How Rihanna's Go-To Designer Adam Selman Is Making It in Fashion

The buzzy designer tells us how he went from designing costumes for Britney Spears to designing clothes we (and Rihanna) want to wear.
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The buzzy designer tells us how he went from designing costumes for Britney Spears to designing clothes we (and Rihanna) want to wear.
Selman and Rihanna at his spring 2015 show. Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Selman and Rihanna at his spring 2015 show. Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Designer Adam Selman’s breakout moment was the dress seen 'round the world. It was hard to miss the over-230,000 Swarovski crystals hugging every curve of Rihanna’s body for her crowning as a CFDA Fashion Icon this past June. It was certainly a look, and it put Selman on the radar of everyone in fashion in a big way.

The moment came after the 32-year-old Belton, Texas native had been working with the pop star on both on- and off-stage looks for years. The buzz continued to build around him up until his spring 2015 show in New York in September, which included a nod to the now-famous, see-through frock -- and an appearance by Rihanna herself.

“I was going to make Rihanna a pearl option for the CFDA [Awards] as an extra piece,” Selman explained to us in his Garment District design studio recently. “We ended up making it and having it beaded in the same technique, but it just wasn’t right [for the event]. It was obviously all about the Swarovski dress in the end, so I took that and expanded on it. I knew that I wanted a 'wow' piece in the show, but done in my way. So it wasn’t about a gown, it wasn’t full length; I just wanted to make it cute and I knew people were going to want that from me.”

It, along with the rest of the collection, was definitely what people wanted. Since last season, Selman has brought on The Grocery Store in San Francisco, Net-a-Porter and Intermix as stockists, adding to influential names like Opening Ceremony, Browns of London; K3, Candy and Whim Gazette all in Tokyo and Rare in Seoul. It’s been a bit of a slow build: Selman launched his eponymous line in 2013 after over a decade working in the custom sphere, designing costumes for everyone from Michael Jackson to Britney Spears, The Scissor Sisters, Lady Gaga and, of course, Rihanna.

Now, Selman is choosing when and how to grow his label. With three collections already under his belt and a fourth in the works, we chat with the designer about transitioning from costumes to ready-to-wear, his next collection and why fans and supporters  (like Rihanna) keep coming back.

When exactly did the “fashion bug” bite?

So I originally was going to go to school for sculpture, which is why I went to Pratt. My parents were like, ‘You need some sort of business’ so I was like, fine I’ll do fashion. I had done theater and all that nonsense. My mom taught me how to sew at a really young age because I really wanted a vest growing up so it was just like a natural progression. I never really knew about 'fashion' fashion, but it was just a nice transition. I learned more about fashion whenever I got to New York. 

The dress heard 'round the world, at the 2014 CFDA Awards. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

The dress heard 'round the world, at the 2014 CFDA Awards. Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Did you end up learning that business that you were supposed to at Pratt?

Not at all really. But I wasn’t really looking for that either. I was like, ‘I’m a creative guy and I don’t need that. I’m an ideas man.’ So all the business end has just come from working on it and just being hands-on and cognizant of what is happening around me. I try to pick up tips as I come to them and as I grow.

What is one major lesson that you took from your time at Pratt?

I think the biggest advice that a professor gave me was that there are so many powerful stylists in the world and styling is such a powerful profession and they do such amazing things with clothes that you always want to make sure to design your clothes like you would want them styled. So if you don’t want it to be worn backwards, make it so it can’t be worn backwards. Just make sure to drive the point home; don’t just say, 'I’ll style it later.' That’s not designing; that’s styling. Just make sure to design it how you want it to be worn.

So you interned as most people do. Who were you working for then?

Well I started at Nicole Miller and then a professor told me that a friend was looking for an intern and that turned out to be Desi Santiago, who was like a performance artist and jewelry designer. We would, like, make bamboo cuffs and sit around and eat fried chicken and make jewelry out of the bones. He introduced me to Zaldy and I interned for Zaldy after that and I worked for him for 10 years. 

Those internships obviously influenced your progression.

Definitely! I think like those internships, working, school, living in New York and going out played a part. Going from Nicole Miller, I really wanted to do corporate fashion and athleticwear and things like that. That’s why I went down that road but when I met Desi and Zaldy, that’s when I switched to nightlife and the legendary club scene. It just made me look at fashion in a whole new way and also the possibility in New York that you don’t have to take a particular road; Just because you want to be a fashion designer, it doesn’t mean you have to take the most corporate position. That was my New York dream.

Did you find that going out was a big part of your development?

Yeah, I was definitely never a big party boy but I was always going out. I think it just helped me define my style. You can get away with a lot more after midnight than you can at noon. I would always wear like denim head to toe: skin tight jeans, cowboy boots, denim, denim, denim. Or like denim Daisy Dukes. It really just helped me develop my own voice like ‘this is me, this is who I am and who I want to portray.’ That was always evolving, but that’s what I learned about myself. Plus, you meet fun people and you just end up having a lot of fun. 

