With zero interest in rehashing the past for his new exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum, Todd Oldham redesigned most of the 65 ensembles now on view even though he exited fashion years ago.
Well established as a multidisciplinary designer, Oldham has published 23 books about a wealth of subjects, including photographer Gerald Davis and Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book illustrator Ed Emberley. He arrived on the fashion scene in 1989, quickly gaining praise for such involved constructions such as a Pantone nonrepeating print design, or Swarovski crystal-encrusted and embroidered motifs applied by a 400-year-old workshop in India. Oldham teamed with Target in 2002 and also took to TV ahead of the pack, hosting “Todd Time” on MTV’s “House of Style” in the Nineties.
By the end of that decade, the Texan-born Oldham took a final bow to get into textiles, home design and other disciplines. A 10-year recap of the designer’s rise to fame, “All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion” features drawings, never-been-seen runway footage, and numerous designs, including a dress made of pipe cleaners that Oldham crafted for the first Love Ball that Susanne Bartsch organized. The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art loaned a number of pieces, including one of Oldham’s all-time favorites — a skirt imprinted with an image of the Mona Lisa on the front and a copy of a flea market painting on the back. “I found the painting at the flea market when it used to be on 26th Street and it still hangs in my living room. From the 26th Street Flea Market to The Met with a little bit of a roundabout — that’s been its trajectory,” he said.
His own career path was circuitous, too, since he ended his formal education after high school, part of which was spent in Iran. He later learned the fashion ropes on his own with guidance from many, including Gene Krell, a connection that led to distribution in Japan. “Really, there was no reason I should have had a day of success in the fashion industry. I didn’t study for it. I never went to school. We did everything on our own,” Oldham said. “So I just hope this show is sort of a beacon of possibility for people who may not think they can do it.”
A new dress that was an entire year in the making and one that required input from 80-plus people did not remotely tempt him to return to fashion. Maybe the fact that thousands and thousands of pailletes had to be re-embroidered on 26 feet of skirt was a deterrent. “Oh no — no, no, no,” he said of the prospect of getting back into fashion. “But I loved it. I had the most beautiful experience in fashion. It was just fantastic. And I had the great luck of being able to call it a day when I didn’t have anything else to say.”
In the first gallery of his RISD show, visitors will find three screens playing videos of Oldham’s runway shows with supermodels like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford. “It’s kind of dizzying but those shows were dizzying so it makes sense,” he said. “Our shows were pretty wild. They were more like concerts. There was actually screaming in the audience. Fashion shows at that time were way more ruckus — plus, the girls had a lot of personality. When you’re seeing Cindy after Kate after Christy [Turlington] after Linda. Those girls are very different than today’s brand. I didn’t want a unified presence; I wanted their personalities to shine. They had a lot of fun. They were fun women who knew they were killer gorgeous. It was a fun experience. The confidence was amazing.”
Based in New York, Oldham has taught and served as a guest critic at RISD off and on over the years, and received an honorary degree from the school in 2014. Sounding exuberant as ever, the designer said his own style hasn’t really changed. “I’ve been about the same size since seventh grade. I still have on my [Levi’s] 501s that I wore as a child, not the same pair. I dress the same. I have 3,000 plaid shirts. I look like a camp counselor pretty much.”
Not so sunny will be “The Good Samaritan,” the dark comedy film that Oldham just got green-lighted to direct. With shooting expected to start in May 2017 with Bloomhouse Productions, Oldham said he has been working on the project forever. “It’s such a thrill [to realize after so many years]. But it’s something I’m used to, because I don’t give up. I’m kind of like that dog with the chew toy that you can’t get out of its mouth,” he said. “Eventually, if you’re tenacious or incredibly stupid, whatever, somewhere between that spectrum, you get things done. If I’m interested in something, I can’t give up on it.”
Recently in Switzerland to speak on a panel timed with the Vitra Design Museum’s first European retrospective of textile artist Alexander Girard, Oldham’s newest AMMO-published book is “Queer Threads,” an overview of gay and lesbian transgender artists working in the fiber arts, and he is at work on a new one about the American artist Tim Biskup. Oldham’s Kid Made Modern arts and craft products are sold at retailers like Target, Opening Ceremony and Barneys New York. He also oversees the estate of Modernist artist Charley Harper, whose work he first read as a child but whom he didn’t meet and befriend until he was an adult. Oldham’s studio (which is staffed by several RISD alum) worked closely with Chicago’s Land of Nod retailer to develop children’s wear imprinted with Harper’s designs.
More inclined to whistle-stop the fashion industry here and there, Oldham said he doesn’t keep up with it that much any more. However, he said he is “still in awe of John Galliano. I think his mind is exquisite and dazzling.” Ditto for Marc Jacobs, whose “ingenuity is very, very special. Who else? I don’t keep up with it that much any more. I love Anna Sui. She is such a good artist. Out of Europe, I love Viktor + Rolf. I’m always amazed by what they do. And couture is pretty interesting at certain times.”
But Oldham’s own working life suits him just fine. “I don’t do things to take vacations from,” he said. “It’s been many years since I’ve had a vacation. It’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun stuff.”