isabel hall is the rihanna-approved designer inspired by skaters and muhammed ali
i-D talks to the recent Pratt grad about winning over Rihanna's stylist Mel Ottenberg and being fascinated by subverted gender codes.
When Rihanna Instagram-announced on June 15th that the music video for her Calvin Harris collaboration "This Is What You Came For" would be dropping at midnight, the magic duo's formidable combined fan base was probably glued to YouTube at the crucial hour — except for Isabel Hall, who was sitting alone watching television at her parents' house in Connecticut. But the recent Pratt grad should have had a very good reason to watch — Rihanna was wearing the metallic jumpsuit that had appeared on the runway of her graduate fashion collection just one month earlier. It's the only piece of clothing Rihanna wears in the video, and she's in it a lot — bar a few silhouetted of clubbers projected onto the walls of the giant box she's dancing inside, she's the only person in the whole thing.
Rihanna's personal wardrobe stylist Mel Ottenberg has turned the star into a veritable launchpad for young designers. She's been spotted in pieces from pretty much every VFILES alumni, including Julia Seeman, Hyein Seo, and the nineteen-year-old twins behind streetwear label Lucid FC, and has repped her BFF's bucket hat brand on multiple occasions. Isabel Hall also interns at designer Adam Selman, who brought Mel along to the grad show knowing he would love the sparkly jumpsuit, though it's something of an oddity in a collection that's heavy on oversized menswear shapes inspired by football players and Muhammed Ali's press photos. When Hall isn't interning for Selman or fielding text messages from super-stylists, she also works part-time at local menswear company Knickerbocker Mfg. Co. in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Though a look through her Instagram shows she's equally inspired by Lana Del Rey, crystal chandeliers, and vintage Playboy magazines. We talked to the young designer about dream customers and the resplendence of Ali's boxing robes.
How did you come to work with Mel Ottenberg?
Because Adam is a Pratt graduate he came to the final round of judging before the graduate fashion show. He was really excited to see my collection, because I hadn't shown him that much of it. So he came and saw the collection, and told Mel that he would really like the jumpsuit in particular. Then he brought Mel with him to the graduate show.
He actually got in touch with me because he pulled the jumpsuit for a totally different project, and they returned it to me, then I got a text from his assistant one night like, "Hey — we're having a metallic emergency, we would really love to borrow that jumpsuit again, are you town?" I was like, "Of course, let me get it to you, when do you need it?" She was like, "Right away." So I gave it to them but didn't know specifically what they needed it for, and after they shot the video they texted me that they were ready for me to pick it up. I asked what they had used it for, and she said Rihanna had worn it throughout the whole video. Then they were doing fittings with Lion Babe for the CFDA Awards, where she wore the Adam Selman dress, and Mel was there for that. He was like, "So you want to see photos?" That was when it started to get real.
Did you have any idea when the video was going to come out?
They told me they wanted it out as soon as possible, and said maybe within a month. It was so under wraps and happened so quickly. Even when Rihanna posted on Instagram that the video was coming out, I didn't realize that it was coming out at midnight — I thought it would be out at noon the next day. So I actually went home to see my family that weekend, and I was alone in my house in Connecticut while my parents were asleep. Everyone texted me at 12.30am like, "Oh my God, did you see it?" I didn't even think it was out!
Who else would you love to see wearing a piece from your grad collection?
It's always people in music for me. When you see them perform, the people I'm into — you can really see their personality come through, and usually they have such distinct style. Somebody like Zoe Kravitz would be really cool. She has that eclectic style and the attitude, and definitely has a lot of personal input into the clothes that she wears. Alice Dellal would be really cool too, she has her own punk band and has a very distinct, edgy style.
Have you always been interested in menswear?
I feel like it's not something I would ever want to design, but when I first got into fashion a big part of that was music. My dad was super into bands like The Rolling Stones, and that personally still inspires me in so many ways, even if it's not necessarily what my designs look like. Music was always very inspirational in terms of menswear and things that were a little bit more rock 'n' roll and out there, and had that elegance to it — like Eric Clapton in a big fur coat. It's so classic. I also work part time at the Knickerbocker Factory on Flushing — they're a menswear brand, and they're very 1920s inspired. They do hat production and bag production.
Your grad collection had a lot of football and masculine varsity-inspired pieces too. Is this also a way for you to play around with gender codes?
Yes, totally. It became something I really started to play with a couple of years ago. I was taking a course called Gender Sex Power at Pratt and it was about the commercialization of gender roles. It started during the Industrial Revolution, when everything became so commercial and so accessible. Everything just appears to the masses for the first time, in a way. That was super fascinating to me. I also started looking into a lot of hyper-masculine sports like football and boxing, and even that can tie into the rock 'n' roll inspiration. I was looking at photos of Muhammad Ali in these huge rhinestone boxing robes when he would do press photos or something — it was so regal and so decorated. Then I was looking at football padding and comparing it to the lacing in corseting, and asking where we draw the line between masculine and feminine, and why we make that association.
Do you listen to a lot of those same 70s rock bands when you're designing in the studio?
I listen to everything. Especially this past year — we were in the studio 24/7, because people were doing an eight to ten look collection, and we produce it pretty much all ourselves. We don't outsource a lot, everything is in the studio at Pratt, and even the fabrics I was silkscreening myself, so that was crazy, and I listened to pretty much everything. When the Rihanna album dropped we listened to that nonstop, a lot of Frank Ocean, a lot of the Stones and classic stuff like that.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photos Lyndsey Kamide