NEW YORK — Inclined to working smart and often, versus working hard, interdisciplinary creative Todd Oldham illustrated on Thursday night how his career abides by that time and again.
After blazing through the world of fashion in the ’80s and ’90s, Oldham, a 1991 Perry Ellis award winner from the CFDA, continues to exercise his dexterity in a myriad of projects. During an interview with Fern Mallis at The 92nd Street Y, Oldham, even-tempered as ever, said he started a fashion business because he had to eat. “I knew that I was unemployable. I don’t mean that I was a bad employee. I knew that I was better served executing my own ideas.”
Early on in 1982, he and his mother made all the samples, patterns and everything else. A few years later Tony Longoria joined as business partner and they relocated to a fourth-floor East Village walk-up apartment where Simon Doonan painted the living room with warped black-and-white line drawings. “It was like being in a crazy fun house. The outside felt like it was as important as the inside. There were always screaming people on the street. It was this magical place. Susanne Bartsch was really amazing. She would bring a lot of the English designers over and have wild parties.”
Oldham was candid about his “a-ha” moment to stop doing collections, cursing at how he always sounds when recalling the breaking point. The moment involved a four-ply duchesse satin dress that “required a nut-job amount of effort.” Fabrics were woven in the Far East, the dyeing was done in Italy and he hand-painted dogwood branches and buds on acetate that was later turned into full-size screens and hand-screened by professionals. His sculptor mother handmade dogwood petals from fresh water pearls that were appliquéd to the dress. At a certain point, Oldham decided, “What am I doing? It involved so many countries and so many people and so much time. And Cindy Crawford [whom he appeared on the TV show ‘House of Style’ with],” he said.
“The machine was smoking at that point but something just turned for me at this moment,” Oldham said. The recurring comment from consumers of “I love what you do. I could never afford it” was also “painful” for Oldham to hear routinely, he said.
His quest for affordable design evolved on “House of Style,” which included such lazy-guy tips as self-done haircuts, which he still does himself. However, Kool-Aid at-home hair dyeing advice went awry as the final advice of using toothpaste to remove the coloring was inadvertently edited out. The joint belief that “ideas were important and money wasn’t” rang throughout the show. Oldham said, “I could interview John Galliano one moment and then get a rock and tie copper around it to show how to make a button. It was all about creativity.”
The program’s popularity was due to Crawford, “who is still as lovely as can be. At the time, she was like a living earthquake. People just fell over. When they got 10 feet near her, they would just [practically] pass out. She’s the only model who looks like herself when she shows up. Most of them, you have to paint it on. And that’s fine, they look great. But she looks like herself.”
Unabashed about how a “Three Stooges” episode he had seen as a child inspired his memorable “interiors” collection, Oldham said, “It’s this one called ‘Slippery Silks.’ The Three Stooges are plumbers, but when they show up at this house, the woman thinks they are fashion designers. So they put on a fashion show. I never related to anything so clearly. It burned in my brain and it was my permission slip.”
After giving up fashion, he applied his design skills to interiors, books, Kids Made Modern arts and crafts tools for children and other artistic endeavors. But the self-described “serious pack rat” has kept highly orderly archives for his “immaculately made” clothes, including some styles made with a 400-year-old beading company in India. “We never had sample sales. I cared about everything that we did. We had every sample, every shoe, every accessory,” Oldham said.
His decision to shut down fashion resulted in all of the company’s partners, including a Japanese company, getting “real mad,” he admitted. “They just didn’t understand. But I understood them, too. They were interested in getting the business’ sales up and I was just like, ‘OK, bye.’”
After an exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum, Oldham has de-acquisitioned pieces there, as well as to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and an archive in Texas. Having done more than 20 books, Oldham is working on a Phaidon one about Alexander Girard. “I love immersing myself trying to learn every single thing about something. If you’re doing a book on someone, you have to learn about and honor their Rosetta Stone. You can’t decorate or assert yourself. You’re in service.”
Oldham uses equal care in creating arts-related materials for children, including the newly launched Smarts & Crafts at Walmart stores. By going “hyper mass,” Oldham strives to reach people in tinier towns where access to such products are not always readily available. Mallis urged attendees to visit the Todd Oldham Studio site to see the range of designs, the toys and gem-shaped crayons in particular.
His own parents — one a sculptor and the other an early computer whiz — encouraged him to be innovative in his thinking. Growing up, they traveled a good deal and he lived in Iran at one point as a preteen. Among the first to use digital printing in his fashion, Oldham isn’t fully out of that picture. Through the Todd Oldham Maker Shop, which offers items made from repurposed styles, he will release reissued Pantone patterns from years ago on March 31 online.
Referring to being among the first designers to work with Target in the early 2000s, Oldham confirmed he designed 2,000-plus products in two years, including dorm room essentials and all kinds of home decor. Still in disbelief about the volume he produced at that time for everything that is needed when one leaves home for the first time, he said, “Can you imagine what a challenging time that is? It’s scary. I didn’t have that experience. I barely graduated from high school but that’s got to be a really intense thing.”
He went on to say, “I liked the truly mundane things. I had so much fun getting all ticked up and trying to problem-solve. That sponge was a thrill. We bowed it a little bit to make it more ergonomic and printed it in lovely patterns. Getting to do things in the public domain, you can make everything a little bit lovelier.”
His interior portfolio also included furniture, rugs and lamps for La-Z-Boy; such “borderline taste level” projects with iconic brands really charmed him. “There was an edge to it that I loved. They turned out to be super-kind people and willing to go for it. No one ever blinked at what we ever did. I bet they did in private meetings but not to me.”
Another alliance was with Jones New York for Todd Oldham jeans. Recalling a Rei Kawakubo quote about kicking the machine, Oldham said he related to that. Noting how Jones New York was selling the-then coveted Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, the designer said he persuaded the company “to turn things on their ear and work with acid-wash, which nobody wanted. That was old and awful. We just built it and built it and it turned into this giant thing.”
That success, however, led to a conflict with Target. “We got in so much trouble with Target. We were just a few years too early. It freaked every other business we had out. I knew it was the future, but it did stop a lot of opportunities for us for sure.”
Asked for advice for aspiring designers, he said, “You should do it. Don’t listen to me or to too many people. We need someone with a different idea and different point of view. Listen from a historical point of view and parse that information into something new. It really boils down to making something that the world can benefit from. We don’t need more. Nobody needs anything. If you’re going to do something, thrill us. Make it count.”