Meet Mel Ottenberg: The Fashion Vet Who’s More Than Just Riri’s Stylist
There comes a point in every young female artist’s career when she must “lose her virginity,” as it were—both in attitude and in style. It usually comes around the time when the chafing caused by stomach jewelry becomes wholly unbearable, or else when a salaciously virginal image is no longer quite believable.
For Rihanna, that time came in 2011. Her single with Eminem, “Love the way You Lie,” had just become the top-selling album in the UK, and the first of her singles to sell over one million copies in the country. And she had just released her first single with Drake, “What’s My Name?” to much acclaim—in which she challenged him to go downtown, both with her and on her, like a boss. By the time 2011 arrived, her attitude was considerably more DGAF and her style notably more woke. It’s no coincidence that this was also the year she brought on Mel Ottenberg as her head stylist in command.
In fact, one could argue that Ottenberg—through collaborating with Rihanna and, in turn, facilitating her style transformation—was one of the main catalysts for some of these notable career benchmarks. If Rihanna before Mel (b.m.) verged on the virginal and safe, Rihanna after Mel (a.m.) is fully post-coital—glowing and oozing a noble sexual prowess. Indeed, one could argue that bringing Ottenberg onto her team was one of the most judicious career moves the star has made to date.
However, what many people don’t know is that Ottenberg’s career outside of Rihanna is just as storied and celebrated, just as wide-ranging and inspiring—if not more.
Unlike so many other celebrity stylists, Ottenberg’s work with Rihanna isn’t an everyday thing; when he’s not working with her on a major event or tour, he’s styling an editorial for an exalted publication, a big campaign, or doing work for his other, totally-casual-except-not-at-all gig as fashion director of Berlin cult magazine 032c. He styled Rihanna’s “Diamonds” tour and her most recent “Anti” tour, true, but he also styled the cover of Björk’s album Vulnicura, has consulted for Nike, was apparently summoned by John Galliano to style the legendary designer himself, and has styled campaigns for Equinox and Balmain as well as reams of magazine covers—from multiple V covers to Harper’s Bazaar, T Magazine, Dior Magazine, Dazed, Vogue, GQ, and of course, 032c. The first feature he ever styled was for The (holier than thou) Face, for which he solicited his own wardrobe for assistance—something he does quite often.
Ottenberg has the best of both worlds; he gets to work with the most creative and talented people in the business, and as a celebrity stylist, but he is not strictly beholden to one client. While surely the definition of a “dream job” differs from person to person, I’m also sure that, for anyone with a pulse, Mel Ottenberg’s fits the bill. This is the modern-day stylist—fluent in both mass and cult appeal. And throughout it all, he’s maintained an abundant, enviable degree of humility. His daily uniform is practical, comfortable, khaki and t-shirt-heavy, and unassuming. But then you remember: it’s always the ones wearing the most quiet outfits that end up leaving the loudest impact.
What do you think is the most important skill to have as a stylist?
I know you grew up in DC. I went to school there, and noticed the style is pretty sterile. Do you think it inspired you at all growing up? To perhaps dress differently?
My mom has really good style and always dressed in a unique way. She shopped at boutiques and wore very ‘80s clothes in the ‘80s that were very artistic, and sort of looked like Memphis-inspired outfits. She was always wearing cool stuff—spiked belts, or fluorescent tights, a lot of Norma Kamali clothes (which I found out later, when I looked at the labels). So she always seemed to have style, and I’m sure that that inspired me a lot, but overall, being there: no. Just going to buy magazines, and getting obsessed with magazines was the way that I got really interested in fashion. I found [copies of] Vogue at my friend’s house, and thought, “Wow, these are so fascinating.”
I feel like I read every word in Vogue and Elle and [magazines] like that back then, so I was really as well versed as possible in what was going on.
Do you have a favorite shoot that you’ve worked on?
Off the top of my head, a recent favorite shoot [I styled] is this Lana Del Rey shoot for V that I did last year. She looks great; it [was] for Steven Klein. I shot Björk for T last year, with Inez and Vinoodh, and that’s one of my favorite shoots. She’s wearing this full red Commes des Garçons outfit—that was a really big highlight of last year for me. This is an old one, [but] I was talking about this [shoot] yesterday with Steven Klein. We shot Hilary Swank a really long time ago—like over ten years ago—for Italian Vogue, and that’s still one of my favorite shoots. I liked how we transformed her into something else.
