Stylist, consultant and Interview magazine’s creative director Mel Ottenberg helped critique seniors’ work at his alumni Rhode Island School of Design.
Returning to Rhode Island for the first time since 1998 was a bit of a culture shock, he said, “Back then they did it in the RISD auditorium. The models were on stage. You were at a microphone speaking to the critics. It was very formal,” he said. “The reason I went to RISD is because I wanted to find myself outside of New York City. I wanted to figure out what I was about, before being drenched in the world and what everyone else was doing. The students are so different now because of the Internet. They’re really seeing everything the world has to offer all the time.”
But certain skill sets carry on. “The thing I am most proud of going to RISD for is the insane work aesthetic of the people who come out of that school. You really have to be able to work really, really hard to survive there. In general, people who go there have fun working really hard. I certainly do and I feel that I learned that there,” said Ottenberg, adding that this year’s seniors showed a similar work ethic.
The undergrad technical training proved to be valuable for Ottenberg in consulting, costume design, styling and collaborating. Creativity is also more embraced. “They’re talking about their identities as people, and as designers. But they’re really talking about their life experiences,” he said. Masha Kurguzkina, for example, designed a print with a brain scan for her collection to explore her experience with epilepsy. “It didn’t matter that it was about a difficult hardship. The clothes looked cool because they had soul to them,” Ottenberg said.
Francis Balken created “a whole universe of mixed-up, funky, really well-styled world of her friends that looked like me and my friends in the Nineties in Providence, but done in a really cool fresh way today. I really expect to see things from this kid,” he said. “I clocked a very clear Providence off-the-grid vibe that was so great to grow up in.”
The austere denim and white cotton shapes by Elizabeth Campos, whose commentary was about migrant workers, was another favorite. Levi Campello’s leather harnesses earned praise from Ottenberg, who plans to use a pair of his leather shorts. Alex Riddle’s “lumberjack mountain environmentally focused collection” also stood out in his mind.
RISD’s Apparel Design department head Lisa Z. Morgan challenged seniors to consider how their collections would smell if they were a perfume or scent. The idea of scent as a starting point is something he has experienced in Ottenberg’s career. For an Equinox project last year, DNA from Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, was used for a fragrance in a bottle designed by Architecture at Large’s Rafael de Cárdenas, another RISD grad and friend. Steven Klein shot the campaign. “Shepard Fairey graduated before me, but I knew him. He was 100 percent around. Rafael de Cárdenas was way older but we were good friends. Dan Colen, the painter, was 18 and somehow I was friends with him when I was a senior. It was a really fun mixture of people that you would know there,” he said.
Ottenberg said of his own career path. “I, 100 percent, wanted to be a fashion designer. I wanted to be like Marc Jacobs. Then the second I moved to New York I didn’t want to do that at all. I started working for Katayone Adeli. I was the trims guy and I hated it. I just wanted to go out every night in New York, which I was. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t focus on something for six months. A collection takes so long. What’s a job that I can do for one week, three weeks, a month, but not this?’ I thought I’ll never find that job. Then styling fell into my life maybe a year later.”
Ottenberg said he has “good fashion show stuff coming up including a few big shows,” and is at work on the 50th anniversary issue of Interview magazine. He styled a shoot for Woolrich Friday. He will also be speaking at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “College Night: Notes on Fashion” Thursday night with @everyoutfitonsatc’s cocreators Chelsea Fairless and Lauren Garroni. Having styled Rihanna and many other celebrities for the Met Gala through the years, he is right at home at the Met. Camp, the theme of this year’s exhibition, will be the main point of discussion. “The fact that the world stopped and talks about it means it is really a success for the museum,” Ottenberg said.