Purple Magazine
— The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

mel ottenberg




portrait by KATJA RAWLES


American fashion editor Mel Ottenberg began working with European magazines like Purple and 032c, gaining fame in 2011 by styling Rihanna. Now, as editor-in-chief of Interview magazine, he is reviving Andy Warhol’s free-spirited celebrity culture. His American perspective on fashion fuses glamor with attitude and playful irreverence.


OLIVIER ZAHM — You incarnate a very interesting American point of view on fashion. American magazines often start out very creative but then become more commercial. You are not like that. What you do with Interview is very unique because you actualize the Warholian approach to fashion. As everyone knows, Andy Warhol was fascinated by fame, by celebrities, and by glamor, and his magazine was a way to explore this world in a creative way. He also had a strong aesthetic, and he could combine these two into a magazine. The French art director Fabien Baron tried to make Interview a fashion magazine with a European perspective, but it felt a bit forced at the time to push fashion stories in the magazine. When you started in 2021 as the new editor-in-chief, you gave a new relevance to the magazine, and you reconnected with the initial spirit of the editorial mission. How do you describe Andy’s influence on fashion?

MEL OTTENBERG — I never had an editorial home in fashion in New York until I came to Interview as the creative director in 2018. I’m glad that I never fit in anywhere before that. I was at Purple and 032c, and I was Rihanna’s stylist. These were the right educational grounds for me to be able to take over something like Interview and make it work commercially but with a strong point of view. I think the core thing about Warhol is that he was commercial, and he didn’t try to hide it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s business as art.

MEL OTTENBERG — Yeah, it’s business as art. Therefore, I feel like a lot of the commercial stuff is not necessarily a bad thing for me. I’m just trying to do it our way and not look at everyone else. I think that in America, everyone wants to be liked, and everyone wants everything to make sense. Interview is independent and small enough to still have that Warhol spirit that hopefully pushes boundaries. People can hate it, and everything doesn’t have to make sense. The world doesn’t make any sense.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Interview started as a film magazine, but then quickly became an entertainment magazine. And then it turned into the zeitgeist of the ’70s and the mega-celebrity culture of the ’80s. Does celebrity culture still mean something to you, when it has been highjacked by Instagram and social media? 

MEL OTTENBERG — Yes… We’re all about anointing the next moment or the next star. Everyone is looking for the next It girl of the moment or the next superstar who will disappear as quickly as they arrived. “Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” has never been more realized than it has been in this decade. But I’m saying with Interview that everyone will be famous for five seconds. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Everyone is famous for the time it stays on your Instagram feed, right?

MEL OTTENBERG — It is true that anyone could be famous, anyone could be viral, anyone could be the right person to be in Interview or Purple. So, first and foremost, there’s the choice of the subject. Anyone is fair game if you have the right eye and taste. This is why the editorial point of view is important.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it just a fashion point of view or more than that?

MEL OTTENBERG — I don’t know. I think that anything could be fashion — it’s easy with the right clothes and the right model. Maybe that is Andy Warhol’s mega influence on fashion, culture, and style…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Perhaps his greatest strength was in discovering new faces and the emerging generation, all in sync with New York City’s constant revival. It’s not just the art world — it’s the realm of fashion as well.

MEL OTTENBERG — He had an eye for fashion and an eye for when it was over and it was time for the next thing. The idea of the changing of the guard… It’s all got to change in order to stay relevant. His ’60s ended when Valerie Solanas shot him, and then the speed freaks were gone and The Factory changed into a more closed-off, “rarified” kind of place.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And Warhol was perhaps one of the first to recognize queer culture.

MEL OTTENBERG — Absolutely.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He was a pioneer in giving media recognition to the underground scene, the fashion world, and avant-garde movements.

MEL OTTENBERG — He definitely had a keen eye for finding new styles and staying relevant. He had a shrewd way of getting rid of his past and moving into the next present to stay through different eras. He was never stuck in the ’60s or the ’70s.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s so true. So, that’s something you learned from him — always being on your guard to detect the next wave or the next emergence.

