Rhode Island School of Design graduate Mel Ottenberg is having a moment. In addition to serving as fashion director of Berlin’s 032c magazine and lending his touch to an array of editorial, runway, and advertising projects, the 38-year-old stylist is credited with shaping Rihanna’s look since her “Loud” tour in 2011. His work has paid off. Just last week the 26-year-old beauty walked away with this year’s CFDA Fashion Icon Award.
And she didn’t just walk, she sparkled.
Rihanna’s sheer, shimmering Swarovski-coated gown was the talk of the night, and we may step on thin ice for saying this, but it shined a light on an award show typically only on the radar of industry insiders. For stylists like Ottenberg, this is what the career path is all about, creating a moment that can last a lifetime. Ottenberg chatted with us from his hotel room
We need to talk about Rihanna’s
CFDA Awards dress.
I’m thrilled. I went to Paris like right after, like a few hours after the awards. I went out to dinner, then got on a plane in the middle of the night. So I sort of missed a lot of it, but I’m still getting so many e-mails and phone calls. It’s great. I love it.
You have such a crucial role in shaping Rhianna’s style. What has that been like for you?
I mean it has been a process of just teamwork and collaborating with Rhianna, but also with the hair and makeup and the designer and with our different teams. It’s just been really fun to watch it evolve. I would almost say every time we have a great success together, it just gives you more drive to make the next one really amazing, too.
Do you have advice for other students who are coming out of the
traditional fashion schools in New York and London?
You just sort of have to find your way. I went to RISD and I had no interest in doing what I’m doing, at all. I only wanted to be a designer. In school, I would never, never have given a second thought to styling. I just sort of fell into it. I think it’s really good to study and learn things that you’re into whether or not you think it’s going to be your final destination in a career.
Was there anything about your time at RISD that still influences you?
I love Providence so much. I loved going to school in New England. I would say the things I remember the most are just like all of my good friends and the blizzards in the winter. … I would definitely say that what I took from RISD was a very strong work ethic.
What would you tell someone who is trying to decide between an editorial or celebrity styling path?
I feel like if someone wants to be a stylist, they should intern for a stylist or designer that they really admire. They should work really hard and see if they really like the way that world is and if not, they should just try something else. I think it’s good to not be afraid of trying things when you’re so young. You have to try things and make mistakes to see what your life is going to be all about.
Tell me a bit more about your relationship with Adam [Selman]. I know that you are dating and that you work together all the time. How does that work for you guys?
We do work together, but somehow, it was just like a natural fit. We love working together, and talking all day long about work. I don’t know how we do that.
And, of course, you worked together on the CFDA gown that Adam designed for Rihanna. You told Style.com the next morning that it shocked you, how do you feel about it now?
I think that I didn’t mean that her dress shocked me. I just meant that like I wasn’t really ready for it at first. We slowly were like, “OK, cool, let’s do a sheer dress.” And then everyone was like, “It’s so sheer,” while Adam was making it, and kept being like, “This is really sheer.” I was like, “She’s going to dig it. It’s going to happen. I know it.” What I meant by that was, I don’t think I would have been really saying we’re going to do a totally sheer dress, even like a few months before. But she probably would have been ready years ago.Rachel Raczka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org