Adam Selman: The Secret Weapon Behind Rihanna’s LookMarch 2, 2013
After the Rihanna for “River Island” presentation during London Fashion Week, its namesake designer, the biggest pop star on the planet, came out for a bow. Accompanying her was a boyish, mustachioed fellow. Most of the audience had no clue who he was. Beaming, he turned to Rihanna and applauded.
This was Adam Selman, Rihanna’s costume designer, who worked with her on the collection. You’re probably more familiar with Mr. Selman than you think. He makes the costumes the singer wears for appearances and videos — those that are not culled from high-fashion labels — like the pink faux-fur bomber from her “777 Tour” and the white halter dress from the “Battleship” premiere. The list is long enough to stock a department store. One creation is particularly ubiquitous: the pineapple bikini in her “Vita Coco” ad.
“I made a mini-collection,” Mr. Selman said, “a whole rail of pineapple clothes. She came to the set and loved it. Every country we go to, there’s a billboard with that pineapple bikini.”
Mr. Selman’s relationship with Rihanna goes beyond pineapples and is close to symbiosis.
“Our working relationship is seamless,” she said. “I am so particular and hands on with everything I do, and that can be difficult, but with Adam, it never is. Oftentimes, I describe what I’m thinking for my show or my collection, and his execution is exactly what I wanted.”
In the Rihanna for “River Island” presentation, slicked-hair bad girls paraded in variations of the Michelle Pfeiffer “Scarface” slit dresses, cheeky skirts and T-shirt dresses that looked like tied-on shirts (complete with sleeves used for belts). There were more exposed midriffs than in a belly-dance troupe.
In fact, the clothes were clever and tough, yet feminine and wearable — and largely affordable, with prices like $200 for a jumpsuit and $75 for zip-back knicker shorts. They go on sale Tuesday at Opening Ceremony stores, and the New York flagship will celebrate with “RIHtrospective”, a museum treatment of her past outfits. In England the line will be hyped by a Mario Sorrenti advertising campaign.
A few weeks before the “River Island” debut, Mr. Selman was in his scruffy garment district studio, an inauspicious locale for a major player on team Rihanna.
“There are a lot of furriers in the building,” he said. “In summer they stretch out big pieces of fur and dry them on the rooftop, and clumps drift past.”
He was brought in to work with Rihanna on her 2011 Loud Tour by his boyfriend, Mel Ottenberg, her stylist. The gig was intended to be temporary, but he kept being called back, and it’s now a full-time job.
“We bounce ideas off each other,” he said of Mr. Ottenberg, “but it gets to a point where we’re like, ‘O.K., we can’t discuss Rihanna at dinner, we have to shut it off.’ ”
Mr. Selman, who is 30 but looks younger and rarely doesn’t smile, was wearing a blue hoodie and a baseball cap. On a dress form was a white muslin dress he was making for Rihanna’s 2013 “Diamonds World Tour”. (It begins March 8.)
“She’s super-particular in fittings,” he said. “Take this in a quarter of an inch and move this up an inch. If you don’t do it, she knows.” On the wall were sketches for the next River Island collection. He stepped in front to block them. “It’s very men’s wear-inspired women’s wear,” he said.
The design process for the fashion collection was difficult.
“Any opportunity she had, we’d work on it,” he said. “She knows what fabrics she likes and doesn’t like, and she has specific ideas for what she wants to do. I make sure the technical aspects are seen through.”
Mr. Selman was raised in Belton, Tex., the youngest of three. His father works in computers and his mother does accounting at a Baptist college. The family went to church five days a week.
“We weren’t allowed to listen to secular music or watch MTV,” he said. “I’ve only seen two Madonna videos. My family is the true definition of Christian, very loving and ‘treat others how you would want to be treated’ type of people.”
Mr. Selman was creative at a young age.
“My mom taught me how to sew,” he said. “My dad had a wood shop and taught me how to use jigsaws.”
Throughout high school he was a cheerleader.
“I was the only boy to do it at my school ever, which was a scandal,” he said.
In 2000 he moved to New York to study fashion design at Pratt Institute, paying his way by working at the J. Lindeberg store in SoHo.
“I wore huge bell bottoms and had a mullet,” he said.
For a while Mr. Selman made props for the film industry. (“Like they would need a huge pig for some Robin Williams movie,” he explained.) For three years, he was a handyman in Brooklyn.
“I’d help the restaurants,” he said. “I would cement walls and make picnic tables. I reached a point where I had to decide if I wanted to be a handyman or a fashion designer.”
He began working with the designer Zaldy on costumes for artists like Lady GaGa. In 2007, he met the actress Amy Sedaris on a Dolly Parton video shoot. (He was dressing the backup dancers.)
“He could make anything,” Ms. Sedaris said. “He made an awning for my rabbit, a bodysuit with snaps on the crotch, and curtains. He wouldn’t just talk about ideas. Poof, it would happen. I liked that he was a cheerleader and could do back flips. In that book by Patti Smith she described Sam Shepard as ‘a cowboy with Indian ways.’ That’s Adam.”
When Ms. Sedaris was putting together her book “Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People,” Mr. Selman helped her realize her D.I.Y. visions. He makes the ensembles for her guest spots on David Letterman and for television cameos.
“I always bring a few pieces, and the costume people go right to his stuff,” Ms. Sedaris said. “People who sew will inspect the hem and say, ‘Ooh my God, who made this?’ ” She isn’t threatened by Rihanna.
“She’s perfect, and he has old, dumpy me,” she said. “He would do anything for her.” Mr. Selman agrees that Rihanna is the ultimate muse and collaborator.
“Her body is so insane,” Mr. Selman said. “It’s the dream body to make clothes for. You don’t have to try as hard.”
In December, Mr. Selman incorporated his own company, Mister Selman.
“My goal is to do a fall presentation of my own,” he said. “For a woman to wear a Mister Selman bathing suit sounds like the dirtiest, most amazing thing.”