So at what point did you decide you wanted to go into costume design?

Well I always knew that I wanted to be my own boss and I worked freelance for Zaldy, so I was my own boss in a way. He had a fashion collection for like four years and he stopped doing that and started doing the custom stuff, which I had a huge part to do with. We had like RuPaul, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Rufus Wainright and the Scissor Sisters. I went on tour with the Scissor Sisters for two years and was sort of like their ‘wardrobe boy.’ I really learned what worked on the road and what worked for stage -- that was a huge thing, just learning what worked.

After that, we were working on Britney Spears for Zaldy; and Mel Ottenberg, who was my boyfriend at the time [and still is], got the job [styling] Rihanna and he had never done stage/performance stuff, so he asked could I help. Originally, I was just going to consult and keep working with Zaldy on the Britney tour, but the next thing you know I’m doing half the costumes in a super tiny space with a friend of mine. It was so surreal. It just happened, it was never like ‘I need to branch out, I need to leave.’ It just organically happened.

Why do you think Rihanna has kept working with you all of this time?

I think the Mel connection didn’t hurt. But also, I think it was because we really worked on it together. Even when other people were making custom things, I’d have a voice in that as well to make sure it was the right fabric and the right fit. But I think my motto, especially with Rihanna, is that a lady likes options. So if they asked for a red dress because they were going to shoot a video, or there was one reference that they really liked, I would show up with that red dress and three other red dresses and then I’d throw some wild card in there. I just wanted to keep it going so that she’d be like, ‘oh wow I have to keep him around,’ and she did. I just wanted to show her that I was always pushing and I wanted to show her what I could do. I mean, I really needed that job.

Did you employ that same strategy of creating lots of options when you started doing your own collection?

Definitely! I like playing with pattern and playing with shape, so a lot of things will be the same pattern but I’ll make it in silk and I’ll make it as a sweatshirt. That way I’ll see which one works better and sometimes they both look great or only one looks great. I like to give myself options too to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes I present that to buyers but sometimes it’s like, that was an epic fail. But that’s fun too, though.

A look from spring 2015. Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

A look from spring 2015. Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Is it just you making that selection process or is it your whole team?

It’s really my whole team. That’s everyone in the studio like Marley [Glassroth] and Bri [Magnificio] -- I rely on my girls heavily -- but I also get Mel involved and Jen Brill, who helps me with creative and I like to get her opinion on the clothes as well because she’s my kind of girl. But it’s really just getting all of them involved. 

So when you’re coming from not getting too much of the business side in school and then doing one-off, custom pieces, what is going into the buying process like?

I really like it because I love feedback. I like to hear what people are saying. I did my sales the first season and I was like ‘OK, I never want to do that again.’ I hired Goods and Services because Joey, who owns it, is a friend of mine. They’ve been great in helping me shape my collection. They’ll give good advice like ‘maybe you want to think about this,’ or ‘don’t go too far down that development road, you should focus on this.’

Each season I’m trying to grow a little bit. So this upcoming season is knits and this past season was this “denim not denim” story. So each season I’m trying to capture a little bit more. With sales and press and buyers, it all plays in.

With that last “denim not denim” collection, is there a reason you decided to finally do a runway show? Even though it still had the feel of a presentation, it was really a small runway show.

I wanted it to be really fun and really intimate and I also wanted the pictures to be great. I wanted to make sure that I had really clear shots of the clothes on the runway and also in the vignettes. The inspiration for the set really came from Laura Mars and just those vignettes from the movie. That’s what I live for in fashion, it’s that moment. So I wanted these groupings of girls, under my name, giving you a moment.

When you’re going to design, how do you shift from designing for one person to designing your line.
I still keep my sensibilities, but if it’s for, like, Amy Sedaris, I know she likes pom poms and [a particular] fit of something, so I’m always thinking about her. That goes for Amy, Beyonce, Lorde; I’m thinking about them as opposed to the idea that I’m trying to get across and the clothes that are going to do well in stores and the overall feeling of the collection and the mood of it all.

So thinking about the future, where are you looking to expand to?
Well I’d love to do men’s! I’d also love to do accessories -- well more accessories -- and bags. I don’t really want to do an ‘It bag’ situation but each season I do a bag. I did a jumbo backpack and then I did a boucle backpack. This time, I did these baby bags and these little raffia bags. I mean everybody needs a bag.

Next time I might do a little evening but for the most part I think evening and gowns are more of an earned thing for a designer. So before I do evening I want to make sure that the clothes are in the stores and are selling well. I’ve already got great celebrity things. I mean, I want that and obviously need it but I’m not focused on getting a celebrity in my clothes, I’m more focused on getting the clothes in the stores and just getting them on girls.