Why Adam Selman Is The John Waters Of Fashion [Exclusive]

Adam Selman, who’s showing at MADE Fashion Week for the first time this season, is still best known for the beyond-iconic dress he designed for Rihanna at the 2014 CFDA Awards. “We’re still finding crystals in the studio,” he laughed. “I don’t want to see another one for a while. It’s too soon, too soon.” Call it Post Traumatic Swarovski Syndrome.

Our time in Selman’s garment district studio was a joy. It was hard to transcribe this interview because it was all punctuated with too many laughs; his a soft chuckle, ours the loud cackle of a crone with severe hearing problems. Selman, recently back from an off-season vacation in St. Barths – “It’s like a New York secret,” he said – was friendly from the moment we walked in. His voice is low and warm, and he has a soothing, calming presence. Maybe too soothing: we got comfortable enough to make a lot of bad jokes, like accidentally calling his famous collaboration with Rihanna and his boyfriend, the stylist Mel Ottenberg, a “threesome.” “Rih would love that word,” he said. We were simultaneously pleased and unsurprised.

Selman may have gotten famous in recent years by dressing the world’s most stylish pop star, but he’s been working for a long time. Born in Belton, Texas, Selman came to New York to study fashion at the Pratt Institute. He began working for the costume designer Zaldy, designing for performers like Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, RuPaul, and Rufus Wainwright. Selman even went on tour with the Scissor Sisters for two years – he didn’t like tour life, but describes the band as “like family.” He designed costumes for a decade, working as a handyman and making props for movies on the side.

One of Selman’s heroes is the legendary Bob Mackie, who told him, “I detest fashion. My heart is in the theater.” We asked Selman if he preferred one or the other. “They’re both my two loves,” he said. “I mean, fashion is definitely where my heart is at, and I just sort of landed in costume design. With my costumes, I always want it to feel like fashion; I don’t want it to be a strict costume. I want it to feel like you could wear it on the street or on a red carpet, especially with Rihanna. And I think that a lot of fashion drew from what we did with Rihanna.”

He’s not wrong. Selman, Ottenberg and Rihanna have created looks that really do set trends. The couple met six and a half years ago, when Selman was still working for Zaldy. We asked how they met. “Mel crashed Zaldy’s birthday party,” said Selman.

They started working together about two and a half years later. “He was from an editorial point of view, and I was from this costume design background,” said Selman. “So he taught me a lot about infusing that editorial side, and I sort of helped him figure out that costume side, making those two work. It’s been a brilliant partnership.”

It has. But Selman is equally fantastic on his own. His line is bright and young, and always trendy without being pretentious. “For my first collection, I made this silky-satin slip dress,” he said. “This girl randomly emailed me, and was like ‘I went out, and I felt so sexy, and I was having so much fun in your dress, and I got wasted, and the dress got ripped and now it’s ruined, but I loved it so much.’ And I thought that that’s what I want in fashion, that’s the all-encompassing experience that I want.”

“Not all girls have to go out and get wasted,” he laughed. “But I was just like, that’s a designer’s dream come true, to sort of see where the clothes end up, to see that someone had so much fun in their dress that they ruined it. I know that’s kind of a weird thing to say, but that’s the spirit that I love.”

It makes sense. Selman’s women are witty and cheery, like Amy Sedaris (although we prefer to think of her as Jerri Blank), with whom he collaborated on her book Simple Times: Crafts For Poor People. “I call her the original Adam Selman girl,” he said. “We went on sort of a stoned, Ritalin binge making this book. It was so much fun. That’s a big thing. I want to have fun, I want my clothes to be fun, and I want my girls to have fun.”

“That’s a designer’s dream come true, to sort see where the clothes end up, to see that someone had so much fun in their dress that they ruined it.”

Selman’s FW 15 collection carried on the arts n’ crafts theme, with clothing featuring little bows and bric-a-brac. While Selman had a come-to-Jesus moment after seeing Nicole Kidman’s gingham jeans in To Die For, the collection was mostly inspired by John Waters, especially his classic Female Trouble. “I love how John Waters plays with American culture, and pop culture, and sort of flips it on its head,” he said. “I was trying to do the same thing with arts n’ crafts. You take this American theme and sort of flip it on its head and make it tongue and cheek, and make it beautiful. You wouldn’t look at the collection and say ‘arts n crafts.’ I think the point was definitely accomplished, because I think a lot of people looked at it and missed that reference.”

While Selman loves the movies – past collections have been respectively inspired by The Eyes Of Laura Mars and Beverly Hills Madam– he’s lately stopped using them as a specific point of reference, even telling Vogue that he was his own inspiration for his resort collection. “That was definitely really honest,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of money – I still don’t have a lot of money – and I feel like that was about doing this as an experiment. I wanted to challenge myself commercially and see what people would respond to. Girls, and even boys, were always like, ‘Oh I love your sweatshirt,’ or my sneakers- you know I doodle on them, or I stain myself with coffee and I cover it up with little patches. I’m sort of a messy boy. So the collection wasn’t directly inspired by me, but it was like how I wear clothes.”

“I’m sort of a messy boy.”

Selman definitely has a look. We unfortunately forgot to ask for mustache grooming tips. But the fact that he’s taking more cues from his own style echoes the big patterns of his career: the intersection of the personal and professional, and the use of fun references to precise, almost obsessive effect. Like his famous “naked dress,” a slip of a thing that required hours and hours of intense craftsmanship, there is always more than meets the eye with Selman. His clothes are beautifully made and his work is extremely sharp, but instead of being pompous or affected, it’s witty and joyful. Adam Selman is smart. He doesn’t need to prove it to you.

Photos shot exclusively for Milk by Mitchell McLennan


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