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Rihanna's secret design weapon

Adam Selman, 30, makes eye-popping costumes she wears for concerts, videos

By William Van Meter
New York Times

More Information

  • About Adam Selman

    Selman incorporated his company, Mister Selman, in December.

    Info: http://adamselman.com



After the Rihanna for River Island presentation during London Fashion Week, its namesake designer 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 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.

“Every country we go to,” he said, “there’s a billboard with that pineapple bikini.”

Selman’s relationship with Rihanna goes beyond pineapples.

“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.”

A few weeks before the River Island debut, Selman was in his scruffy New York City garment district studio, an inauspicious locale for a major player on Team Rihanna.

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 Ottenberg, “but it gets to a point where we’re like, ‘OK, we can’t discuss Rihanna at dinner, we have to shut it off.’ ”

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.”

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.”

Selman was raised in Belton, Texas, 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.”

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.

For a while Selman made props for the film industry. For three years, he was a handyman in Brooklyn.

He began working with the designer Zaldy on costumes for artists such as 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,” 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 Sedaris was putting together her book “Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People,” Selman helped her realize her DIY 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,” 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.” Selman agrees that Rihanna is the ultimate muse and collaborator.

“Her body is so insane,” Selman said. “It’s the dream body to make clothes for. You don’t have to try as hard.”

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