Deskside

Deskside: Adam Selman

Designer. New York

By: Emily Ramshaw

We’ll put it bluntly: Adam Selman has had a pretty amazing career so far. He’s had a hand in making performance costumes for everyone from Britney Spears to RuPaul and Michael Jackson. And then there’s Rihanna. That naked dress she wore to accept her Fashion Icon award at the CFDAs? Yeah, all Selman. Let’s just say he’s pretty much responsible (along with his boyfriend, stylist Mel Ottenberg) for turning @badgalriri into, well, @badgalriri. And then Selman started his own ready-to-wear label (his first resort collection was made up of some of the best knit pieces, like, ever) and we really started to pay attention. Herein, he talks about defying expectations, Rihanna’s brilliance and making time for Barry’s Bootcamp.

ON HOW IT ALL BEGAN:

“I was always pretty driven to be in fashion. Originally, I wanted to go [to college] for sculpture and then transitioned into fashion—came to Pratt when I was about 18. I went there for fashion and then I worked retail and had internships pretty much straight out of the gate. It took a lot of different life forms of me, but I’m glad that I’m on a better path now. [Laughs]
 
I’d been interning for Zaldy, [a costume designer] while I was in college. Then, I graduated and I was an assistant manager at a retail store. I did that for a year so I could party and have fun, and not be too stressed out. Zaldy was working for L.A.M.B at the time, so he sort of took me from retail and I was his assistant. We ended up working together for almost 10 years, while he was doing his fashion line. Then we made a transition from doing his fashion line to some custom stuff for Rufus Wainwright, Ru Paul, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears; you name it, we probably made it for a world tour or custom project somewhere along the line. I worked for him for about 10 years and then Mel Ottenberg, who’s my boyfriend, got the job to work with Rihanna and he had never done a live performance before. He had been hired to do Rihanna’s world tour. He goes, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I need your help. Can you just help me? I need to figure out what I’m going to do.’ I said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ I had just planned on taking a few months off with Zaldy and going back, but I just never went back.”

 

ON WHAT HE LOVES ABOUT COSTUME DESIGN:

“What I really fell in love with was it was a different side of fashion I hadn’t seen before. I knew that there was a corporate world and I knew that there were small businesses, but this was really family orientated and crazy creative. It really was four of us sitting in a room and we’d each sort of have our own projects and Zaldy would listen and take ideas or help me develop an idea, whether it was a good or bad one. I developed techniques and I could sit there and work on a gown for two weeks. That was such a luxury and a creative process I had never been exposed to, and I was very inspired by that. I knew I wanted to be in that world and I wasn’t expecting it to be costume—I’ve always leaned on the costume side of things and the more elaborate techniques, so I fell in love with it. I thought it was genius.”

 

ON WHY HE DECIDED TO START HIS OWN READY-TO-WEAR LABEL:

“I was a little naive about it. I was sort of like, ‘I just want to do it.’ I just treated it as a project and that was really not the way to do it. I wouldn’t recommend it. Then it sort of became this thing and I was sort of like, ‘Oh, I have to sort of continue doing this.’
 
My main reason for doing it was I just really wanted to make sure I had my own point of view. All of the work that I had done with Rihanna and Mel—we made such a great trio and I loved doing that work, but I knew she was going to go on a world tour and she was sort of becoming her own fashion star. I knew other brands were coming for her and people were making custom things for her for free. I knew that my work was limited in that only 0.1% of the world needs custom clothes. I just want to be cognizant and smart about my decision-making. I just thought, ‘Now is the time for a new challenge. You need to push yourself in a new direction.’ It just seemed like the doors opened for me and that’s sort of why.”

 

ON COSTUME DESIGN VERSUS READY-TO-WEAR DESIGN:

“I mean, there’s a lot of little secret, hidden tricks in costume, so my whole goal with costume is that they don’t look like a costume. It’s really fun to make an actual costume, but for Rihanna, it’s fun because she is amazing at making a costume look like fashion. The super weapon is to make her stage clothes look like something she wore on the street or could wear on the red carpet. Technically constructing it is a little bit different than you would when you’d see something hanging on a rack at Barneys, for example.”

 

ON CONSTRUCTING HIS LABEL’S DESIGN IDENTITY APART FROM HIS COSTUME WORK WITH RIHANNA:

“Naturally, there’s going to be a little overlap—I realized that. I just try to embrace it and each season, I really try something new. I did knits last season for the first time and each season, I just try to break out a little bit more and figure something else out. How do I achieve that look? How do I put my own style into how my girl wears the clothes? Each season, I just reach a little bit more, a little bit more and try to challenge the studio, the factory and things like that. Just keep reaching and reaching and hopefully, it all works out. [Laughs]”

 

ON THE ADAM SELMAN WOMAN AND ALWAYS CHANGING IT UP:

“I think she’s very into fashion, my girl, but she doesn’t let the fashion wear her. I’m very into having my girl be surprised by what I do next. A lot of brands do very similar things each season and for now, at least until I figure out what really works for me; I think it’s important that I really change it up and keep it fun—similar to how I would with a costume and with Rihanna: we’re always changing things up and people are always wondering what we’re working on next. That’s what I love about fashion. That’s sort of what I grew up with and when I was in school for fashion, it was always about, ‘What is that person going to do next?’ or ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe they did that! That’s so cool, the way that they showed it.’ For me, it’s important for me to carry that on.”

