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Mel Ottenberg

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Designers design. Photographers photograph. Models model. That much—in broad strokes, at least—is clear. But what about the artists, technicians, and industry insiders, often unpublicized and underappreciated, who help to get clothes and accessories made and shown? Call them Behind-the-Scenesters: people who shape our experience of fashion but never take a bow on the catwalk or strike a pose for the camera. Without them—from patternmakers to production designers—the show wouldn’t go on. And in our recurring series, Style.com sits down with a few of these pros to find out, basically, what they do.

“Style,” as Jean Cocteau said, “is a simple way of saying complicated things.” And so it might be said that stylist Mel Ottenberg’s job is to find that simple way of saying something complicated. A button undone, a cuff rolled just so, the particular way a particular belt is slung over a particular dress: A good stylist makes these kinds of choices seem inevitable, and uses them to impart heaps of information about fashion, about the vibe on the street and the mood of the nation, and about how to look, now. “You’re kind of a medium,” explains Ottenberg, who is, among many other gigs, the fashion editor for Purple and the stylist for Adam Kimmel and Opening Ceremony (below). “You’re doing your own appropriation of this ‘thing,’ that’s how you bring the style into it. That’s hard to talk about, and it’s pretty much subliminal,” he adds. “I don’t want the style to be noticed, per se. I just want the kid who’s reading the magazine to think, wow, that looks great.” Here, Ottenberg talks to Style.com about his big break(s), his atypical days, and how a little fear can be a very good thing.

what do you do?
Well, on a good day, I’m the glue that holds everything together. Let’s say I’m on a shoot: I get the hair and the makeup going, I get the clothes together, looking right, and I’m there the whole way working with the photographer and the model. There’s a ton of collaboration involved. But fundamentally, I’m there to help make it work. Keep things going, keep things on point.

How did you get into styling?
Growing up, I was super, super-obsessed with fashion. I’d pick up copies of Vogueand Interview and pore over every word. And I started going to clubs at a young age, too, so I began dressing up and seeing fashion and glamour from that angle. Then, after I graduated from RISD, I moved to New York City and started working for some designers. The thing was, as much as I loved design and respected the process of putting a collection together, I didn’t like being hunkered down creating one thing for six months. And I tended to see images more than clothing, if that makes sense. But I wasn’t sure what to do with that until, completely by chance, I was asked to style a friend for The Face.

Was that your “big break”?
Ha! Hardly. It was the first break, so it was incredibly important, but I feel like styling is one of those careers where you’re kind of struggling until one day, you aren’t. I spent a long time keeping a notebook of ideas and showing it to photographers I liked when I had the chance to meet them, and every time someone I respected asked to work with me, that was another break. There was this constant feeling of, OK, maybe now everything gets easier. But it didn’t, not for a while. In retrospect, I think that’s good—I had a lot of opportunities to try things out, make a few mistakes, and so by the time some really high-stakes gigs came along, I was ready for them.

Surely, though, there must have been one particular gig where you realized you’d crossed a threshold.
There were a few. First, when I booked this job for Dior, a Midnight Poison commercial shot by Wong Kar-wai. To this day, I’m still not sure why John [Galliano] chose me, but that whole experience was incredible. I mean, I had 20 racks of couture to pick from, all the Dior collections John had designed. Then, another big moment was when I started working with Steven Klein: We’d met at a barbecue and bonded over the fact that I’d worked on the costumes for the film version of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and suddenly he was booking me on a bunch ofL’Uomo Vogue covers, Italian Vogue, everything. Meanwhile, I swear, I was still figuring out how to pull clothes. I didn’t have an agent or an assistant, nothing. But Steven, that was huge. And I have to say, it was a big break for me when I started working with Olivier [Zahm] and Purple. That came much later, but Olivier and I have such an awesome bond, and he gives me so much freedom…That’s a different kind of break, when you find that person who’s willing to let you loose.

You style both men and women. Is that unusual?
I don’t think so. I know that a lot of the stylists I admired early on, like Joe McKenna, did a bit of everything. It is a different thing, though. Working with men is more, like, common-sense to me. I just want them to look cool, whether they’re 10 or 80. I like simple, classic pieces, and it’s more about the way I handle the stuff. I spent a ton of time this past year washing things and making them look dirty. I don’t ever want the clothes to look like they came straight out of a FedEx box from the showroom. Sometimes guys get [annoyed] over me coming at them with my dirt or water bottles with my secret concoctions, but I always tell them it’s for their own good. Guys look hot a bit fucked up.

For women, I’m big on sexy, too, but I like to get sick clothes from all over. Women’s fashion is a great way to express different moods, different energy. It’s more idea-driven and exotic, I’ve found; more about creating the exciting picture in my head. With men, it’s like, I want to be walking down the street with that guy. With women, it’s like, I want to go to that place where she is. I don’t think I could choose between doing one or the other—a huge part of the appeal of this job is that I’m continually switching things up.

Do you think you have a signature, as a stylist?
Maybe…a certain effortlessness. I don’t get too into the conceptual. I want to relate. I love color and I’m not afraid of a big fashion moment or of things being a little campy, but I need to believe it, on some level.

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