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Todd Oldham: ‘I wasn’t very fashionable, so it was to our advantage that our designs sat as a separate thing’

The New York-based designer talks about designing $10,000 dresses, his aversion to using animal materials, and his experiences of the New York fashion scene in the 1990s

by ALLIE BISWAS

With his playful, couture-like clothing line and animated catwalk presentations, Todd Oldham made an inimitable mark in the fashion industry during his 10-year career, from 1989 to 1999. As well as producing meticulously crafted ensembles, Oldham also became known as a true innovator in textile design, exploring techniques that had not been used before, and testing materials and technologies to their limits. He also developed a wider name for himself through his regular appearances on MTV, as well as his championing of the most sought-after models of the moment, including Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista.

After leaving fashion behind, Oldham continued designing with his studio, focusing on interiors, furniture, books and exhibitions. His ongoing craft lines, Kid Made Modern and Hand Made Modern, are sold as kits and supplies in the nationwide American retail-chain Target, as well as the gift shops of museums such as the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Oldham’s retrospective at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion (until 11 September), the first major exhibition of the designer’s fashion career, follows an honorary doctorate degree from RISD in 2014.

Allie Biswas: Was your exhibition at the RISD Museum a long time coming?

Todd Oldham: Oh, I don’t know about that. But it was a very nice surprise and I couldn’t be more honoured that the show is there. RISD is so dear to me because I’ve been coming to work with the students since the late 80s. It’s a magical place. My entire studio in New York is staffed from RISD graduates. Literally, everyone from my creative team. It’s not a hard and fast rule that I only hire from RISD, but the students who come out of the school have such a leg-up on everything. Their creativity is in full bloom, but they also have all the integrity of business minds and know how to meet deadlines.

AB: How did the relationship with the museum start?

TO: I’ve been coming up to RISD for a very long time, so I’d been meeting people through the years. Unlike a lot of people in the fashion industry, for some reason, when I was making clothes, we just decided not to have sample sales. So everything that we made was packed in a box and put in the archive – shoes, hair accessories, everything. It wasn’t like a big, thoughtful effort. It’s just what we did. But I’ve realised that it is extremely rare in the industry. When we took the archive out, we decided to de-acquisition a lot of it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art took a big chunk of it, and RISD is the second giant recipient. So after that, they called and said, what do you think about doing a show? They had no idea about what else we had in the archive, so when we showed them everything else, they were quite surprised to see so much together.

AB: The exhibition covers the years from 1989 to 1999. That’s the entire period that you were designing clothes.

TO: Well, I’ve been sewing since I was nine.

AB: Designing clothes within the public realm, then.

TO: You could say that. But I have a simplistic approach to everything I do, so what it looks like from the outside doesn’t often have anything to do with what I see. I love to sew and I love to make things, and I’m so grateful that my grandma, when I was nine, taught me how to sew.

AB: What impact did learning how to make things have on you?

TO: All the doors of possibility were thrown open when I figured that out. It gave me the security and the excitement to continue to try all kinds of things I didn’t know how to do. I just kept on going.

AB: Looking at your career as a whole, you emphasise the importance of making things with your hands.

TO: That’s the only time I feel alive – during the making. I’m not attached to outcome pretty much in any capacity. I think that any creative who is too attached to outcome will suffer. It is better to be process-oriented. That’s the magic, watching nothing turn into something in front of your eyes. So to be able to inspire that in young people through our Kid Made Modern books is a real thrill to me. I lived that stuff first-hand, from when I was born. Creativity saves lives. It certainly saved mine, and it saved the lives of everyone I know. The side-effects of creativity, if you will, are confidence and empathy. God, can you imagine if we had creative politicians at this moment? Not crafty, but creative. That would be a lovely thing. I can pretty much imagine that nobody running for office right now had a craft table in their living room.

AB: Ten years could be considered a relatively short amount of time to establish such a strong reputation within the fashion industry, and to be given an exhibition to honour that work nearly two decades later.

TO: I’m very flattered that people remember what we did. But we were always on our own little island. I was a part of the New York fashion scene, but our factory was in Dallas, so we’d go back and forth. There is a system in New York where editors come by and look at what you’re doing, and I just decided to isolate and isolate and isolate even further. We didn’t offer previews of the clothes. I just had more fun that way. I also thought it was more fun for the people who came to the shows. We didn’t let anything out at all in advance. We were a fashion anomaly, really. I wasn’t very fashionable, so it was to our advantage that our designs sat as a separate thing. I mean, even now, I can’t tell where the clothes are from – what time period. I obviously know when I made them, but I can’t place them. When you look at them, it’s hard to piece together where they are from.

AB: How would you describe your designs? Your interest in wide-ranging influences is documented.