MEL OTTENBERG — Yeah. I’m glad you feel that way. Andy Warhol died when I was 11, and The Andy Warhol Diaries came out when I was 13. I remember reading about Studio 54 and Liza Minnelli doing all this coke with Martin Scorsese, and Bianca Jagger wanting poppers. And I was like, “Oh, my God, there’s nothing wrong with me. I want to be gay. I’ll move to New York. I’ll be a drug addict. Everything’s going to be amazing.” And at the same age, I discovered Interview magazine, and it was the New York that I wanted to be a part of. You’d see what was going on in the nightclubs through the little pictures in the back of the magazine — that was the only way I could know what was really cool in New York. But by the time I got to New York, it wasn’t my thing anymore. Interview wasn’t a magazine I really connected with.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are we speaking of the late 1990s?

MEL OTTENBERG — Yes. But I was into European publications like i-D and The Face. I certainly was more connected with Index, Purple, and Self Service in 1998, definitely American Vogue and Vogue Italia, and then later French Vogue and all that. So, exactly 20 years after I moved to New York, I got the call for a position at Interview, and I had a real flash of, “Oh, my God, I am that guy who read the Warhol Diaries at 13 and dreamed of being part of this exact world of celebrity, glamor, glitz, drugs, scandal.” And with Interview magazine, I could use fashion in my own way to get impact.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you mean using fashion as a medium that can replace all the fun we cannot have anymore?

MEL OTTENBERG — Fashion as a cultural tool. When I became editor-in-chief, I stripped away almost all of the fashion shoots.
I love fashion shoots, but I just don’t think they’re as relevant in today’s culture as they previously were. I also think other magazines do that really well — so let’s just focus on pushing looks with personalities or celebrities, and use fashion as a tool. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of tool is fashion?

MEL OTTENBERG — It’s part of show business. It can be a tool to celebrate the talent. I think celebration is the most important thing, although that word sounds sort of corny. I want to use fashion to make people look cool and feel fantastic. I want people to have fun with fashion. I want Interview to be both a status thing and a fun thing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I like this idea of fashion as a transformative tool. That’s a problem I have when I shoot celebrities. They believe that the fashion shoot is a portrait of them. But it’s not — it’s show business, it’s entertainment, it’s visual performance, it’s glamor. Celebrities want to look “themselves.” But fashion is a moment in time, an image, a feature in a magazine that is unique and ephemeral and will not come back. It’s an opportunity to create something new, something different — a story, a dream, a comedy, a drama, a character… Do you agree?

MEL OTTENBERG — Yeah. I feel like people do Interview because they want to do something different and fun, and they want to wear fashion that doesn’t feel like they’re taking press pictures per se. I don’t want to do your press pictures — that’s a waste of our time. This is Interview magazine; it’s a dance we do together. This is a party so let’s have fun and do something cool. I don’t want it to just be safe images because that doesn’t work. Luckily, I feel like people understand what we are doing and trust us. They want to play in our sandbox so they are open to wearing stuff they might not normally wear because they trust the magazine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like you’re going to a party. It’s a moment. It’s not a picture fixed for eternity as your perfect portrait or your perfect self. Actually, there is no such thing as the self. Andy Warhol was transforming the celebrity into an icon — a sort of empty surface, a pure image. It’s fascinating because it’s an icon and not a person. I’m tired of the idea of “I want a picture that reflects myself.” Who are you? Even though you’re a star with 50 million followers… 

MEL OTTENBERG — Yeah. You don’t do Interview to do your Cecil Beaton or Richard Avedon official portraits. It’s more like your Christoph von Wangenheim. It’s dirtier and more fun and fucked up. Or more like your Andy Warhol portraits. For me, there’s a push and pull. Sometimes I want things to feel more real, and sometimes I want them to be really fake. And that internal struggle plays out well in the magazine, I think. I feel tortured by that, and it’s fine. I don’t mind being tortured at all. It’s helpful.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you impose the looks that talents must wear, or do you let them choose?

