Romance & Power: MEL OTTENBERG

For her series Romance & Power, 032c’s Bianca Heuser speaks with influential people from a variety of industries about the politics, potentials, and pitfalls of modern love, and the role romance plays in their work. The conversations are paired with artworks concerned with the same tensions.

Romance lives behind closed doors, and yet we know that private and public are inextricably intertwined. Naturally, our experience of the world shapes our idea of romance, and vice versa. Love is a sociological reality. Your concept of devotion – and who you give it to – reveals more than just personal preferences. It speaks volumes on your political inclinations, and it pervades your creative output.

Mel Ottenberg and I meet in the lobby bar of Berlin-Tiergarten’s Das Stue hotel. The discreet earth tones of its interior match the calm of the park surrounding the 1930s villa that has been re-done in a nouveau-neo style. Mel is 032c’s fashion director, as well as the personal stylist of international pop superstar and fashion idol Rihanna. His work is as iconic as its reach is wide.

Somehow he manages to lean in toward me as he falls back into the fluffy couch during our conversation. His presence is warm yet sharp. Earnest and open, he speaks of his work, his partner, the designer Adam Selman, and the politicality of the fashion image.

BIANCA HEUSER: Are you in love right now?

MEL OTTENBERG: Yes, I am. We’ve been together for seven years. I’m very happy.

That’s quite a long time to be in love for!

It’s good. It’s very grounding, and I feel very fortunate and lucky to have that in my life.

Does your partner travel as much for work as you do?

He travels but I travel a lot more than he does. We talk all the time when we are apart. We’re always up to speed with what each other is doing.

Smartphones have made that much easier.

When it comes to work, you don’t always have to be next to each other to be connected in the modern world. But still everything is much better in person. I will text and DM and FaceTime and whatever, but whenever possible the real thing is best. In love, it’s obviously super duper triple essential. I think I am addicted to my smartphone, so I’m trying to chill on that a little bit. But right now my partner and I have been apart for weeks so we are texting, texting, texting all the time. 

You and your partner Adam Selman collaborate frequently. How do work dynamics impact romantic relationships?

We love working together. It comes naturally and is really fun. We really never fight about work, and when we don’t agree on stuff, we agree to disagree. He will critique decisions that I’m making in my work, and I’ll sometimes critique decisions he’s making in his, but we also feed each other creative ideas all the time. In this age of visual stimulation it’s fun to share stuff all the time. Anyways, we appreciate each other’s critical opinion and try not to have love goggles on about everything. You really need that special person you really trust to be critical of you. Sometimes turning the work-collaborative minds off can be hard, you know what I’m saying? You can go out to dinner and still be in work mode, and you never want to let the work stuff swallow the sexy fun non-work part of the relationship.

Do you think of your work as romantic?

No, not at all.

Do you think of your work as political?

Well… I don’t want to, but in this day and age, politics are coming up. Lately I am refusing to do things that I disagree with for political reasons. It’s such a strange, complicated time. I would rather not use guns in my work anymore. In the past I’ve used guns and it was cool, but now I’m not into it. I don’t want to make NRA right wing propaganda material. I believe in stricter gun laws in America. I believe that change is possible. Disagreements have come up recently regarding this with people I greatly respect. 

With Rihanna, you count one of the most famous, powerful women in the world, and a woman of color at that, among your clients. And still, as Miranda July recently quoted her saying, at her level, racism and misogyny are “still a thing.” In light of that, choosing the clothes she puts on her body also at least has a political element to it.

“How genius that she just got kicked off, and in a week we are going to do this dress that is going to be the most shared thing on Instagram for the year!”

When I’m styling a person I’m thinking about what would be cool and interesting, and it’s true that dressing Rihanna, I have an amazing opportunity to push fashion forward sometimes. That is the greatest challenge and gift of working with someone as influential as her. I’m not really thinking about politics, but sometimes you can react to what’s going on in the world. The best example of that is the crystal covered dress that Adam Selman designed for her to wear to the CFDA Awards when she was getting the Fashion Icon Award. For that event, I wanted a dress created that only she could pull off, that celebrated her singular style, a dress that was perfect for her. And at the time of that dress, Rihanna was very prolific in showing her life on Instagram, but they shut her account down because she was showing her tits. It was right when her Lui cover story we did with Sorrenti had come out and it was blowing up Insta. So they kicked her off to make an example of her I guess. And I was thinking, how genius that she just got kicked off, and in a week we are going to do this dress that is going to be the most shared thing on Instagram for the year. I just knew it. And it happened like that. That was a moment I was making a statement. It really is insulting that a woman’s nipples can’t be on Instagram. It’s really shocking, and it’s really backwards. Look at American Vogue from the 1980s for instance: there’s boobs all over it. It’s a woman’s breast. It’s not a big deal. So instead of writing #freethenipple I thought it was fun to explode the nipple all over Insta. But enough about that. I know that racism is rampant. And I strive to be super inclusive in my work. I want to work with people of all ethnicities, colors, gender roles. You’re never going to see whitewashing with me. I am very proud of the diversity we show in 032c. In the three years I’ve been fashion director, we’ve had Joan Smalls, FKA Twigs, Steven Galloway and Rihanna on the cover. That makes me happy.

