Mel Ottenberg
Episode
31

Fashion, Fear, and Freedom: Mel Ottenberg Unplugged

Show Notes

Summary

Editor-in-chief of Interview magazine, Mel Ottenberg, wants to maintain a sense of fun in an atmosphere rife with fear. Previously creative director at 032c, he’s collaborated with an impressive roster of stars, high-profile clients, and photographers. In this episode, he shares his take on where we are in this cultural moment and how fashion, beauty, and style can be powerful vehicles for communication and social transformation. He highlights some of the influences that have shaped his aesthetic—MTV, The Cock, the downtown scene, and Vogue—and the icons who fueled him as an aspiring creative in the 90s, such as Madonna and Arianne Phillips. Teeming with energy and ideas, he found ways to connect his work in the indie and pop celebrity spaces, and with Interview, he found the perfect platform for his diverse experiences and an outlet for cheeky, unfiltered output. What’s contemporary now? “Fear and loathing is truly the most contemporary thing now. It’s totally gross. It’s totally real, and I think confidence and an open spirit of change is the only way past that.”

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Episode Highlights
  • Fashion forward: Mel sees clothes and style as vehicles to channel people, cultural sensibilities, and change.
  • Formative influences: Mel was shaped by the 80s and its dress codes, Madonna, MTV, Vogue, and the downtown NY club and arts scenes.
  • Finding inspiration in the multidimensional visual artist Arianne Phillips.
  • Fusing styles: Working in both indie and mainstream celebrity spaces.
  • At the intersection: Becoming editor-in-chief of Interview magazine aligns everything in Mel’s eclectic career.
  • Status check: Publishing has evolved since Mel’s formative years and has been reshaped by the emergence of digital media and new approaches to branding.
  • Embracing opposites: Playfulness, camp, and a general sense of high-low fun emblematic of Mel’s style and sensibility—in the pages of Interview and beyond.
  • Blending voices: Why Mel deliberately infuses Interview—initially conceived by young rule breakers—with a youthful energy that sharpens his own Gen X lens.
  • Embracing messiness:  Interview’s independent format protects artistic freedom and content that isn’t perfectly polished or orchestrated. Risk-taking is part of the mandate.
  • Daring to be unfiltered: With the current political and social climate, Mel speaks authentically despite pressures to be packaged and guarded.
  • Cancel culture: The cultural pendulum swings between self-censorship, nihilism, optimism, intrigue, and despair.
  • Hyper-veneer and hyper-raw: What feels like reality (versus the algorithm) in the diversity of style, beauty, fashion, and identity narratives that coexist today.
  • What’s contemporary now? Fear, the 80s, and younger generations calling out and challenging fear and repression.

Notable Quotes:

  • “Fashion has been a really helpful vehicle for me, as opposed to my true love. Being a stylist is a way to work with people and create a feeling or a moment … I do love clothes, but I like people and images more.” —Mel
  • “The independent space always made sense to me because I never saw myself making sense anywhere at all, I guess … So I always sought out the indie stuff, but I did also always like celebrities and have always gotten along well with celebrities.” —Mel
  • “If these days are not as glittery as the past, it’s so important to have fun within them and try to take risks. Just do things differently!” —Mel
  • “Because Interview is a really small kind of magazine, I am lucky enough to have the chance to do something that doesn’t always have to be as polished as what the world is sometimes telling you is the right thing to do.” —Mel
  • “I don’t think speaking truthfully or authentically is the contemporary thing. What’s contemporary now? Being terrified of speaking what you actually think.” (Mel)
  • “There is a definite nihilistic spirit that is permeating everywhere, which is probably in answer to a lot of cancel culture stuff and very scary.” —Mel
  • “Fear and loathing is truly the most contemporary thing now. It’s totally gross. It’s totally real … and I think confidence and an open spirit of change is the only way past that.” —Mel
  • “It’s going to be a really difficult couple of years, worldwide and in America. There’s so much upheaval going on, but the idea of ‘What’s contemporary now’ will continue to shift and, yes, there definitely is a vibe shift that seems like light at the end of the tunnel.” —Mel

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