Legendary designer Todd Oldham sat down with Fern Mallis last week as part of her one-on-one Fashion Icons series at The 92NY: the first event to take place in the cultural and community center’s newly-renovated Buttenwieser Hall. It was a rare and unmissable opportunity to go down memory lane with Oldham, who helped shape fashion in the supermodel-heavy era of the late 1980s and the 1990s. Oldham, who was a regular on MTV’s House of Style and a fixture on the NYC creative scene, largely moved away from the public eye and shuttered his label in 1999. Still, the Texan has busied himself with no shortage of creative pursuits in the decades past, and many of those he dressed in his pieces back in his design heyday were at The 92NY to cheer him on last Thursday—notably Susan Sarandon and his BFF Amy Sedaris. From the dress that altered his career trajectory to his competitive gymnast days, here are some takeaways from the chat.
Oldham spent some of his formative adolescent years in Iran 12-16
Oldham’s family moved around a lot when he was a kid, including a stint in Iran when he was aged 12-16. At the time, there were very few Americans or people that spoke English living there, but Oldham felt at home there. Because he is drawn to all that is visual and sensory, he recounted the aromatic and colorful bags of spices and the dramatic lighting in the mosques. Oldham described the detail orientation of the mosques and the idea of ‘bothering to bother’—a philosophy that has resonated with him throughout his career. Fun fact: He also toured the Middle East as a competing gymnast…a true man of many talents!
He made his first design from two pillowcases
Oldham’s first muse was his younger sister. On one trip to their grandmother’s house, he picked up two scratchy burgundy poly-cotton pillowcases from K-Mart and fashioned a dress and cardigan. He regaled this tale to the audience, showing his gratitude to his sister for appeasing him with outfit change after outfit change, and for wearing his early designs with pride.
Oldham worked at Ralph Lauren
Oldham, a self proclaimed ‘little punky kid with dyed pink hair,’ acknowledged that he didn’t quite fit the aesthetic at Ralph Lauren, but he did know how to sew. Although his stint lasted only three months, it was his entry into the fashion world. A full-circle moment came many years later, when he eventually met Lauren on the night that he won his CFDA award.
He encouraged viewers to dye their hair with Kool-Aid on MTV
Oldham was plagued by people telling him that although they loved his designs, they couldn’t afford them. He wanted to make fashion accessible to the masses and took to MTV’s House of Style to give fans fashion know-how through, what he called, ‘lazy guy tips.’ In other words, he wanted to show people that creativity was important and money really wasn’t. Hosted by Cindy Crawford, the show was a massive hit. When the episode aired showing Oldham endorsing a DIY hair coloring method using Kool-Aid, there was an onslaught of phone calls from angry parents.
Oldham’s other pursuits were inspired by an episode of The Three Stooges
Oldham, who is now known as a multi-disciplinary creative recalled an episode of The Three Stooges called Slippery Slopes for encouraging him to follow his other passions (the episode is about three plumbers who arrive at the house of a woman who is expecting three fashion designers.) Oldham has a holistic approach to art and he explained that he was always interested in working on interior design and other projects in tandem with his fashion career.
The dress that prompted him to stop doing fashion collections
Oldham told the audience about a very beautiful and poignant dress in his career; one that marked a turning point. He described the process of making this dress as a “nut job amount of effort.” He had the fabrics woven and colored in Italy, then he hand-painted dogwood flowers which were screened onto the fabric while his mother handmade similar petals from freshwater pearls which were in turn appliquéd onto the fabric. He was struck by how many people and countries it involved and how much time it took. As a result, Oldham became conscious that “the machine was (metaphorically) smoking” and ultimately decided it was time to move on to the next chapter.
Oldham designed “The Hotel” in South Beach, Miami
Oldham turned his hand to interior design at The Hotel—previously named The Tiffany Hotel on account of the Tiffany tower that it incorporates. Here, he took the same approach to interiors that he did to fashion design; combining functionality with beauty. In the same way that his evening dresses zipped upwards to allow women ease of dressing/undressing, Oldham has an innate ability to amplify the user experience in all realms of his work.
Oldham collaborated with Target
In just two years, Oldham designed 2,000 products for Target. Oldham said he worked for the big box brand during their early years and took pleasure in figuring out the design of mundane objects, every day objects. Or in his words, he believes in making everything a little more lovely! Interestingly, his favorite item to design was a sponge, which he said he geeked out on, making it ergonomically precise and adding pattern. The relationship with Target eventually ended, and Oldham laments that maybe his designs were too early for their time.
Oldham made a collection of kids’ art supplies
Oldham’s commitment to making art accessible extended to even younger audiences, through a venture called “Kids Made Modern.” This endeavor was prompted by, what he called, a “fascination with little weirdos!” He realized that arts and crafts supplies for juniors is an area where you can ethically produce quality at a low price point, and he saw this as an opportunity to ignite creativity in children, a demographic that he viewed to be underserved.
Oldham’s latest passion projects
Oldham’s artistic vision is ever-evolving and his latest venture is called “Todd Oldham Maker Shop”—a space for talented artists to convene and create. Oldham also spoke about how he has rejected the bounds of the traditional fashion house and has taken a more sustainable approach to creation: he was one of the earliest designers to renounce the use of fur and animal cruelty. He also said that he wants to continue to use left over fabrics from his archive to produce new and exciting works.
Reporting by Fearthainn Sweeney Casby