there the next morning and finished three days later. It stayed up for two years and got some real attention that allowed us to use it as a reference and motivation to make more murals. The GAR, including our mural, had gotten tagged pretty hard. ... It got painted over in beige. It's been beige ever since. ...
MT: Is the attention your art wins a carefully considered byproduct?
Dorota: It's not our priority. We don't choose any certain building because we feel attention needs to be brought to it.
Steve: Location is considered; we try to draw meaning from it. Our "No Vacancy" sign we affixed to an abandoned hotel. ... We want to bring attention to the buildings in that maybe someone will see the possibility of the space.
Dorota: But by no means do we think that we're saving all these buildings.
MT: How do you vet your locations?
Steve: We want high-traffic, high-profile locations. We want to catch people completely dialed into Detroit looking for the next street piece, and also the attention of the dude who comes downtown for a Tigers game. The idea is that you can engage in the project on as many levels as you want. You can see a piece and think, "That's stupid" or "I don't get it" or "What the heck is this thing?" or you can do an Internet search for Hygienic Dress League and learn more about the project. All of it adds to the narrative.
MT: How long does it take to get a piece up?
Steve: Larger ones can take up to a week, but that doesn't account for the time it took to do all the prep work in the studio. ... We always try to get permission. We want to try and change the perception of street art as vandalism, and transcend the traditional spray-paint, stencil, tag format.
MT: When you travel, does HDL travel? Or are you found only in Detroit?
Dorota: How are we going to answer this?
Steve: Should we go off the record?
Dorota: Nothing has been said about it yet.
Steve: We were just in Toledo.
Dorota: You've already said too much.
MT: Dorota, you work in advertising, yet HDL mocks marketing and advertising. You participate in and poke fun at the industry that pays your bills?
Dorota: As an artist, I hope I have insight into advertising in a way that I'll see it differently. It works on the flipside, too. Working in advertising, I see art differently.
Steve: You see a lot of stuff out there posing as fine art but when you get to the bottom of it, they're just trying to sell you something. We're actually doing the opposite, posing as advertising but really there's art behind it all.
MT: Last weekend was the opening of your first legitimate Detroit gallery show. How'd it come about?
Steve: I'm conflicted about calling it an official Hygienic Dress League exhibition. Toby Barlow (adman, author and Dorota's boss) actually was the first to propose the idea, which was basically that a photographer like Scott Hocking would be, fictitiously, out in Detroit when he spots employees from the Hygienic Dress League and has sort of a Bigfoot moment, and starts shooting, bringing a reality to the fantasy narrative. So the way we see it is a collection of five photographers from the Detroit area (Nicola Kuperus, Dave Krieger, Greg Holm, Scott Hocking and Tom Stoye) who took pictures of the Hygienic Dress League employees, and those photos are being framed in an exhibition-style setting. The photos validate the reality of the Hygienic Dress League. We left it up to the photographers as to how they wanted to portray the employees, so we were able to collaboratively build a narrative.
Dorota: These photographers have been shooting the area for a long time. The idea is that they'd basically put us in the context of their work.
MT: Is Detroit the place you thought it'd be?
Steve: Detroit's been absolutely brilliant, from the reception of the work to the number of people who help us do the things we want to do. ...
Dorota: I think Detroit fosters creative projects better than any other city. It's just an incredible place.
MT: What's the next HDL promotion?
Steve: We have a lot of ideas. Basically, we're a hype machine, and we want to put these photos all over the Internet. Then Dorota's going to take the photos and blow them up on adhesive vinyl, and we're going to put them on all of these empty 8-by-4-foot mini-billboards we see all over Detroit. The idea is to put them everywhere. We're also releasing a promotional video soon.
MT: As far as Detroit's art scene at large — high-brow and low- — where's your niche?
Steve: I see us as people who are diversifying the types of public art you see in the city. ... We're all about the transient characteristics of street art. A piece creates interest; it peaks, then goes away over time.
MT: In what ways are you working to evolve street art and public art experience?
Steve: We want to further transcend traditional street art by bringing some augmented reality experiences to Detroit, something you'd experience through the use of the camera and GPS in your smart phone. We see our role as introducing new types of art. We can create multi-experiential platforms — Internet videos, billboards, a neon sign, a magazine ad — because the corporate concept allows it. With the augmented reality piece, ideally we'd replace every major billboard in the city with our own. You'd aim your phone at a billboard and see a Hygienic Dress League ad. We're already working with some computer scientists.
The Hygienic Dress League Satellite Office is now up at the Public Pool art gallery located at 3309 Caniff in Hamtramck. Open Saturdays from 1 to 6 p.m. Or call 313-405-7665; hygienicdressleague.com.