TO: Occasionally, you will see a film that looks as though the person who made it had never seen a movie before. I think in hindsight that’s what my clothes look like. I was more weaned on Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogues than haute couture runways. I came to know those later. But my roots were really the most basic, pedestrian translated ideas. I find those kinds of catalogues fascinating – those sorts of things from the 60s, 70s and 80s – because they were cultural synthesisers of sorts. There wasn’t any actual design in those things. It was a facsimile of what they were doing in France, or some specific type of furniture, so it already became weird and hybrid. That’s what first got me – these strange versions of things. Later on, I could see how those hybrid forms had informed what I was doing. I think that’s why my designs were so odd.

AB: You have said that your instincts and inspirations were not like other people’s, and that was what made you different in the field.

TO: I think so. I rarely looked at fashion for inspiration. History is often looked upon for modern fashion. I think that’s interesting, and I was certainly aware of that, but I was way more interested in the way that antifreeze set in a puddle in the street, or how piles of garbage which I passed on the way to work were just calling to me all of the time. I like to make up rules on how to get to the end; otherwise, I can just float away. If, to me, anything is possible, that truly means that anything is possible. So in that moment I decided that everything that I picked up between my house and my office, I was going to make a print of. I dug in the garbage all the way to work and found bingo cards from a church and posters that had fallen down. I loved those kinds of adventures in my head, which I would make in order to get to the final result. I always had lots of fun, but most of the time it was all in my head (laughs).

AB: As the aesthetic you created combined a lot of different references, in particular those that weren’t considered “high fashion”, would you say you were one of the first to develop a “streetwise” look?

TO: It was probably more “worldwise”, I think. I got to grow up all over the place and travel extensively. I really am a magpie. Everything is interesting. So using that as a way of seeing, everything was inspirational in a way. If you look back historically in fashion, when a decade shifts, there is usually some sort of sparkle that happens in those hairpin turns. Say, if you think about the 50s aesthetic or the 60s aesthetic. Think about the designer Ossie Clark, who worked very briefly in the late 60s and the very early 70s, who pretty much informed what clothes look like today. A brilliant man. Very undersung. He was like a sliver. We were a part of one of those decade changes. I think any time clothes this extravagant were produced, they were made for uptight, rich people, who clutched their Judith Leiber bag in the corner. That’s fine. There were some great women, no problem. But I thought, wouldn’t it be more interesting if you could sit on the floor and eat off a plate …

AB: While wearing a heavily beaded skirt.

TO: Yes. Why should you be punished – you get invited to this great, big event, so why should you be miserable? You can’t walk properly, you can’t sit, everything hurts. That’s crazy! So I thought, well, I love beautiful things, but why couldn’t we get it to the point where you could still have something like that, but it functioned in your life? And why can’t you wear a cotton shirt with an evening gown? It wasn’t even about questioning things for me, because the norm was just so stupid. We just thought, let’s do it our way. That’s how we got to change things around. At that point, you couldn’t see casual beading, or casual eveningwear, you know? It just wasn’t a thing at that point.

AB: But you have said before that you love conservative fashion. People probably don’t expect that from you.

AB: I do love conservative fashion. There has to be a balance and a grace, I feel, to design. Especially when you’re working with clothing, because, ultimately, it is worn. But things are interesting to me if they are beautiful, but there is a paradox at the same moment. Often my ideas were so extravagant, so if I had levelled some of those ideas on to some kind of form that you couldn’t even relate to, or a skirt that pointed upwards, or something like that, it just wouldn’t have been as resonant. Our DNA couldn’t have grabbed hold of it. There are these public domain forms that I have loved to celebrate, and these have often been the basis of conservative clothing. They were often a good starting point for me. There is something about the integrity and the longevity of these kinds of basic things, but they do create great platforms to rebel against. I loved dirndls – those skirts that go beneath your knee – but then we would make them out of drapery fabric and re-embroider them (laughs). There was always some turn.

AB: Isaac Mizrahi and Marc Jacobs were well-known contemporaries of yours. Did you have much interaction with other fashion designers?

TO: We all knew each other from working in the same industry. But my friends were outside of the fashion industry for the most part. I had a lot of artist friends. I got to meet a lot of nice people during that time and I’m still in touch with a few. I still know Anna Sui, who is an angel. She is an encyclopaedia. She knows what she’s doing and she delivers what is right for her. I still think John Galliano is one of the most brilliant designers I’ve seen.

AB: You interviewed him for MTV, when he was still unknown by and large.

TO: I did. It was pretty much the first time anybody had heard him speak. I think a lot of John. I know he had some unfortunate hiccups along the way, but I think he has a good heart all in all, and he’s wickedly talented.

AB: The exhibition highlights your relationship with textiles, as well as to all of the intricacies that are attached to making clothing and accessories.