 

ON WHETHER COSTUME AND READY-TO-WEAR NECESSARILY INFORM ONE ANOTHER WHEN HE’S DESIGNING:

“I think so, for sure. I think anything that we work on in the studio kind of informs the next day’s work because then it’s like, ‘Oh my god, what a cool idea!’ or ‘That doesn’t work at all. Don’t go down that route.’ Anything that we’re working on, whether it’s costume, whether it’s the fashion side with sales or PR, it’s really a fun time for me because I get to figure it out and keep it fresh and new each time. Anything that we’re sort of doing, plays into the gambit of everything we’re working on.”

 

ON THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE HE FACED WHEN HE FIRST LAUNCHED HIS LABEL:

“I think the biggest thing was that everyone sort of had a preconceived notion of what I was going to do and who was going to be wearing it and who it was for. I tried to be really cognizant of making sure that this stands on it’s own and it doesn’t just have my name on it; it’s not what people are expecting—or maybe it is. People that know me are sort of like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so you. That makes sense.’ Rather than people who have just sort of followed my work with Rihanna and are like, ‘Oh, I thought you would’ve done something totally different.’ But I always like hearing that also.
 
Also, the hardest thing is just starting a business. That’s a huge thing and there’s nothing set for a fashion designer that says, ‘You have to do it this way. Here’s how you start a fashion business.’ That’s been hard: how we maintain a balance of making sure we’re on a good schedule versus making sure we have money in the bank to keep it going. That’s like every business, right? Or, I hope so. [Laughs]”

 

ON THE PROCESS OF DEVELOPING A COLLECTION:

“I usually find a little bit of inspiration. Again, I think it changes from each season. The first season, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and it was just more about the execution. I knew what the inspiration was and what I wanted to achieve. Now, it’s sort of changed. This season, I found one image of something where I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool.’ Then we started sketching from there—from that one image. I was sort of like, ‘Oh, this pair of overalls that I have would be fantastic in here.’ I would wear it, so we would take that and sketch that into it. I have to have someone come sketch with me because I can sketch, but it frustrates me when I can’t get across exactly what I’m trying to say. Luckily, I have a guy that comes in and sketches with me and we just take over the studio for a whole weekend and just sketch as much as we can. He really helps with the ideas.”

 

ON COLLABORATING WITH MEL OTTENBERG AND JEN BRILL:

“Now, my biggest partner in crime is Mel. He has had a huge hand in what we do and is a huge part of the vision. I ask him for advice all the time. He’s so annoyed with me. I ask Jen Brill, who’s a good friend of mine as well. It’s just nice to have a lady’s point of view, like, a cool girl. Mel and I can get really deep in ideas—‘Oh my god, that would be the coolest top ever.’—it’s nice to have Jen to balance it out a little bit.”

 

ON THE WORKING DYNAMIC BETWEEN HIM, MEL AND, YES, RIHANNA:

“Mel and I write emails to each other all day long. We title it in the subject of the email, ‘Ideas,’ so that way we can always type ‘Ideas,’ into our inbox and a ton of emails will come up and we can look back through them. With him and I, we just work together so well creatively and as partners. We’re just on-point with each other. If we’re not on-point with each other and we argue about it, that’s when it gets really fun because then we can think about it in a different way. It sort of pushes us to come up with new things all the time. He is such a pop culture guru as well. I was raised in a house where we went to church five days a week, we weren’t allowed to watch TV and we were always outside playing. I missed a lot of pop culture until I moved to New York. He grew up the complete opposite and just knows everything in pop culture and knows every reference, so it’s really fun being able to bounce ideas off each other just because we’re so opposite in that way.
 
With Rihanna, she’s just smart. I really think she’s a brilliant woman; she knows what she’s doing and she knows what she wants. She’s also cool enough to listen or take suggestions—but not all the time. Sometimes, she’s like, ‘I want exactly this. I know what I want and I know what I want it to look like.’ Other times, she’s like, ‘Oh my god, that’s the coolest idea ever. I love that! Let’s do that.’ Our dynamic has definitely changed over the years. In the beginning, we were working together a lot, a lot. Now, it’s sort of just tapered off and she’s just grown and she knows exactly what she’s doing.”

 

ON “BREAKTHROUGH MOMENTS”:

“This are so many and it’s even the little things, too, that most people would never even know are breakthrough. I mean, it’s things like getting into Opening Ceremony in London was like the biggest deal. And the CFDA dress last year was huge, a powerhouse moment. Then also, little things like, ‘Oh my god, our knits came back from China. We’re working with China!’ It might seem really small to a lot of people, but to our world and my small studio, it’s like every small step we take feels like a mountain we just moved.”

 

ON THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE HE’S EVER RECEIVED:

“There’s a lot. [Laughs] Someone told me that, ‘You can’t be everything to everyone.’ I kind of try to take that to heart whenever things don’t work out or things aren’t going well. You know what, you can’t be everything to everyone.”
 
“It varies from person to person, but I would have to say, if you want to get into costume design, I would say, know your customer and be open to who that customer is. I worked with a lot of different people along with Rihanna. On one hand, I work with Rihanna and on the other hand, I work with Amy Sedaris. It couldn’t be more opposite or more fun. Make sure you have ambition as well. Bring something to the table but also make sure to listen so that that person’s vision is executed as well.”

 

ON HIS “AVERAGE” DAY:

“I’m going to Barry’s Bootcamp. I’m part of the academy, so I’ve been going everyday for a month. So I did that this morning, and then I went into work and got a coffee. Then I came here. We’re working on an advertising job where we’re making custom stuff. We have three interns for the summer and then I’ve got Marley and Brie, sort of my two hands in the studio. Brie is key in production and then Marley is helping with this advertising job to make sure that it gets made. I’m sort of balancing in between the two and writing emails and making sure what we’re doing next week is still moving. Then I have a sales appointment next week as well for resort, so I’ll pop down to the showroom to do that. Then tonight… we will see.”

 

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