How do you think hierarchies and power dynamics impact relationships?

They are always out there. That’s the Game of Thrones of life… It’s just most important to keep an open dialogue about things and make sure that you talk things through when they don’t feel good. It’s about being aware of your partner’s feelings and not letting hierarchies and power dynamics fuck up your relationship. That’s not just romantic relationships. You don’t want to walk around being pissed that you felt slighted by something, or over a situation that got out of hand because of a pride issue. An honest stream of communication is the best way of dealing with power dynamics in all relationships.

Ilya Lipkin, Untitled, I Am Vicky, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Lars Friedrich, Berlin.

Because they do exist in almost all our relationships – between people of different genders, race, and income, or even just between someone who is outgoing and a more reserved type – all these factors, structural and personal in nature, make a mark on one’s personal idea of romance.

Well, I think opposites attract, always. I don’t know much about astrology, but I’m a Taurus. Adam is a Pisces. After our second date, I read our relationship chart on Astrology Zone, and it really hit it on the head. Basically, one’s more bull-headed and aggressive, one’s kinder and quieter, and therefore, together, you’ve got a good thing going on. I’m a total bull: I’m kind of clumsy, I break things, I have huge feet that always get in the way. And I don’t apologize for it – it just is what it is. It’s in my nature. My Pisces partner is very graceful, much quieter, and much more able-footed. He’s practically an acrobat. That Yin and Yang is really great. I always remember this chart, it was really spot on.

Susan Miller is my favorite astrologer!

Yeah, she’s my favorite, too. I know her! One of my girlfriends is her daughter, she’s given me readings before. In retrospect, they were spot on. I remember at the time being like, “Ugh, this reading didn’t really get me anywhere.” But she actually gave me spot-on advice. She’d basically say, “You’re flailing because you don’t want to do what you know you have to do.” She’s a good person to know.

Wait a second! Isn’t Rihanna a Pisces, too?

She is, yes. I clearly do well with Pisces. I forget what it all means, the relationships between the star signs, except for I am a total bull, and that the bull is great with the Pisces fish.

“My job is so excessive and ridiculous, and to not be able to get that, and understand how to use it…

I think it would be depressing.”

A Taurus really likes being home, and my apartment is really important to me. Eating well is very important to the Taurus, and enjoying beauty and comfort, like an incredible piece of furniture or art. 

Tauruses are very sensual. Food is definitely something sensual, but so are fabrics, cuts and colors.

Tauruses can be very gluttonous with food, drink, sex, and drugs, but I think you need to understand the power and importance of excess to enjoy doing what I do, so maybe that’s okay for me. My job is so excessive and ridiculous, and to not be able to get that, be cool with it, and understand how to use it… I think it would be depressing. It would feel too shallow.

What idea of romance did you grow up with?

My mom and dad divorced and are both happily remarried for almost 30 years. My mom and stepfather worked together for forty years, so I did grow up with the idea that you can work together, and have a really great romantic relationship. But being gay, I grew up with a sense of otherness that I’m so down with. I don’t feel like I need to conform to marriage and babies and stuff like that. Marriage I’ve mellowed out about, I could be into it, but I will never have a spawn. There is no way. That’s not happening. Love other people’s kids, but it’s not for me.

What is the best relationship advice you’ve ever gotten?

The best relationship advice I’ve ever gotten came from a good friend of mine, who always told me to practice at relationships while dating. Let’s say you’re dating someone who’s kind of interesting or cute and you’re like, “This person is so wrong.” Or: “this is pointless.” It’s still good to practice. Go on dates with this person, make it a nice date, try to make it interesting, talk to them, listen, hear about their lives, and if they’re nice – even if you see this going absolutely nowhere – go on another date with them. Have fun, take them somewhere interesting, don’t worry about where it’s headed way down the line. This seemed like weird advice but I took it and for me, it meant that when love was in front of me and I didn’t even see it right away, I fostered it without even knowing or thinking too hard about it. Before that, I used to go on dates with people and by the next date I’d be like: “This is so stupid and too complicated. I can’t deal with it. Bye!”

My psychoanalyst often brings to my attention that I am prone to idealizing, and, conversely, fatalizing all kinds of things. Trying to find a middle ground is important – that’s stability, I guess!

I get what you mean. I remember dating people and I could envision us like, on our wedding day or something crazy like that, but then by the next morning you’re all “you’re a loser, I’m never hanging with you again. This is embarrassing!” I feel like that stuff is way too complicated – I don’t want to freak out about the future too much. I just read an interview with Oprah, and the thing she said she’d tell her younger self was, “Relax.” I think that is really true for me, too. There will be times to over-obsess, but when the good times are good, you don’t need to worry too much about it. That’s good. Sometimes there are bad times, and you’ve got to let them be bad times, too, you know? Everything’s not always smooth and easy.

For it to work, does love need to be based on equality?

Yes. I think equality is really important. It’s essential! 

The interview series Romance & Power is published monthly on 032c.com and paired with artwork that concerns itself with corresponding tensions. The above photograph by the Berlin-based artist Ilya Lipkin is taken from his recent solo exhibition I Am Vicky at Berlin’s gallery Lars Friedrich that took the romantically charged, yet intensely regulated relationship between patient and psychoanalyst as its subject.