Adam Selman and Marc Balet on pattern making, film, and pushing past the limits

Designer Adam Selman meets with creative director Marc Balet in his loft in NoHo to chat about the stress of working two jobs, making it big in the city that never sleeps, and what life really was like in the 80s.

After moving from small town Texas to New York City, Adam Selman began his career working with one of the most influential costume designers in the music industry. Striking out on his own ten years later, he now works alongside pop star and fashion icon Rihanna, having created some of her most memorable looks—who could forget that crystal dress at the 2014 CFDA Awards? Needing a stage for his own voice, Adam started his namesake label a few seasons ago. And just before showing his fourth collection, Adam sat down with Marc Balet, the former creative director of Andy Warhol’s Interview, to talk about how the past influences his present.

Adam Selman—The era you grew up in is really infused into my work—it influenced me when I first moved to New York, and it was my starting point for this very collection. It’s easy to look back at a time you weren’t a part of and idolize it, and it was fun to look at that period again. Of course I love New York now, too—it’s just a different New York.

Marc Balet—Really? How does it manifest in your design?

Adam—The patterns, the colors, the styling—I just try to bring it to modern day. I don’t want it to be exactly spot on, but I take a little bit here and there. Whenever I’m designing or thinking about how I’m going to present, it’s always kind of present.

Marc—So you had Andy in mind for your last collection?

Adam—Well last season was more like Harumi Yamaguchi, and then I always pick a model or like a muse, like Veruschka. For my first collection, it was the Hemingways, and I based it all on the film Lipstick with [80s photographer Francesco] Scavullo, and then Eyes of Laura Mars.

Marc—I’m in that movie.

Adam—Oh no way, oh my god. My boyfriend and I did our bedroom like Eyes of Laura Mars. We watched it on loop.

Marc—I’m in the very beginning scene. When I got back to New York after going to school in Rome, I was super thin, and in those days you had to be so thin. I got a phone call and I remember they picked me up and took me somewhere for the opening scene of Eyes Of Laura Mars.

Adam—That’s incredible, that’s legendary! I love how ridiculous the film is. Now they use stock actresses and stock models, but then they got real people and real photographers. They based it around a real scenario.

“With my collection, I’m not trying to do that rat race quite yet.”

Marc—What are you doing this next season?

Adam—This one, I’m actually doing a little twist, a vibe more like Female Trouble by John Waters. You know the opening scene where Chiclet’s like, “It’s just a skirt and sweater.” I’m changing it up, so it’s not all so nostalgic.

Marc—Wow, so you are a devotee of that time! I love when people are passionate and not only go, “I really love the 60s, they were so great,” but they act on it. I always feel like I missed on a little bit of 60s because I was a kid in Connecticut and didn’t really get into it until later. But I knew I had to be there, to somehow force myself into it. Did you wish you were a part of anything? Don’t say Studio 54!

Adam—No—it’s more like drawing from things as opposed to wanting to be in them.

Marc—That’s better actually. Put your own stamp on them.

Adam—Exactly, I’m not trying to be from that era. I grew up in Texas and was like, get me the fuck out of Texas, get me the fuck out of the early 90s. My parents wanted me to stay in Texas for college, but I ended up getting a full ride to Pratt. I moved here, and then I got my first internship with [costume designer] Zaldy and Susanne [Bartsch], which was life changing.

Marc—How’d you hook that up?

Adam—We met through Desi Santiago. They both changed my view on fashion and put things in perspective, like you don’t have to do this corporate route, it can be a family environment, it can be what you want it to be. They sort of unlocked the New York that I really wanted to be a part of.

Marc—That’s great to hear. It’s rare people find the right influences. It happened to me in London. You feel like you’ve been taken off one track and put on a whole new one and it’s amazing. And it did change my life entirely. You have to kind of want it to happen inside—it’s almost like that Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where something forces them to go to that mountain. That’s how I felt about New York and my career. I didn’t know what, but some force was just pulling me.

Adam—The same for me. I had to get to New York.

Marc—All this crap about “New York has changed, it’s not the same”—they were saying that in 1850s. The old New York in the 1700s, it’s just not the same anymore without people being murdered by muskets. Now it’s just something else. I still see kids coming in here all the time with amazing stuff. All you have to do is be talented and persevere.

“When I’m designing costumes, like for Beyoncé, I always try to make it at least possible for her to wear them on the red carpet too. That’s normally how it goes with Rihanna. If she’s not into the options for red carpet, she goes over to the performance rack and picks something. When I’m designing I structure for movement, but I’m at least trying to make it fashion.”

Adam—New York has never been easy. I think people expect things to happen rapidly in New York.

Marc—Did establishing your label take a while? What was that process like?