MEL OTTENBERG — I’m kind of easygoing and playful. I don’t want to put someone in something that they’re uncomfortable with. If you force someone into a fashion piece that they don’t feel hot in, the picture’s going to suck, and you will see it. You see people in magazines looking stupid in big brands or looking uncomfortable at the Met Gala in a stupid outfit that they’re paid to wear. I like to have an idea in my head about what I think is going to look good on the talent, but I also want to do wild cards because I like to do things on a whim with someone. It depends a lot on whether I know the person or not, if I’ve met with the person beforehand and had a conversation with them. I can eyeball them and know what I want to do. It’s inspired by the person first and foremost. I feel like we really care about who we’re picking to dress, and we want to pick the right people that fit the moment. I feel like different types of people would make sense in the magazine, and that creates a sort of surprise.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a good point. You are bridging the gap between fashion and pop culture in America. Today, we are all experiencing the explosion of fashion. Fashion became a sort of global media influencing music, cinema, and television. How far can we go without diluting fashion into pop culture and consumerism?

MEL OTTENBERG — We’re dangerously close. I mean, it’s already been diluted. And the message shouldn’t necessarily always be understood by everyone or liked by everyone. It’s tricky. The idea of “likes” and everyone understanding and liking something is weird. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the essence of fashion for an American editor like you, compared with a European one? You were influenced by European magazines, including Purple and 032c.

MEL OTTENBERG — Yeah, like I was saying, I never fit in anywhere in American fashion before Interview. I worked for Bazaar sometimes. Purple was my first masthead. I was the New York editor of Purple for a while, and then I became a 032c fashion director. And 032c was an opportunity that came along at a time when I was really in my Rihanna moment, and I really didn’t want to get eaten alive by LA and the celebrity thing because I was never a celebrity stylist. So, I worked with 032c to stay more connected to European fashion. I mean, too much America is really bad for the eye.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it because, in America, fashion is a tool for something else? Is it just a tool for media impact?

MEL OTTENBERG — Yes, a tool for an impact. Fashion, for an American, is about the right presentation of oneself. How do you want to be seen? How can I sell myself? Promote myself? Americans are definitely predisposed to be very casual with how they’re dressed. They look at fashion as a sport: they want to look at how “crazy” fashion is. But they also want to understand it. Luckily, at a magazine like Interview, I don’t have to always worry about everything making perfect sense.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about the magazine as a cultural tool? When you shoot Kim Kardashian, for example, how is it relevant?

MEL OTTENBERG — I think that is what I’m good at. When I shot Kim Kardashian, and I was like, “Fuck, I got to fuck this shit up because everyone’s done Kim, and she’s the most seen woman on earth.” I felt really passionate about that cover because Kim Kardashian is the new American dream. I mean, America’s future is so uncertain. It’s not surprising actually that fashion is unclear because the world is so unclear. And I think a lot of people have forgotten that the power of publishing is that you can really do something. You want people to stop in their tracks and be like, “Oh, fuck. This is where we are!”

OLIVIER ZAHM — And how do you choose the brand for a celebrity?

MEL OTTENBERG — I look at every collection as an opportunity. We have to make fashion. We have to make things exciting. There are still opportunities everywhere for something to look great on someone or to create a narrative through clothes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel trapped by advertisers?

MEL OTTENBERG — I’m not ashamed to be driven by my advertisers because, honestly, that’s the world. My best fucking covers are my biggest advertisers. Kim Kardashian with her ass out for the Bottega Veneta cover, or the cover with Lana Del Rey in Dior, or Abel the Weeknd in Coach or Donald Glover in Prada or Miley Cyrus in Gucci on the cover with her boobs out. I really like all those things. I look at the shows, and I pull ideas together — it’s about conversations with the photographers, and I’m also listening to my team. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — You can surprise the brand as well because they wouldn’t have imagined this person wearing this look.

