DORNACH, Germany--The tavern up the street from Munich's Four Seasons Hotel is packed with a fur-coated crowd, gobbling up sausages of all lengths and girths, Schweinsbraten, Gluwein and the obligatory quantities of beer. It is, after all, 11:00 a.m. At a corner table, Todd Oldham is quietly sipping tea and nibbling on a giant fresh pretzel. Vegetarian, PETA-promoter and alcohol-abhorrer, Oldham, clad in his signature head-to-toe mixed plaids, feels--and looks--more like a visiting alien than a visiting designer. "I think they think I'm a nurse here--I don't drink, I don't smoke and I'm a vegetarian, so what is this?" says the American designer. Oldham had never set foot in Munich before his appointment as creative consultant for the Escada Margaretha Ley collection in October. The baby face of MTV's "House of Style" is as anonymous here as the fashion company's design team--and he loves it. "It's not like I'm trying to get tables in restaurants or anything," he says. Famous or not, after only five short visits to what he calls "a clean city," Oldham is settling in. He's been spending hours watching "Absolutely Fabulous" videos in his Four Seasons suite--now his home-away-from-home. "They have a great vegetable plate here, and a pool," says Oldham, dismissing the idea of buying or even renting an apartment. After all, he is here to work, not play. And that's exactly what he's been doing, despite the fact that, over at the Escada camp, the receptionist has no idea who or what Todd Oldham is. Still, the American's mark turned up on the fall-winter presentation over the weekend. Even before the collection was shown to a warehouse full of 600 Escada wholesalers and retailers, Oldham was bombarded with congratulatory remarks. "Thanks, but it was the design team. The design team did it all," he said, reinforcing his behind-the-scenes position. Nevertheless, when the first of 470 outfits appeared through an explosion of smoke--a metallic vinyl cyber-skirt in shimmery aubergine with a smart tailored jacket--there was no mistaking the colorful designer's hand. A burst of applause for the younger, more lively Escada was followed by a stream of starry leather jackets, fluffy ombréed sweaters and the kind of sharply chiseled suits that Mugler mavens would love. The flavor was undoubtedly Escada, though. In a 2,000-piece collection, there are bound to be some old-lady clunkers. But for every humdrum dress and stuffy gown, out popped a quirky patchwork jacket, a technicolor beaded wonder and a long, sizzling slipdress in red-hot leopard velvet. The overall look was tailored, feminine and sexy. "We're back," announced Escada founder and chairman Wolfgang Ley. "It's amazing how much Todd has done in so short a time," said Beatrice Bongibault, managing director of Escada Development and one of Oldham's biggest fans. Throughout the show, a rather pleased Ley, sitting front-row center, would turn to Oldham--who, surprisingly, was in the audience, too--and give him a thumbs-up. Before the show, Ley said to the American newcomer to his German design family: "It was a difficult first two months, but it's great to see you as a team player." There had been some misconceptions about Oldham's title and responsibilities when he first arrived and some apprehension on the part of the design team. Oldham now insists that he is not a head designer replacement, but Escada's creative consultant. "Basically, I'll just be suggesting and offering ideas to the design team, and then they'll choose whatever they decide to work with and take the ball from there," he says. The existing 16-person design team, who had been left in the lurch when former head designer Michael Stolzenburg died in September, was not, as would be expected, as excited about Todd's arrival as Todd. But now it seems Oldham's initiation period has come to a close. "We were concerned at first, someone coming in from the outside. It's an unexpected relationship, but because of Todd, we will end up with another customer," says design team head Brian Rennie, a Scotsman who has been with Escada for eight years. "We get a bit jaded here. There are only so many colors in the world. We're the bread-and-butter of Escada, and Todd comes up with the jam." The jam this season came in the form of patchwork jackets, colorful silk linings and buttons on display that would normally have been hidden under panels. "Todd's encouraged us to go one step more. Now we can do things we were never allowed to do," adds Rennie, who has final say on design creations and show styling. "We have music now in the design room--we never had it before." Rennie sees Oldham as the ideas person, and someone who has no preconceived notions of what Escada is. "At Todd Oldham, I don't have as many global concerns as they do at Escada, I come with a freer approach," Oldham says. "So the ideas I can spew out are probably a little more extreme and probably wouldn't work 100 percent in the form I see them in. But the concepts are good, and with the input of the design team--because they really decide what it looks like--it's going to work." Oldham is amazed by the colossal size of Escada and the way the clothes are designed--one person does jackets, another skirts, and so on. "It's an interesting system and a necessary one to be able to get that much product out. It's so thought out and so heavily streamlined," he says. "It's virtually as automated as it could be without dropping the humans." When asked about the differences between his SoHo atelier and Escada's, Todd responds, "I think it would be easier to spot the similarities. We both make clothes--that's about it." Nevertheless, Oldham is soaking up his surroundings. "I'm learning about technical things," he says. "Just some interesting constructions and things I've never seen before. "But," he adds, "I think it's really important that I don't bring anything back home, because my existence in New York and my company's existence is very isolated, and I want to keep it that way."
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