Adam—Well I worked really closely with Zaldy for ten years. We were working on Britney Spears when my partner Mel [Ottenberg] started working with Rihanna and asked for my help, since he’d never done a live stage show. I told Zaldy, “I got to take a break to help Mel figure this out. I can’t pass up this opportunity, Rihanna is so hot, it’s perfect.” The next thing I know, it’s two years later, and I never went back to Zaldy.

Marc—Was he upset?

Adam—No, we’re still good friends. He understood, he’s supportive. Then after almost three years of working with Rihanna and Mel, I needed to have my own voice. I just couldn’t work for someone else and keep making dresses and stage clothes. I knew that I wanted to have my own line. I still make a lot of stuff for her and Mel, so there’s no hard feelings there—I just needed to make sure I was continuing on my path.

Marc—Did you fund it yourself?

Adam—I did. It’s a struggle, but it’s at least the right kind of struggle. It’s not in Vogue yet, there aren’t full page spreads yet, but for showing just four collections now, it’s been a huge success. I hate stiff faced mean models on the runway and going fast, fast, fast—I think people notice that. Last season I went back to a more salon style of showing. I was inspired by these Helmut Newton pictures from the 60s, girls with really big glasses holding cards with numbers. I had each girl walk down the runway with a number and told them to take their time.

Marc—Helmut’s actually the first photographer I ever worked with. I was asked to translate Italian actresses for him as a kid in Rome, and they flew me to England and the south of France. I was an architecture student, and I didn’t know Helmut Newton, so I have all this Super 8 footage of him in Europe yelling at me: “You moron, you don’t shoot into the sun.” How was I supposed to know? I had no idea.

When I came to New York, I ended up working at Interview with Andy. And because Andy was so cheap and didn’t pay me enough, I had to have another job: I was the creative director at Vogue Patterns during the day. Vogue Patterns didn’t know I was still at Interview—they thought I had already quit. And I did at first, but Andy called me and said I couldn’t and it was probably best not to tell them. So I didn’t. I did what I was told and started my new job. And at lunchtime, I’d go to The Factory and work for Andy, then run straight back to Vogue Patterns after lunch. I was working with all these photographers at Vogue Patterns—Arthur Elgort, Albert Watson, Patrick Demarchelier, Alex Chatelain—and I’d bring them to The Factory to shoot at night. There a long period where everything at Interview was shot at night, because I couldn’t shoot during the day. Do you ever feel like you’re living two lives like that, between doing costume design and now your own line?

Adam—Sometimes. I always try to bridge the two. When I’m designing costumes, like for Beyoncé, I always try to make it at least possible for her to wear them on the red carpet too. That’s normally how it goes with Rihanna. If she’s not into the options for red carpet, she goes over to the performance rack and picks something. When I’m designing I structure for movement, but I’m at least trying to make it fashion.

Marc—And Beyoncé too? That’s great.

Adam—Whoever calls. I have to make a living. Fashion’s not cheap, and running a small company is really hard. I do all kinds of custom projects for movies and for advertisements and anything that comes along. But with my collection, I’m not trying to do pre-fall and go down that rat race quite yet.

Marc —Are you selling retail?

“I grew up in Texas and was like, get me the fuck out of Texas, get me the fuck out of the early 90s.”

Adam—Yeah, it’s a lot of work. I have a sales showroom, which I love. I tried selling my own collection the first season and it was a joke, it was so brutal. I went to Paris and got the shittiest hotel room you could imagine and set up a rack around the bed and people came and looked. I had the lookbook spread out on the bed. I still sold stuff but I was like, I need help. I can’t do this.

Marc—So you really know the business from every possible angle.

Adam—I try to. I still make a lot of patterns, I mean I was a professional pattern maker. I still sew, I still do all of that stuff. I don’t do all of it, but it’s important to me to know how to build it all.

Marc —Who would you say you pattern yourself after?

Adam—I always look to Halston. Simplicity and brilliant details like the little knots. And the energy of his models.

Marc—You’ll go through a thousand girls, but you have to find your own little troupe. You have to find the right girls because they’re representative of your line. And people are going to get that vibe.

Adam—It used to be similar with movie stars. Givenchy used to make all Audrey Hepburn’s clothing in films, not just on the red carpet, and they were impeccable. That’s what partly made the era so iconic. Now you don’t see designers doing whole movies, but clothes can change an entire movie. Like Gaultier’s suits in The Skin I Live In by Almodóvar—I can remember every little detail, which is so cool. That’s what makes a movie.

Marc—Would you want to do a movie?

Adam—I would love to, if it had the right setting. Maybe something like a Boogie Nights, where Paul Thomas Anderson really captured an essence.

Marc—Any other creative projects?

Adam—No, but actually I’m in the new Converse campaign. Just my shoes, not me. Whenever I get stressed out, I stitch and doodle on my clothes.

Marc—Do people stop you on the street and ask where you got those?

Adam—A lady at the post office complimented me. I was really proud of that. Those post office ladies are mean!

This conversation first appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2015 issue.