TO: I got to work with so many incredible artisans during that time. I could find people all over the place who could do something special, and then I’d interface with them to help them bring it to life further. So many of our beautiful textiles were designed by this woman named Helen who I found. She was selling her T-shirts on Houston Street. She was magic, and we worked together for many, many years after. I’ve got endless stories like that. No one was interested in working with me in the beginning, because who wants to sell 28 metres of fabric to somebody (laughs). I was a pain in the ass to everybody. I thought, why not just figure out how to make the material myself. The Europeans were much friendlier to me, and were willing to push it. They were up for adventures. Most of the time it was about creating something unique. I loved working with old mills to get something back, which they had discontinued. Like this company called Jasco, that made all of the double-knits for Halston and Geoffrey Beene in the 70s. We got them to bring back those patterns for us. I always liked being a magpie, and digging around to find something. But it had to be very special or the most normal. It could not be in-between. It had to be either of those things, but it could not be in-between.

AB: You’ve also always been very committed to not using animal materials. Fashion designers are still very nonchalant about those issues, which is cringeworthy at best. The only designer I can think of who cares about this problem is Stella McCartney.

TO: Yes, Stella has always been dedicated to not using leather or other animal materials. People act as though they don’t really know about it, and turn a blind eye. I’ve narrated videos for [the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] Peta, and I know the reality. The fur industry is one of the most frightening things you could ever imagine. The cruelty heaped on these animals is just unspeakable. It’s not written about much because it’s too brutal. Who wants to see foxes being electrocuted? This is the reality of your beautiful fox collar. The fur from the fox is often pulled while they’re still alive. These things are very unbeautiful to me. That’s why I’m so happy that we could create such excellent synthetic fabrics. You just don’t have to use real fur or real leather. We always found endless solutions.

AB: I like the story about you taking a photograph of a leopard, and then creating a print of its fur from the photograph, which everybody wanted to use.

TO: Oh yes, that’s right. That was our Leopard-in-the-Living-Room print. We used it over and over again. The Metropolitan Museum called us when they were doing their Diana Vreeland tribute. They thought we did the nicest leopard, so they covered the tribute book in our print.

AB: The printing techniques you used were very complicated, and also new at that time. There is also this sense that you are always trying to test a material to its limits, seeing how hard you can make it work. You were using materials very deliberately that might not have traditionally been used for practical reasons. For example, who puts heavy sequin embroidery on to Irish linen?

TO: Exactly. We pushed it in every way possible. In the instance of the beading and the embroidery, I was working with a company named Mystic Beading, who are just geniuses. They are a 400-year-old wedding-sari manufacturer in India. Everything that they did, you just gasped at its beauty. So to get to work with them was huge. My modern, non-Indian, approach to things they found beguiling, and they rose to the occasion and we did amazing things. The biggest thrill for me was to be able to work with their suppliers, because any factory has leftovers. So 400 years of leftovers? I mean, it was incredible. If you see gold in my clothes, it’s gold. The bullion is gold. And silver is real silver. There are faceted locks that are 300 years old. That feels insane. It was a huge blessing and I loved that the factory allowed me to do that. But we were lucky if we were able to make even 10 of some extravagant thing (laughs).

AB: Who was buying your clothes?

TO: Oh, not too many people. We didn’t make that many clothes. They were very expensive, unfortunately. Well, I say that, but I don’t know – it was unfortunate because I heard from so many people, I love what you do, but I could never afford it. Those two comments were for ever connected. I understand. I don’t have the priority to spend that much money on clothing. I totally get it. But I didn’t have any interest to make anything that was friendlier. You don’t need me to make you a nice suit. There were lots of other people doing a beautiful job of that. I wanted to do everything as extravagantly and specially as possible.

AB: For your very first collection, you went directly to Neiman Marcus.

TO: Exactly. At that point I was still sewing stuff with my mum, and I was sewing all of the production together. I got really lucky. Neiman was my first big account. It was when they were opening the Beverly Hills store, so it was this perfect storm of Neiman being new in Los Angeles, and our brand new collection. It got sold out in seconds. It started a crazy snowball that never stopped until I decided to wave goodbye, until I got off the snowball (laughs).

AB: There was obviously a commercial interest, but I suppose what you’re saying is that you were very careful about how big that got, or what direction it took.

TO: I was careful, but also, having such an expensive line naturally created its boundaries. When your dresses are costing upwards of $10,000 [£7,000] – in any capacity, that is a ridiculous thing to do, and a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a dress. But the pleasure of making it, and the ingenuity involved, is what I valued. And I obviously understood why the clothes were costing that much to make. It wasn’t like I was saying, give me half of that amount! That wasn’t the way it worked. The embroidery was thousands and thousands of dollars. But I wouldn’t have done it differently. I had lots of opportunities to do it differently. But I could feel my heart crack every time someone asked me to do a bridge line. Do they still have that?