MEL OTTENBERG — Yeah, that’s when it works well, right? When you have Rick Owens on someone who you would never expect to be in Rick Owens, or you have Celine on someone who you wouldn’t expect in Celine. That’s a great moment. I don’t like it when fashion is wearing the person — I like it when the person is wearing the fashion. I’m striving to really bring home the bacon with my advertisers, but I want the clothes to look fucking great on people. I don’t want it to look like some dumb cookie-cutter look, and I think it’s an important point of view to keep as fashion gets more and more powerful.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The celebrity world has become so important in fashion. Sometimes I have the feeling that it is driving fashion and not vice versa. In terms of the numbers and Instagram, it’s crazy. It’s more important than advertising now.

MEL OTTENBERG — Yeah, it’s not to be believed sometimes. That’s sort of why I stopped doing fashion editorials. I wanted to strip the magazine of those things and really get down to the brass tacks of what Interview is about and what we do the best: interviews and photos of talents, of celebrities. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love fashion editorials. It’s just that we, as an industry in publishing, have to do a lot with less than we used to have. There’s certainly less time and less money so I just want to get to the point of what Interview does well and shine with it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking of the physicality of the magazine, you came back with a large newspaper-quality format that is closer to the original Interview. Purposely not user-friendly… 

MEL OTTENBERG — When I came in, the first thing I wanted to do was go back to the 1984 size and a similar paper, which is what we have now. This revives the spirit of the magazine. Because the best way to have the magazine survive was to throw away the idea of it becoming hundreds of pages of the best fashion models in the best fashion, this super slick thing. If it’s too big to keep, throw it away. Recycle it. It doesn’t have to be precious. It’s not for everybody, and that’s great. I was very nervous about it when we first did it. I was like, “Shit, what if no one likes it? What if all the brands think it looks cheap or whatever?” And all the brands instantly loved it. Sometimes you just have to take a chance. And I think it goes with the spirit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And fashion is also about good graphic design! People forget this.

MEL OTTENBERG — Yes, graphic design is what defines an independent magazine, and this is the spirit of the magazine. Thanks to Richard Turley, who’s the genius behind the design of the magazine. We did a mini redesign this year, which I’m thrilled about. I’ve been bothering him for five years about using the mid-’70s Interview typeface. So, there’s a lot of the ’70s shit all over.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s important because I think that, as an editor, type choice and graphic design are part of fashion.

MEL OTTENBERG — Absolutely, it’s important. And it’s also so Warhol, right? 

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you think of the growth of the fashion world these days? It’s global, and it’s so massive!

MEL OTTENBERG — I don’t know if I love fashion as much as I used to. [Laughs] I guess I still love fashion, but these are rough times for fashion now. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good clothes out there, but these ain’t the glory days. I had really big hopes for 2023, but overall it has been a sad year in fashion. The third year in any decade always seems exciting in fashion. I thought about how 1983 was the moment with Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, and Saint Laurent when it was all coming into a synthesis with the universe. I feel like there’s this look from that time that’s so amazing. And 1993 was an amazing renaissance of fashion, like Gaultier with the tattoos everywhere and the Vivienne Westwood show with all the painted faces and the huge extravagant ball gowns. Versace and Christy Turlington’s House of Style were amazing. And even in 2003, there was Balenciaga and Nicolas Ghesquière, fucking incredible. The fashion photography was so strong with the models and Steven Meisel. Now, I think it’s an in-between time. This has not been a great year.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you still have hope for fashion?

MEL OTTENBERG — Well… I mean, I do. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I believe that having hope is the right thing. Maybe 2024 will be great, or maybe it’ll be terrible. No one knows what’s going to happen. There’s no clarity on what anything should or will look like in 2024 because the whole world feels like it could end before this issue of Purple comes out.


[Table of contents]

The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

Table of contents

Subscribe to our newsletter