I know you styled the cover of Björk’s album. Do you still have that outfit here?
No, no, no. I really don’t get to keep anything, because it either goes back to the designer, like that stuff did, or it goes into the artist’s archives.
Is there a find that you’re really proud of that you’d never give away?
Not really. I feel like there are some stylists that have these really huge archives of stuff, and I’m not [one of those stylists]. I’m always trying to get it out, not keep it. I get things that I think are really special, but I’m down to share them or use them when I think the time is right. So I don’t really have stuff like that. It’s more what I can find in LA at costume houses, which I’ve learned through working in LA are just the most genius places. So it’s the places [where I] find little secrets, where I never know what I’m looking for but find something really amazing. That’s sort of my version of having an archive.
Can you name some of your favorite costume houses?
That’s my secret.
[Laughs] That’s my answer! Those are my secret spots. I like going to those places because I might have an idea of what I’m looking for, but I often [end up taking] something that wasn’t what I was [initially] looking for, because I didn’t know that I needed it. And then I end up really needing it.
I read that you, starting off, sort of hounded down photographers like Terry Richardson and David LaChapelle. Do you think that tactic would work now?
I don’t know—that’s a really good question actually. I don’t think so. Because sometimes when kids reach out to me now, I feel like I miss a lot of it. There are so many people direct messaging me on Instagram, so many people emailing me from showrooms, and it’s just such overload. When [I did that] I just thought it was the natural thing to do—to go towards your idols and try to work with them. And, to varying degrees of success, it was super worth the effort. Today, because people are just trying so hard from all angles and there are so many people, I think that it’s just not as easy for that to happen. I also don’t know if people like that would get the same opportunities now, but that said, I still find [and use] fashion designers that are brand new, that are right out of college. So you can still find stuff. That sort of chance encounter can definitely still happen.
What do you think is the best way for someone to break into the industry as a stylist?
I didn’t do this, but I think it would be a really good idea to go work for someone, and work really hard. Work for someone that you appreciate and respect, because then you’re learning so much—how to be a stylist, how to have business relationships, and how to create ideas and work with other people. There’s so much to learn. I didn’t do that, but I would never recommend not doing that.
So you didn’t work under one person?
I didn’t. I don’t feel like I was the best person to be doing that. I don’t think that I would’ve been a good assistant: I think I would’ve been terrible. I just did what I would’ve figured out how to do, one step at a time, sort of, in a really slow way. But I wouldn’t recommend that.
So I know you said you don’t really keep most of the clothes you use, but that Adam Selman CFDA dress—does Rihanna have it?
Yeah, like that wouldn’t be mine, because I didn’t pay for it. It’s not my dress, you know?
Totally. Do you think it could be worn again, or is that more of a one-time thing?
It’s a one-time thing.
So when you were growing up, did you want to be a stylist?
No, I wanted to be a fashion designer, and I definitely knew I wanted to work in fashion, and that fashion was the thing I was really into. But growing up, [I’m not sure I] even knew stylists existed.
And I know you went to RISD for clothing design. Do you ever make stuff now?
No, never. I haven’t sewn in a million years. But having learned how to do all that stuff comes in handy; you understand construction and how to fit things. When I’m working with designers on custom clothing, I feel like understanding how to critique something [is important]. Like saying, “Okay, this is really good, but I think if we veer it a little bit this way, it’s going to make something really successful.” Or even, “I think the beads should be one size smaller,” or, “The thread should be this thickness.” Weird things like that, that are at the back of my brain, just jump out from studying clothing design.
“Right now my style icon is Béatrice Dalle. She’s a French actress—really, really into her.”
Who do you think is your biggest style inspiration?
Right now my style icon is Béatrice Dalle. She’s a French actress—really, really into her. Right now it’s Cannes, and some people look cool at Cannes, but if you look at her at Cannes from like the ‘80s and ‘90s, she just looks so amazing and cool. Really badass style.
What’s one trend that if you see again you’ll scream?
Basic, sexy, complicated, see-through, red carpet style. I think it’s bad.
Definitely. Is there a cardinal fashion rule—like “don’t wear white after labor day,” or one of those stupid rules—that you hate and would never follow or recommend?
It’s less [a] cardinal rule, but dressing for your age and not being way overdone or way underdone. [It’s] those balancing things that I think are important. It could be young girls that are going way too glam and I think look stupid. [And] it doesn’t have to be a defensive thing—you also have to learn from your mistakes. It really is just clothes. So I would say, [dressing] age-appropriate.