AB: Yes, many designers have diffusion lines. So you said “no” every time someone asked you to downgrade?

TO: I just wouldn’t have known what to do. I did do a jeans collection, which I loved doing. But I don’t understand that other thing. So, I just didn’t.

AB: You were being honest with yourself, even though that probably wasn’t the easiest way to go.

TO: People have been very kind to me, but I always had to create my own opportunities. I mean this with great sincerity: I realised very early on that I was unemployable and that whatever work I wanted to do, I had to create my own pathway. I would never have expected, ever, for anyone to hand me anything. That was the most freeing revelation I could have had. Thank God, I had it when I was a teenager. So I figured out that whatever I wanted to do, I could work out how to do it, and that’s what led me to everything I do. I also do lots of things at the same time. While I was making clothes I was also making hotels and furniture and other things, so when I stopped doing the clothing there was no staff change. I still had all of my employees.

AB: When you were designing clothes, you were celebrated for doing that, so maybe the other projects weren’t so much on other people’s radar?

TO: Well, clothing speaks to people differently from, say, a building. Because we all – or, most of us, let’s say – wear clothing, it can be presented in a very beguiling way. We got to work with some of the most incredible models of the day. They were proud goddesses. It’s not like we had this invisible person, which I often see today.

AB: You were very supportive of a group of new models who had yet to be termed “supermodels”, such as Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. You worked with the best.

TO: Absolutely. With Linda, it’s almost like you can’t see her in person. It’s that incredible face. I rarely feel that with someone. She is wicked smart, that girl. And that’s the thing – the girls at that time were crazy smart businesswomen. We were also the first people that some of those models had worked with. The first show Tyra Banks ever walked was one of ours. When she was a little girl, around 16 or 17, I just gasped. She was such a pretty girl. You know, just outrageously beautiful.

AB: Your profile was also enlarged through your work with MTV, where you ran a segment called “Todd Time” on its fashion programme House of Style, hosted by Cindy Crawford.

TO: My work at MTV was my snakebite venom to what I did during the day (laughs). I used Todd Time to show people how to make things. But it was funny because I made these things that basically nobody could interface with. To me, I was doing the same thing on MTV as I was doing with the couture. It was about sharing an idea. The MTV show made me happy, though, because I could do things that cost 98 cents. And I was just as sincere about making those types of things as anything else.

AB: That type of programme was also new, when it launched in 1989. It hadn’t been done before.

TO: It was like the parents weren’t at home. It was wild. My producer was an angel of a woman. She just said, you have four minutes and 28 seconds – what are you going to do? And I would literally hand them the tape, and they would air it.

AB: That really doesn’t happen today.

TO: It just doesn’t. MTV brought back House of Stylerecently and what makes me sad is that a particular voice is missing. Alisa Bellettini, who was our producer, decided that creativity and design had nothing to do with money. That nothing to do with money part is just so liberating. I could talk to Gianni Versace one moment, and then we would show you how to cut up the back of your jeans and lace them back together. Everything was on the same level. It was beautiful. It makes me really happy to have been a part of it, but I just wish that something like that was out there today.

AB: You designed the exhibition at the RISD Museum. What was your starting point?

TO: I’ve seen a lot of fashion exhibitions in museums, which I have a slightly raised eyebrow about, frankly. Sometimes they are great, and sometimes they are not. I find the reason that they are not is because they don’t deliver on the experience. It’s not that the work isn’t good. What do you do with these things? Clothing is a 360-degrees experience and suddenly we’re removing half of the viewing cone. There are complications with this in a museum. So I just started figuring out how I could remove all of the things that I don’t like, or that I don’t think serve the medium well. One thing was to pull everything off the wall because clothing must be seen from all sides. Then, relating to the formal part, I just love French gardens. I’m a big gardener, I have many gardens. I’m completely possessed. What’s nice about a French garden, the reason it’s so beguiling, is that it leads you to another plane. It’s always got this invitation of travel. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want the exhibition to feel finite. It should just feel like it’s tumbling, rather than having a beginning, middle and an end. The garden idea is also about honouring a simple form that has been enjoyed and walked upon for centuries and centuries.

AB: Prior to the “garden”, though, is the exhibition’s prelude, which sets the tone with a large vitrine of buttons, all of which were made by hand by the staff in your factory.

TO: I’ve come to find out that it was very unusual for a clothing manufacturer to have everything in one building. We literally just started it, my mum and I. Then we added a little bit more, and so it went. Before we knew it we had airbrushing areas, casting areas and the Swarovski room.

AB: There was a Swarovski room?

TO: It was the room where all of the stones were stored. They were all stored in babyfood jars (laughs). There were just rows and rows and rows of babyfood jars. It was unusual, certainly, but we didn’t know any other way.

All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion is at the Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island, until 11 September 2016.

 



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