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Behind-The-Scenesters: Mel Ottenberg

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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.


So, Mel: In one sentence, 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 Vogue and 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 of L’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.

What’s a typical day like for you?
I’ve usually got a few jobs going on, and they’re usually totally different from each other, so it’s kind of like I’m working on a bunch of jigsaw puzzles at once. I mean, in September, I was going back and forth between prepping this kids’ shoot for Target, looking for, like, socks, and working on shooting James Franco in drag for the cover of Candy (left). Anyway, if I’m not on a shoot, I’m prepping for one. That entails making some gigantic list of things to do, which I split up with my assistants, and making a bunch of phone calls—to my agency, to art directors, editors, photographers—and writing about a thousand e-mails. Then there’s research. Sometimes I’m on the computer all day, looking at Style.com; sometimes I’m going to the library or to a museum; sometimes I’m doing appointments at showrooms or scouting different vintage shops. The research is always key, even if I don’t wind up using it that much. And then there always seems to be a big scavenger hunt for the magic stuff that’s really going to pull everything together. I’m constantly looking for new jewelry, or an amazing shoe. There are days when I’m literally just wandering around the city, trying to figure it out. That’s usually about the time I’m thinking, well, this is impossible. But I like that moment, I like the fear. It keeps things exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge in your job?
Organization. There’s a ton of paperwork, you’re constantly tracking shipments and invoices… I don’t enjoy that part of it, but I have to stay on top of it.

I realize I may be treading into dangerous territory here, but I’m surprised that you don’t consider “credits” a major challenge. As in, the brands a magazine needs you to shoot.
That can be a challenge, but I see it as an interesting challenge. My take is, a magazine is a client like any other, and they have the right to give you certain guidelines. You can look at that as a constraint, or you can look at that as an opportunity to innovate.

Where do shoot ideas come from?
Depends. Sometimes you’re working with a magazine with a very strong art director, and your role is to help execute that vision. Other times, the photographer brings an idea to the table. Sometimes I come up with the idea, like, there’s a particular reference I’m interested in, or an energy I want to capture. Regardless, there’s always a lot of back-and-forth.

You work with a lot of celebrities on shoots. Do you get much pushback from them about the clothes you want them to wear?
I think you head that off by being really, really prepared. I come in with all my looks ready, and I’ve got my safety stuff and my push stuff, and because everything is kind of done, there’s not much of an opening for a big conversation about what someone likes or doesn’t like. Plus, my approach is that I’m trying to do the thing someone’s known for already, just in a new way. I’m not taking anyone to crazy town. Or, that’s not totally true. That James Franco cover—I guess that was kind of crazy. But it was so genius, how James handled it. We had, like, no time for that shoot, because of his schedule; I want to say the whole thing took four minutes. Anyway, James shows up, he gets his makeup done, his hair slicked back, and then, you know—bam—we’re shooting. And the whole time—the whole time—he never once looked in the mirror. Not a single time. That’s just…amazing. Like, I don’t even know what to say about it.

Was that cover James’ idea?
No, Terry [Richardson]. That’s like, dreaming big. And that’s one of things I love so much about working with him—he’s ready to go there. But it’s also a classic example of the back-and-forth I was talking about. Shooting James in drag was Terry’s idea, and then we were talking about it, getting ready, and my thing was that I didn’t want a big wig moment. What I brought back was this image I had of seeing Kristen McMenamy all Helmut Newton in a YSL suit. So that’s what we went with. I literally pulled clothes off the runway—the suit James is wearing is Celine. It just barely fit. I had to kind of will it to happen.

What would you like to do as a stylist that you haven’t done?
It probably goes without saying that there are people out there I’d like to work with, though I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of my heroes, so no complaints. What I’d love is to get more involved with design and consulting, especially for a denim or sportswear brand.

Are there people in your life whose sense of style inspires you?
Jen Brill is my agent and my best friend, and as far as I’m concerned, she kills it with women’s fashion. She has the best taste. I bow down to her.

What about you? Do you ever have days when you wake up, look in your closet, and think: Argh, I have nothing to wear?
All the time. Honestly! I’m pretty lo-fi about my own clothes. I pretty much wear the same thing every day. If I dress up—which I hate to do—I wear Ralph. Other than that it’s, like, work boots and chill stuff from A.P.C., [Adam] Kimmel, Dries, Acne. I buy multiples. I’m just a preppy D.C. kid, at the end of the day.

Photos: Courtesy of Mel Ottenberg; Terry Richardson / Opening Ceremony; Terry Richardson / Candy Magazine / byluisvenegas.com

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  1. megG says:

    This interview is the most accurate description of what a stylist really does that I have ever read.

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