What are your favorite brands right now?
So on a different note, does it bother you when people ask you a ton of questions about Rihanna?
Yeah it’s annoying. I mean I know it’s interesting. It’s interesting and it’s fun to work on Rihanna stuff, but it just gets annoying. Especially when people ask me personal questions that I don’t really know the answer to or care.
Totally. Well on that note, just going to ask you a couple questions about Rihanna. How often do you work with her? Is it the sort of thing where you pick pretty much every outfit that she wears?
No, not at all. I do a lot of jobs with her—I do a lot of videos and photoshoots and red carpets, but when we collaborate we collaborate, and when we don’t we don’t. It’s not like a conversation about every single facet of her life. Which means that it’s still fun to do. Meaning if [I were styling] every single thing, I think it would be just too much and it would be all her.
What I like about where I’m at is that I do some of her—and the reason I don’t do another celebrity is because it’s fun to do one—and [then I] go back into doing photoshoots and advertising stuff and editorial. You learn so much stuff just by being in the full mix. [I’ll] do something with her and then go off and do three other things.
Was there any thought process behind the brown, beige, earth tone motif for her “Anti” tour? Which I really loved by the way.
We decided on that really early—like, that was decided with the creative director of the tour who’s so awesome—it might’ve been his idea. But we definitely discussed that in December or something—in the first creative meeting we had—and I instantly just thought, oh this is so good. Because then it [was] less thinking about different sections as a “theme,” and more as just like one editorial photoshoot idea. It ended up looking like four good looks in a shoot as opposed to four or five themes. I loved that.
“My favorite look is that CFDA dress—I feel like that will always be ‘the one’ to me.”
And did she have to have multiple copies of the same item?
Yeah you make two of everything. The thing that’s hard is it’s, like, all these moving parts, and it’s really moving. Like it’s dancing, it’s going across this stage that’s 100 or 50 feet in the air or whatever, and dancing, and having to look good from every angle. Also [she needs to do] a quick change, like, rip it off to put the next thing on. But I mean, this is my third world tour so [I] know, sort of, how to do it but there are so many challenges that you never see coming for a tour. A tour is the hardest job.
Like what kind of challenges?
It’s always something you didn’t expect. Like, something you thought was going to work didn’t work. Or something doesn’t come when it’s supposed to come. Or you open a box and something’s really ugly when you thought it was going to be really epic—which didn’t happen to me now, but it’s happened to me in the past. But I kept, like, waiting for it to happen. It didn’t—luckily. It was actually really nice that it didn’t.
What’s your favorite look that you’ve put her in?
My favorite look is that CFDA dress—I feel like that will always be “the one” to me. That will always be my favorite thing.
And lastly, what’s been the craziest experience you’ve had with a client?
One of the craziest things was actually really early in my career—it was shooting Pamela Anderson with David LaChapelle. It was one of my first shoots, but she was just so wild and amazing. Like she was just writhing around totally naked and I was like, this is so glamorous, it’s never going to be as good as this. And I told her recently—I hung out with her a few times recently—and I was like, by the way, this is what I thought when I was this little kid—I was 25 or whatever—and it’s true. It’s [still] one of the most glamorous moments.
And then—it’s just sometimes the conditions of things, like music videos that you’re shooting. The craziest—aside for that [Pamela Anderson one], which was just like glamour crazy—was the Rihanna “We Found Love” video. It was shot in Ireland. There was this outdoor scene when she was wearing this acid wash Jeremy Scott denim outfit and it’s in a car and her and the guy Dudley—the model—are having a fight. Anyway, tons of people—fans—got there and were surrounding us in this, like, weird way that was really intense. And seemed out of control. Like it was going to be a riot of people being so excited.
So we ended up going into this apartment building and shooting in there. And it was amazing to shoot—the whole thing was great—but we were basically trapped in this building unable to go outside because the scene had become so out of control and wild. We were shooting in this building that I don’t even think we were expected to be shooting the whole video in, inside people’s apartments and all this stuff. So it was amazing, but [crazy because] the clothes were on the fourth floor and we were shooting on the first floor, going up and down this building. It was so wild. I loved that video, but it was very crazy to me. I think that was the first music video I ever did. That was the most extreme situation.
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Original imagery taken exclusively for Milk by Brooke Gardiner. All other images via Tumblr, Elle, and Dior Magazine,